New Exhibit Honors the 50th Anniversary of Coeducation at Yale College

In commemoration of its 50th anniversary of coeducation, Yale University has launched “The Walls are Tumbling Down: Coeducation in Yale College.” The exhibit, on display in the Memorabilia Room at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, presents the history of coeducation at Yale through materials in the university archives, including photographs, correspondence, records, news clippings, and other written accounts of women’s experiences on campus. The exhibit was curated by University Archivist Michael Lotstein and Carly Sheehan, a student at the Yale School of Art.

The exhibit opens with the story of Lucinda Foote, the 12-year-old daughter of a Yale alumnus. On December 22, 1783, Yale President Ezra Stiles interviewed Foote and was impressed with her intellect. According to his diary, Stiles “found her well fitted to be admitted into the Freshman Class” and encouraged the Yale student body to debate the condition of women and their role in public life. Foote was not admitted to Yale College, but would have been “if it were not for her sex.”

From there, the exhibit moves to stories of Yale’s earliest women students. Alice and Susan Silliman, daughters of chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman, became the university’s first women students when they were admitted to the Yale School of Fine Arts in 1869. In 1886, Alice Rufie Jordan Blake became the first woman to earn a law degree from Yale. She was admitted to the School of Law after listing her first initials, rather than her first names, on the application. In 1892, Yale amended its admissions rules to permit women as well as men to take courses at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Two years later, seven women received doctoral degrees from Yale.

Going forward, the exhibit displays the controversial debate of undergraduate coeducation that arose at Yale College in 1956. Rumors of coeducation at Yale were published in an article in The New York Times on September 28, 1956.

In response to the article, Yale President A. Whitney Griswold dispelled the rumors and stated, “There is not the remotest possibility of [coeducation] taking place at Yale within the foreseeable future.”

In the 1960s, the idea of coeducation started to gain steam when Yale President Kingman Brewster suggested establishing Vassar College as Yale’s affiliated women’s college, similar to Harvard and Columbia’s relationship with Radcliffe and Barnard, respectively. Vassar’s trustees rejected the proposal, but the episode generated momentum for initiating coeducation at both schools.

In November 1968, more than 750 women from 22 colleges visited Yale to attend classes and live in residential colleges during Coeducation Week.

“The experience was overwhelmingly positive for the students who visited and for the male students who hosted them,” Lotstein said. “It was based on the success of Coeducation Week that the Yale Corporation voted to start admitting women in the fall of 1969.”

Once coeducation was officially integrated at Yale College, the school had to revamp its entire infrastructure to accommodate its new women students. This included creating new facilities, such as restrooms, in residential and academic buildings. Additionally, women students faced discrimination throughout the campus, including being barred from membership to Mory’s, a private club at Yale. Despite these challenges, coeducation succeeded and the first class of women students graduated from Yale College in May 1973.

The exhibit concludes by noting the expanding role of women in the Yale alumni community and marking past anniversary celebrations of coeducation.

“The 20th-anniversary celebration seeks to incorporate all without imposing assimilation,” reads the mission statement from Yale’s 20th anniversary of coeducation. “We embrace the opportunity to explore our distinctions and our conflicts. We recognize the need to communicate and share, for although this act may not fundamentally transform our differences, it removes stereotypes, minimizes boundaries, uncovers naivete, and eases the pain of silence.”

Filed Under: DiversityGender GapMilestones


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