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 students’ 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 Nov. 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.
Some 750 women from nearby colleges descended on Yale, lived “in dorm rooms vacated by obliging Yale students,” attended classes, and participated in forums and panels on coeducation. As Perkins explains, the week gave “Yale men the chance to interact with the opposite sex ‘under more natural conditions than the infamous mixer.’ ”
Toward the end of the week, hundreds of students marched to Brewster’s home, where the president and his wife came out onto the front porch. “ ‘Give us a date!’ the students cried, urging Brewster to commit to coeducation,” Perkins writes. When Brewster promised that women would be on campus by 1972 — four years away — the students shouted back: “Next fall! . . . 1969!”
Coeducation Week garnered national publicity and stirred Brewster to action. On Nov. 7, Perkins writes, “Brewster called a meeting with a one-item agenda: admitting women undergraduates to Yale.” Two days later, he was in New York presenting the proposal to Yale’s board of trustees, which voted to accept about 500 women for the fall of 1969.
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 enroll 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 writes, “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 writes, “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 1 in 12 compared with 1 in 7 for men — because of the gender quota and a highly subjective admissions process that favored men over women.
Perkins offers intriguing insights into the stories of Yale’s female students. There’s Connie Royster, whose family members had worked at Yale for generations and whose aunt was the first black female federal judge, appointed in 1966. And Kit McClure, who with her trombone elbowed her way into the school’s marching band and went on to be an active feminist and a successful musician. Perkins follows another dozen or so women as they navigated the sexism and sexual harassment of an institution not designed to accommodate them.
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 writes. Female graduate students (notably future Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen and future senator and presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton) composed less than 10 percent 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 explains, “was to be simultaneously invisible yet unable to blend in.”
Her book invites other schools and scholars to recognize the pioneering women of their own institutions. Yale’s alumni have helped compile an impressive website dedicated to the history of women at the college. My own alma mater, Georgetown’s College of Arts and Sciences, is also celebrating its 50th anniversary of enrolling women, with plans to commemorate this milestone in the spring.
Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women” and Nancy Weiss Malkiel’s “ ‘Keep the Damned Women Out’: The Struggle for Coeducation” complement “Yale Needs Women” by helping to put the achievements in perspective. As Rosin wrote in her book, “Women’s dominance on college campuses is possibly the strangest and most profound change of the century.”
How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant
Sourcebooks. 367 pp. $25.99