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Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant


When I was fifty-­two years old, I decided that the time had come to get my PhD. Better late than never.  The idea was not entirely new. My best friend, Hazel, and I had met in our twenties, when we were both history graduate students, and I had considered getting a doctorate then. But while Hazel went on to get her PhD, I had felt pulled to different work, and after getting my master’s, I’d gotten a job teaching in an urban high school.  Thirty years later, I was still in education, now working on policies and programs for Massachusetts’s public colleges and universities. I wanted to strengthen my thinking about the issues I worked on, and I knew that UMass Boston had a well-­regarded higher education program. Once again, the doctorate beckoned.

So I began. Monday through Thursday, I worked at my job on Beacon Hill. Fridays, I went to class at UMass Boston.  Weekends, I studied. My husband, Rick, did all the cooking and—­let’s be honest—­every other household chore too. But it was exciting to be back in school again.

I never intended to write a history dissertation, though Hazel would tell you that my doing so was entirely predictable. I planned to research some practical topic, one tied more directly to my job, but in my first fall semester, I took a required course on the history of higher education. Needing a topic for the final class paper, I wondered, What about those first women students who arrived at Yale in 1969? I bet there are some amazing stories there.  The idea was not as random as it might sound. You see, I had gone to Yale too.

I arrived as a freshman in 1977, eight years after the first women undergraduates. I studied history and wrote for the Yale Daily News. I covered women’s ice hockey and eventually the president’s beat. In my junior year, I became editor in chief. Yet throughout that whole time, I knew nothing about the women at Yale who came before me and all the challenges they faced when they got there.

Decades later, I searched for a book that would tell me about Yale’s first women undergraduates, but the women were missing from histories of Yale in that era.  The books focused instead on the decision to let women in, as if that were the end of the story. But what happened next? That’s what I wanted to know. Here was a college that had been all male for 268 years, and then, suddenly, the first women students arrived. Historian Margaret Nash calls such moments “flashpoints”1 in history, times when the bright light of a sudden change illuminates all around it and everything, for a time, seems possible. In 1969, the U.S. women’s movement had just begun.  The Black Power movement was changing how Americans saw race. And into that moment stepped the first women undergraduates at Yale.

I took a day off from work and drove to New Haven to see what I might find in the Yale archives, and after that, there was no turning back. The story was just too compelling. I went back to the archives a second time, a third, a fourth, still more, now for a week at a time. Eventually, I realized that if I really wanted to understand what had happened at Yale in that flashpoint of history, I needed to talk to the women who had lived
through it.

The forty-­two women I interviewed for this book were all wonderful—­
inviting me into their kitchens and living rooms and places of work, talking with me far longer than the one hour I’d proposed, trusting me with their stories. “Don’t screw it up, Anne,” one of them told me after we’d gotten to know one another,2 and she was only half kidding. But by that point, getting this history right had become as important to me as it was to her. The women who go first and speak out help shape a better world for all of us, yet all too often their stories are lost. I was not going to let that happen to this story.

I went back to the archives again and pored through box after box of documents. I read hundreds of old newspaper stories and compiled thousands of pages of notes. For me, though, the real gift of this book has been the remarkable women I came to know in writing it, the first women undergraduates at Yale.  This is their story. I am honored to be the one to tell it.

Anne Gardiner Perkins

Boston, 2019


268 Years of Men

The women came to Yale in buses, peering out the large glass windows at the men who had gathered on the sidewalk below to await their arrival.  The girls from Vassar College wore brightly colored dresses and skirts cut up above the knee. Their hair shone from being combed and recombed on the two-­hour drive from Poughkeepsie to New Haven. The guys from Yale had dressed up as well: button-­down shirts, narrow ties, and sports jackets.  The men’s faces were clean-­shaven, and their hair was trimmed neatly above the ears. It was Saturday night, November 1967, and the Yale men were ready for women.1

Yale was still an all-­men’s college back then, and one of the only ways to find a girlfriend was to frequent the mixers that brought in busloads of women each weekend from elite women’s colleges like Vassar and Smith. On Saturday nights, the buses rolled into Yale at 8:00 p.m., each with their cargo of fifty girls. At midnight, the girls returned from whence they came. In the four hours in between, the Yale men sought to make their match. Guys who had girlfriends already would show up at the Saturday football games with their girls on their arms and then appear with them afterward in the dining hall or a local restaurant. But for the rest of the week, Yale undergraduates lived their days in a single-­sex world.

