The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yale’s classrooms were full of men. Then the first female undergrads enrolled.

Two young women attend a football rally on Yale’s campus the year before the university admitted its first female undergraduates. (AP) (N/A/AP)

In April 1969, Barbara Wagner was waiting to learn whether she had been admitted to Yale when the New York Times Magazine published a juicy dive into the 268-year-old university’s plan for selecting its first female undergraduates. The author had gained access to a sampling of admissions files from the thousands of women vying to become “pioneers of their sex” as members of Yale’s first coed class.

He described the women as “the female versions of Nietzsche’s Übermensch.” Superheros.

Wagner would become one of them. She packed her bags for New Haven that fall, joining a class of 230 female freshmen — picked from a pool of 2,847 women — and 1,029 male students.

“We felt the pressure, but we also felt the opportunity,” Wagner told The Washington Post. “We had to prove ourselves and show that they didn’t make a mistake.”

Fifty years ago, on Nov. 14, 1968, Yale’s president, Kingman Brewster Jr., announced female undergraduates would be admitted for the first time. Yale then joined 75 percent of other U.S. colleges that had gone coed by 1965, even though the university had accepted female graduate students since the late 1800s. An additional 358 women enrolled as sophomore and junior transfer students.

The shift toward coeducation did not look the same across the Ivy League. Many of Yale’s peer, all-male institutions had coordinate women’s colleges: Radcliffe women had taken classes at Harvard since the 1940s. Columbia had Barnard, and Brown had Pembroke. Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania had accepted female undergrads for decades. That left Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth as the only Ivies with no undergraduate women by the late 1960s.

Going coed — and the women who enrolled — shook the university to its core. The decision directly challenged Brewster’s pledge to rear America’s next 1,000 male leaders. It signaled that the social movements rocking the country in the late 1960s had hit Yale’s gothic lecture halls and dormitories, too. Put simply, it meant the portraits of famous (and almost exclusively white) men that hung throughout campus would no longer peer down at students who looked exactly like them.

The female “superheroes” had arrived.

“What was happening in America was that young people were seeing authority and saying to them, ‘you’re wrong,’ ” said Henry “Sam” Chauncey, a former Yale administrator who helped lead the charge toward coeducation. “The students insisted on it.”

Insistence is one thing, preparedness another. By many metrics, Yale was not ready for female undergrads. Certain professors made clear they would not call on women in class because women could not possibly have anything to contribute. Some male students said having women on campus was too distracting.

Other obstacles were hard-wired into Yale’s DNA: In 1969, Yale had only 43 female faculty members out of 839 total, according to research conducted by recent Yale graduate Helen Price. Only two of those women were tenured professors. Women’s bathrooms were scarce. Mory’s, a famed campus restaurant that wanted to keep its reputation as “a men’s club,” declined to admit female members until it was threatened with losing its liquor license.

“I was in one big class in the law school auditorium that had creaky wooden seats,” Wagner said. “And if a woman raised her hand, you could hear the seats creaking to see which woman was brave enough to ask a question.” (Wagner later pursued a law career and is now an adjunct professor at Northern Kentucky University.)

In 1973, as she prepared to graduate, Amy Solomon told the Times she hoped future classes of women “will have less pioneering to do.” Solomon said at the time that she and her fellow female students “said we’d be pioneers, but we didn’t realize it would really be so.”

Four years earlier, Solomon had become the first female student to register as a Yale undergrad. She told The Post the moment initially passed without any fanfare. But a day or two later, a reporter found her on campus and asked to stage a photo of her enrolling. (Solomon would go on to a career in nonprofit organizations, followed by working for foundations in staff and consultant roles.)

Decades later, Solomon looked back on her college years as coinciding with “tremendous social turmoil,” from antiwar protests to movements fighting for women’s rights.

Entering Yale in the late 1960s was even more difficult for female students of color. According to Price, of the 230 women in Solomon’s class, only 26 were black, and Yale had no female faculty members of color at the time.

Solomon said when she enrolled at Yale, she could not have imagined how women’s lives would change over the coming 50 years, all the way up to the #MeToo era. It is certainly a world she could not have conceived the year she graduated — when she stood on Yale’s campus and watched a time capsule be interred beneath a statue of Nathan Hale, a spy who was executed by the British during the Revolutionary War. Hale is perhaps less well-known for having argued in a debate during his Yale graduation in 1773 in favor of equal education for women.

Inside the time capsule is the photo of Solomon’s historic registration.

“On the one hand, 50 years seems like a long time,” Solomon said. “And in another, it’s a blip.”

CORRECTION: The photograph accompanying this article previously misidentified the two women as Yale students. The photo was taken during Coeducation Week on the New Haven campus, a year before the university admitted its first female undergraduates. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article misstated the number of male students who enrolled in the class of 1973.

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