Yale Needs Women, Anne Gardiner Perkins. Naperville, Il: Sourcebooks, 2019.
Summary: The history of Yale’s first women’s class, entering in 1969, and the challenges of transitioning an all-male institution to co-education.
Before the fall of 1969, Yale had been an all-male institution for 268 years. They had a stated goal of admitting 1000 men each year, the future leaders of the country. In 1968, pressure built upon Kingman Brewster, popular president of Yale, to open Yale to women. Male students declared “Yale needs women.” Up until then women were bussed in on weekends from nearby schools to provide a social life. Hardly a satisfactory solution. Other schools like Harvard were co-ed. Faculty and many alumni pressed for this change. Reluctantly, Brewster, and the Yale Board yielded.
The decision was made to admit 230 women in 1969. Elga Wasserman, former Chemistry professor and assistant dean was tasked to handle the transition to coeducation. She recognized they would need “strong” women to enter this all-male domain. This book suggests that the women who were admitted admirably met that criteria, but that it would take more than that. It traces these first four years through the experiences of several of those women. We see how each carved out their own niche while contending with the male-dominated structure of Yale.
To begin with, there was an eight to one imbalance with men. There were heavy pressures to date, and sexual assault and harassment before it was named. Women were distributed among the eight colleges and so isolated from each other. There were no varsity women’s sports. It was an uphill battle to get locks on the bathrooms. Most women had only male faculty.
Elga Wasserman, along with the women, had to fight against the structures that resisted change. Students joined, creating some of the early feminist organizations like the Sisterhood. A couple on faculty, Philip and Lorna Sarrel, led some of the early sexual education work as pioneers in the field. Eventually, Morey’s dropped its male-only dining policy. Wasserman herself struggled, being designated “special assistant” rather than dean or VP.
Eventually advocacy focused on gender blind admissions. Many superior women applicants were rejected in favor of inferior male applicants in the skewed ratio of 1000 to 230. Things would not change until after the first class graduated. Elga Wasserman was one of the casualties. She vigorously advocated and achieved a number of changes, but lost her job after this class graduated.
Today, it is hard to believe some of this went on. The book shows how far more is needed than a change in admissions policy. Structures, policies, and traditions need to change as well. What the book highlights are the pioneers, and some enlightened allies, who persisted, who were the “edge of the wedge” of change.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.