To picture Yale as it was at the time, imagine a village of men. From Monday through Friday, students attended their men-­only classes, ate meals in their men-­only dining hall, took part in their men-­only extracurricular pursuits, and then retired to their men-­only dorms. Yale admitted scatterings of women graduate and professional students in 1967, but Yale College, the heart of the university, remained staunchly all male.  The ranks of faculty and administrators who ran the school were nearly all men as well. If you were to peek through the door at any department meeting, the professors seated around the table would invariably be “white men in tweeds and casually expensive shoes,”2 as one of Yale’s rare black professors observed. Yale was an odd place, at least to a modern eye, but since its founding in 1701, Yale had always been a place for men.

Yale was the oldest men’s club in the nation—­older than the Kiwanis, the Elks, and the Boy Scouts; older than New York’s Union Club and San Francisco’s Bohemian Club; and older than Princeton and Dartmouth and the dozens of other U.S. colleges that also banned women from applying in 1967. Only two colleges in America were older than Yale: William and Mary, which went coed in 1919 for financial reasons, and Harvard, where Radcliffe women had been attending classes since 1943.3 Yale never had a sister school. On the weekends, though, for a brief span of hours, a fissure opened up in that men-­only world.  The buses from Vassar and Connecticut College, from Smith and Mount Holyoke, pulled up at the curb, and the Yale guys began vying with one another for the best of the imported women.  The evening always began with such promise.

The bus doors swung apart. The women clicked open their compacts to check their lipstick one last time and then descended one by one into the crowd of men below, wondering what the night would bring. Girl after girl stepped down off the bus, smiled, and filed past the group of college boys standing outside. They passed through the stone archway of one of Yale’s twelve residential colleges and then into the wood-­paneled common room where more Yale men waited. The men had been drinking already, clustered in groups around kegs of cheap beer brought in for the event, bracing themselves for the night to come.

A girlfriend was “the most prized piece of chattel in the college man’s estate,” explained one Yale student,4 but not just any girl would do. She had to come from one of the colleges thought suitable for future Yale wives, and she had to be pretty. If a guy brought a good-­looking girl with him into one of Yale’s dining halls, his classmates would show their approval by banging their spoons against their water glasses. Guys who arrived with a date thought unattractive would get ribbed about it later.  And so the Yale men chose carefully.

A Yale sophomore appraised the women who now filled the room, picked out one of them, and approached her with his long-­practiced line: “Say, aren’t you from California?”5

She was not, but the two chatted anyway, trading hometowns and majors.  All the while, both scanned the room—­was there someone better to be paired with?

In the next room over, the dining hall had been turned into a dance floor, with chairs and tables shoved over to the side, the lights turned low.  A young man asked one of the newly arrived women if she wanted to dance. She smiled, and the two entered the room.

A band blared saxophone and electric bass from the front, the music so loud that conversation was impossible. There was little to do but nod and smile, pretending to hear what the other person said. A few couples over, one girl, put off by her partner’s awkward dance moves, pretended she was dancing with the guy next to him. The song ended, and she retreated to the ladies’ room, hoping he would be with someone else when she returned. The pairs in the room reshuffled, with men who sought a new partner excusing themselves to get a beer and women who wanted to move
on explaining they needed to go find their roommates. The code in both cases was the same—­not you.

Through the first two hours of the mixer, the cycle continued—­choose, discard; choose, discard; choose, discard—­a game of musical chairs where each person hoped not to be the one who turned up alone when the music stopped.

“Say, aren’t you from California?”

By 10:00 p.m., the pairings became less fluid, the matches more firm. The question shifted: Would you like to see my room?

A senior with long blond hair had heard this line too many times before. “No,” she answered, “I know all about your room.”6 It had been a long night for her already. A Yale freshman had offered to give her a tour of the campus.  Another guy had offered to show her his rock collection.  As one Yale man observed, “Some girls that I’ve talked to have the idea that all we want from them is sex. Maybe they’re right, but what else can you do when you don’t get to know them and haven’t got the time to establish a natural relationship?”7

At midnight, the buses readied to leave, and the women filed back out through the stone archway, some coming from the depleted crowd at the mixer and others from the men’s rooms they’d been visiting. The opening into Yale’s village of men once again closed.  The buses of women pulled out and began the long drive home while the men pushed the dining hall tables and chairs back into place and the band carted away its instruments. All that was left was the smell of the beer.  And so the rhythm of Yale continued as it always had, with men-­only weeks followed by weekends with women. Change, however, hovered just around the corner. But no one at Yale seemed to realize how fast it would come.

