The pioneering women who fought to get in, and fit in, at Yale

Adrianna Smith

THE WASHINGTON POST – On November 15, 1968, the New York Times carried the news on its front page: “Yale Going Coed Next September”. The historic change came after student activists pressured Yale’s hesitant president, Kingman Brewster, to stop delaying and finally admit women as undergraduates. The day before the Times article, he put the question before the Yale College faculty. The vote in favour was overwhelming: 200 to 1.

In Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant, historian and higher-education expert Anne Gardiner Perkins tells the tale of Yale’s early days as a coed campus for undergraduates after 267 years as a male-only bastion. Perkins charts the years between 1968 and late 1972, when Yale ditched its gender quota. Yale Needs Women explores female student experiences, from dating to work-study to forming the first varsity sports teams. While the book feels a bit parochial because it never leaves Yale’s campus, Perkins has delivered an engaging and surprising story that illustrates the challenges college women have confronted across the country. Her narrative made this recent college grad feel grateful to the women who came before her.

A turning point in Yale’s move toward inclusion occurred just 11 days before the Times story rolled off the presses. On November 4, students launched Coeducation Week at Yale to “prove to alumni and the public that Yale students were ‘serious and sincere about normal coeducational life in the near future,'” as leader Avi Soifer put it.

While Yale acted quickly under intense pressure, it was late among elite colleges to admit female undergraduates. Harvard, Cornell and Brown had already turned their campuses coed, and Princeton planned to enrol women as undergrads in the fall of 1969. Enrolling female students was now a competitive advantage for those schools. “[Yale] Trustee Irwin Miller had been arguing for coeducation since 1967,” Perkins wrote, “warning that ‘the quality of admission at Yale … will undergo a long, slow decline unless there are women.'”

But their arrival at Yale, as Perkins shows, was fraught with challenges. The new enrollees faced exaggerated expectations. A New York Times Magazine article portrayed female applicants as superlative students with remarkable accomplishments already in their brief lives. “Of the entire eleven-page article,” Perkins wrote, “what Yale’s women undergraduates remember most is what the New York Times called them. They were ‘the female versions of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Uebermensch.’ They were ‘superwomen.’ The word stuck like a mark on the forehead of every girl admitted.”

Thousands of women applied for 575 spots in the fall of 1969. Women faced much tougher acceptance rates – about one in 12 compared with one in seven for men – because of the gender quota and a highly subjective admissions process that favoured men over women.

While Yale’s graduate and professional schools were technically coed in 1968, women felt the burden of their small numbers. “Invisible is the word they used to describe themselves,” Perkins wrote. Female graduate students (notably future Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen and future senator and presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton) composed less than 10 per cent of the student body and were spread out across 11 schools. The undergraduates who followed felt similar pressures. “To be a young woman at Yale,” Perkins explained, “was to be simultaneously invisible yet unable to blend in.”