Women and Yale: A Study of Change and Resistance

Anne Gardiner Perkins, Yale alumna, is an historian of higher education who came to research after an academic administrative career. Her first book, based on her doctoral thesis, is an accessible, important and extremely timely account of the movement to coeducation at at her alma mater. Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant offers more than a robust institutional history. It is a primer on the distinction between a policy change and a cultural change, an on-the-ground account of an important institutional transformation. The work is a multi-level account of change and resistance. All told, Yale Needs Women is a very good book.

Perkins’ approach and structure are clear as easy to follow. Yale was men-only for 268 years. She closely examines the decision to make the change to admitting women, drawing heavily on institutional archives. The book then shifts focus, taking a close look at the lives of the first female students. Perkins interviewed 42 of them and spent untold hours in the archives. Her admiration, support and appreciation of those female trail-breakers shines throughout.

Yale’s institutional focus on men as leaders was baked into the university’s culture. Perkins rightly notes that it was the oldest male club in the nation. Add to that a carefully monitored racism when it came to hiring and students – Yale was inclusive in small degrees – and in the 1960s Yale was in no hurry to admit women. At the center of the storm and decision-making was Yale’s president, Kingman Brewster. He is a fascinating study, a reformer and conservative, a charismatic president who struggled with the monumental cultural shifts of the period, yet nonetheless continue to find ways to help his university advance. Perkins describes him as embodying contradictions. Brewster was known for his commitment to civil rights. He was also not particularly enthusiastic in seeing women enjoy those same rights. It was under pressure – from students, from the budget, from enrollment, from culture – that Brewster eventually allowed women to be admitted at Yale in 1969. The campaign, particularly from student activists, was brilliant. The decision was, in many ways, an inevitable choice if the university was going to remain competitive with other Ivy League and top research universities.

Regardless of the progress bound up in making the change happen, Yale’s admission of women was far from an immediate triumph. There was scant commitment to creating a fair university environment. Describing those first years, digging deep into the culture and practice of the shifts, Perkins’ book truly comes alive. It was a very difficult time for those first students. Remember, too, that 1969 was not that long ago. Those with privilege rarely cede it without resistance.

Yale enrolled just over 250 women in its first coeducational class. Brewster made sure that the number men admitted remained around 1,000. For more than a few years, that gender imbalance remained. While Yale might admit female undergraduates, its undergraduate population would remain overwhelmingly male for years. Along like lines, that first group of students was taught by a faculty that was predominantly male. Yale had tenured only two women in 1969, compared to 391 men. The university saw no need for an initiative or campaign to improve the gender balance among the faculty.

Tasked with making things work for women undergraduates was a smart young administrator, Elga Wasserman. Given the diminutive title of Special Assistant to the President, one of many slights she would combat, Wasserman was an outstanding bureaucratic infighter, an indefatigable champion of women students, and a forgotten hero in the integration of women at the university. Wasserman would eventually play a key role in the development of gender studies at Yale, grounding research on gender in the academy.

The sexism Wasserman and her female students fought was systemic and deep. Women were not allowed into the gym. The university did not have adequate bathrooms for women. Women were harassed by male students, by faculty, and by staff. There were no health services for women. Step by step, meeting by meeting, with limited university support, Wasserman did all that she could to create systems, programs and supports. She found many successes, like her program on human sexuality. Other areas, like finding ways to have varsity women’s sports, were years off.

Each of these courageous women had a different story, a different background and a different trajectory. What they all shared was discipline, dedication, and great intellect. Women performed better than men academically, a fact not lost on the university. Perkins is a strong interviewer, for she finds ways to tell these students’ stories, from why the came to Yale to the struggles they faced.

Unsurprisingly, through the benefits of time, Yale’s commitment to educating leaders extended to women undergraduates. The women formed organizations, led campaigns, and played a tremendous role in changing policy and practice at Yale – as well nationally. All of that took time, though, and it’s quite the burden for a seventeen year old female off to college. Perkins’ alumna truly are special people.

One key takeaway that deserves reflection from all who work in higher education is the need to think long and hard about the difference between access and belonging. While women were given access, admissions and space at Yale, they also received consistent and persistent messages that they did not belong. That same phenomenon often happens with groups at colleges, from LGBTQ+ to undocumented students to nascent conservatives or libertarians, depending upon the institution and its culture. Access does not mean integration or belonging. Academic leadership who turns a blind eye to these problems neither helps themselves, their students, or the institutions that they served. For change to be effective, it needs to be studied, assessed, and implemented with a full and complete commitment.

Not ancient history in the least, Women Needs Yale is a welcome contribution to the world of academic studies and the long-standing commitment to see more people educated.

David Potash

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