* * *

The school year passed.  Another class of Yale men graduated, and a new one readied to take its place, just as the cycle had gone for decades. Yet beneath that veneer of sameness, things were shifting at Yale, and Kingman Brewster Jr., Yale’s president, was the reason.8

By 1968, Brewster was in his fifth year as president and had established himself as a leader who was determined to bring about change.9 He had tasked his admissions director with increasing the numbers of black students at Yale, and he’d supported black students’ efforts to create an Afro-­American studies major, one of the first in the nation. He increased the financial aid budget so that all admitted students could attend and halted the admissions office practice of checking on students’ family income before deciding whether or not to admit them. Brewster had hired some of the most renowned academics in the nation to strengthen the faculty and raised Yale’s profile in the national press.  And in the process of all of this, he had attained a prominence that surpassed that of most politicians.

Brewster made the cover of Newsweek in 1964 and was named by President Lyndon B. Johnson to a U.S. presidential commission the following year and to a second one in 1966. In 1967, the New York Times published a gushing five-­page profile of Brewster, and talk began in some corners of a possible cabinet position or even a U.S. presidential run. That same year, Brewster made the cover of Time and chaired a UN policy panel on peacekeeping missions. If Yale men, as some said, were destined for leadership, then Kingman Brewster was striding confidently down the path of his destiny.

Begin with the name: Kingman—­or as old friends and colleagues sometimes called him, simply “King,” his childhood nickname.10 For if ever there was a person who embodied the ideal of manhood at Yale, it was Brewster. He was “an imposing figure. Big,” said one Yale student, and those who met him were struck by his presence.11 “Whatever ‘it’ is, he had it,” remarked one Yale trustee.12 Brewster was handsome by most accounts, with a craggy sort of face and brown hair that was just going gray at the temples. He wore pinstripe suits and shirts handmade in Hong Kong and was descended from ancestors who had come over on the Mayflower—­the first trip. He carried with him “the assurance that came from being a direct descendant of the Elder Brewster,” explained one of his friends.13 “You know, ‘This is my place.’” And like every Yale president since 1766 but one, Brewster had gone to college at Yale, since, as every Yale man knew, quipped the Harvard Crimson, “a Yale man is the best kind of man to be, and only Yale can produce one.”14

Yet just when it seemed one might be able to sum Brewster up in a phrase—­the patrician leader, the ultimate Yale man, the nation’s most well-­known university president—­a confounding piece of evidence arose to complicate the picture. “He was a very complex man,” observed student Kurt Schmoke.15

Brewster encompassed a span of seeming contradictions. He was politically conservative but open-­minded on many issues. He was both a blue-­blood New Englander and a man who sought to learn from others, regardless of their pedigree. He was reserved but sparkled at social gatherings, where he would amuse his friends by mimicking various political personalities or once by singing with gusto an impromptu performance from My Fair Lady. He was forty-­nine years old, yet on some of America’s hottest issues—Vietnam, race—he stood not with the men of his own generation but with the generation that challenged them.

The students loved him. For their 1968 fund-­raiser, Yale’s student advisory board sold T-shirts printed with the slogan “Next to myself, I like Kingman best.”16 The following year, when Brewster entered a contentious campus-­wide meeting on the future of ROTC at Yale, four thousand students rose to give him a standing ovation.17 On the subject of coeducation, however, Brewster and Yale students stood apart. Indeed, of all the dissonances that defined Kingman Brewster, the contrast between his progressive stances on race, religion, and class and his conservative views on gender was perhaps the most striking.

Brewster refused to frequent clubs that discriminated against blacks or Jews, and the signature change of his administration had been opening Yale’s doors to more black students and students from families that could never before have afforded to send their sons to Yale. But when it came to women, Brewster was content with the world as it was. He enjoyed many a meal at clubs that banned women from the main dining room at lunchtime, and as to the idea of ending Yale’s 268 years as a men’s school by admitting women undergraduates…well, why would anyone want to do that?

By 1968, Yale students had been telling Brewster the answer to that question for more than two years, ever since Lanny Davis became chairman of the Yale Daily News in 1966. “Coeducation should now be beyond argument,” Lanny wrote in his debut editorial, which declared that the time was long overdue to end “the unrealistic, artificial, and stifling social environment of an all-­male Yale.”18 Lanny did not stop there but proceeded to publish a barrage of pro-­coeducation columns and editorials, more than nineteen in all, over the next five months. “Lanny beat the drums day in and day out and, in a wonderfully positive way, harassed the hell out of us,” said Brewster’s top adviser, Sam Chauncey.19 And when the Yale Daily News spoke, the men who ran Yale generally listened. The News was one of the oldest and most powerful student organizations on campus. Past chairmen had included Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Time
magazine founder Henry Luce, and Kingman Brewster himself, who read the Yale Daily News and met regularly with the paper’s chairman to get a read on student opinion.20 When it came to admitting women undergraduates, however, even the News could not convince Brewster that the time for
change had come.

