Yale unveils portrait of ‘our very own mother bear’
In the late 1960s, as Yale prepared to admit and welcome its first class of women undergraduates, then-President Kingman Brewster tasked Elga R. Wasserman with overseeing all aspects of the transition to coeducation, from admissions to housing to academic programming.
Among the first women to seek admission was Eve Hart Rice ’73. Soon after hearing that women would be accepted to Yale College, she quickly filled out an application, making the case that she could thrive at the university as it reinvented itself.
But in the back of her mind, she knew that as Yale embarked on this new era there was a chance that “things might not go so well,” Rice said during a June 3 campus event, moments before Yale leaders of today unveiled of a new portrait of Wasserman.
“Thankfully, behind the scenes, Elga was hard at work, resolved to make whatever our class found upon arrival good, or even great,” said Rice, an author, artist, and psychiatrist. “Throughout that first year and beyond, it was deeply comforting to know that Elga was there, working on our behalf. Ally, advocate, champion, or, as one classmate put it, ‘our very own mother bear,’ with all the ferocity and devotion that label implies, intent on making the experience of those early years rich and rewarding.”
Wasserman, who was a special assistant to Brewster at the time, was once described as “a diplomat with a spine of steel” by Sam Chauncey ’57, a longtime Yale administrator who was her partner in the historic coeducation effort. And Wasserman, who died in 2014, did more than anyone else to assure that coeducation at Yale was successful. For that, Chauncey said, all Yalies owe her a debt of gratitude.
The new portrait, by artist Brenda Zlamany, represents a measure of that gratitude. Unveiled at Sprague Hall during a Yale reunion event, the painting will be displayed permanently in Bass Library, a central undergraduate educational hub on this campus, Yale President Peter Salovey said during the ceremony.
“[The painting is] an expression of enormous gratitude by this institution — an enormous gratitude that she brought her exceptional gifts and her passion to bear on Yale for the betterment of our community,” he said.
Born to a Jewish family in Berlin, Wasserman was a teenager when her family immigrated to the United States in the mid-1930s. After attending Smith College, she accepted a graduate fellowship at Harvard, where she met her future husband, Harry Wasserman, a fellow chemist. They married in 1947 and, a year later, he joined the Yale faculty. For the next several years, Elga Wasserman worked as a research assistant and held part-time appointments at Southern Connecticut State University and Quinnipiac College, as Quinnipiac University was then called, before becoming an assistant dean at the Yale Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in 1962. In 1969 she accepted the appointment from Brewster as special assistant on the education of women and chair of the Committee on Coeducation.
Wasserman left that role in 1972, and later enrolled at Yale Law School, graduating in 1976, at age 49. After clerking for the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit she began a private family law practice.
Before the unveiling of her portrait last weekend, Chauncey, who served in key administrative roles at Yale over more than two decades, including as university secretary, called Wasserman a “visionary.”
“When President Brewster put her in charge of implementing coeducation … she applied a vision that she’d had long before she took this job,” he said. “She wanted all of Yale to become a place where women would have the same chances, the same opportunities, and the same rewards that men had.”
Also among the first women to be accepted at Yale College was Vera Wells ’71, who transferred to Yale from Howard University. Initially she had doubts that she would be accepted, but after a probing but friendly interview with Wasserman, she started to feel better about her chances. “When I left her office, I thought that maybe there was a possibility that I could be at Yale,” she told the audience at Sprague Hall.
Wasserman, she said, kept in touch with her. Two years after graduation, while Wells was at Harvard’s Kennedy School, she received an invitation to serve on a working group at the Yale Child Study Center. She didn’t know it at the time, but it was Elga Wasserman who had recommended her.
“She made me feel welcomed again,” said Wells, a retired NBC executive and former member of the Yale University Council. “And included. And heard. And valued.”
The new portrait, Salovey said, will serve as a reminder of Wasserman’s “indelible imprint” on Yale — and also as a challenge to continue her unfinished work.
“I ask all of us to recognize Elga’s role in championing equity and diversity at Yale and throughout higher education,” he said. “She was one of the first, but I know we are all committed to it in all of the ways that those challenges face us today.”