Brewster was hardly alone in his stance. America’s most elite colleges had long maintained their reputation not just by the types of students they let in but by those they kept out: Jews, blacks, working-­class kids—­and women. Even after the wave of coeducation that followed the Civil War, upping the proportion of coed campuses from 25 percent before the war to 60 percent by 1890, the vast majority of top-­tier colleges and universities in the United States stayed all male.21 Coeducation was solely a symptom of financial weakness, opined Harvard president Charles Eliot in 1873.22 The colleges that could afford to turn down women’s tuitions—­America’s oldest and most prestigious—­would continue to do so.

Nearly a century later, President Eliot’s prediction held true, and in 1968, the list of U.S. colleges that still banned women undergraduates reads like an academic who’s who: Amherst, Boston College, Bowdoin, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, Claremont McKenna, Colgate, Columbia, Dartmouth, Davidson, Duke, Fordham, Georgetown, Hamilton, Harvard, Haverford, Holy Cross, Johns Hopkins, Kenyon, Lafayette, Lehigh, Notre Dame, Penn, Princeton, Rutgers, Sewanee, Trinity, Tufts, Tulane, Union, UVA, Washington and Lee, Wesleyan, West Point and the other military academies, Williams, and—­of course—­Yale.23 A few, like Harvard and Brown, had created sister schools that kept the women nearby without putting them on equal terms with men, but none admitted women to the same college that the men attended. “In the minds of many,” observed the Educational Record, “‘all-­male’ education has become synonymous with ‘prestige’ education.”24

That status quo was just fine with Brewster, and unless he changed his position on the matter, Yale would stay just as it was. Brewster’s power at Yale ran unfettered by the constraints that frustrated other campus presidents. He was not just a member of the Corporation, Yale’s board of trustees, but its president,25 and “the faculty adored him,” observed one senior professor.26 Brewster had raised their salaries and strengthened their reputation, and the glow from Brewster’s accolades shone on all of them. Nonetheless, even Kingman Brewster could not always shape the world as he wished to.

The events of the spring of 1968 had shaken him. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April had struck particularly hard, for here was a man whose hand Brewster had clasped when, as one of the first acts of his presidency, he had awarded King an honorary degree.27 That same month, students at Trinity College, just forty miles up the road from Yale, had held a group of trustees hostage until Trinity acted on a long-­stalled student demand for a scholarship fund for black and other disadvantaged students.28 A larger protest at Columbia three weeks later ended with more than two hundred students injured and seven hundred arrested.29

Over the summer of 1968, Brewster retreated with his family to their waterfront home on Martha’s Vineyard, where he spent his days in Bermuda shorts and sneakers, sailing and talking with friends and presiding over the grill at evening cookouts.  And there, pecking out the words with two fingers on his typewriter, Brewster wrote the initial draft of his annual presidential report, his statement of Yale’s accomplishments in the year just passed and the goals for the year to come.  As he looked ahead to the fall of 1968, Brewster set forth two central questions: How much say should students have in university governance? What was the university’s responsibility to the New Haven neighborhoods that surrounded it?30 Brewster typed out his answers, which in turn became his priorities for the year. His report was silent entirely, however, on the possibility of coeducation.

The summer ticked away, and as it did, the twine that held the nation together continued to unravel. In June, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. In August, Chicago police assaulted protestors at the Democratic National Convention.  And in the background was the constant drumbeat of the Vietnam War, where U.S. troop levels had surpassed half a million. The growing women’s movement would unsettle the givens of Brewster’s life still further, but in the summer of 1968, it was just gaining its footing.31 NOW, the National Organization for Women, was only two years old. Consciousness-­raising groups had just started meeting in women’s living rooms and kitchens. Most Americans did not yet grasp the extent of the discrimination against women in education, employment, and the law. Aside from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the major works of second-­wave feminism were yet to be written.

Out on Martha’s Vineyard, the days grew shorter with the coming fall; the time to pack away the Bermuda shorts drew near. Brewster finished his president’s report and readied to return to campus, not yet realizing that the agenda for the year ahead would be set not by him, but by students.


Excerpted from YALE NEEDS WOMEN: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant by Anne Gardiner Perkins. © 2019 by Anne Gardiner Perkins. Used with permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc. All rights reserved.

Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant
by by Anne Gardiner Perkins