W hen it isn’t covered by snow, Maya Lin’s Women’s Table, the fountain sculpture in front of Yale’s Sterling Library, sits gleaming under a sheen of water. On warm days, the water burbles out of a smooth depression in the middle.
People who draw close might notice something else: a vortex of numbers next to other numbers carved into the fountain’s surface. The table, it turns out, is a timeline. Beginning in 1701 and ending in 1993, when the sculpture was finished, it starts with zeros. Then, in the late 19th century, the numbers begin to tick upward—single digits becoming double, then hundreds becoming thousands.
They’re women. The zeros represent the years Yale existed without any female students, which still outnumber the years it had even one.
For Yale’s current student body, the notion of excluding women surely seems outrageous. But for more than 150 years, not a single woman was permitted to receive instruction at Yale. Once they could, starting in 1869 with the Yale School of Fine Arts (now just the School of Art), it wasn’t until 1886 that a woman received an actual degree.
Even then, it was through a loophole. Having been rejected outright by male-only Columbia and Harvard, Alice Rufie Jordan Blake, already certified to practice law in Michigan, reportedly signed her Yale application using her first initials. Upon showing up to register in 1885, she didn’t hide her identity, but she did overcome the protests of administrators. Her smart and plucky reading of the Yale Law School’s admissions criteria, which didn’t actually forbid women from enrolling, forced them to acknowledge her legitimacy.
Upon graduating—at which time Yale officially barred women from the law school and most others—Jordan Blake moved west to the Pacific coast to pursue her profession. It would be another 25 years before women could be admitted into Yale Law.
Josephine Miles Lewis was the next woman to receive a degree from Yale. In 1891, she was the first person, man or woman, to receive a Bachelor’s from Yale’s Fine Arts program. A virtuosic painter and lifelong bohemian who specialized in child portraiture, she would maintain a practice in New York for decades.
Shortly after, in 1892, Yale’s Department of Philosophy and the Arts was reorganized into the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1892, and it came with another change: women could now be admitted. Two years later, seven women were awarded PhDs, in subjects from Romance Languages to Chemistry. Their accomplishment was commemorated last year, when a portrait of the seven, painted by Brenda Zlamany and pictured above, was hung in Sterling Library.
Undergraduate admission for women, however, was a much longer and protracted battle. In Women at Yale: Liberating a College Campus (1971), authors Janet Lever and Pepper Schwartz, who were Yale grad students at the time, describe how inter-Ivy League competition helped spur change. Though Cornell, tucked away in the middle of New York State, had admitted undergraduate women since 1870, the civil rights movements of the 1960s made the admission of women elsewhere seem inevitable.
In an attempt to stay competitive, Yale courted Vassar College, proposing that the famous all-female school move to New Haven for a partnership that would’ve kept Yale’s male and female students separate. After Vassar declined in 1967, the simplest and most obvious solution was to admit female students directly into Yale.
Two things in particular sped the process. First, rival Princeton was threatening to admit women first. Second, there was vocal support—to go with grumbling resistance—within the male undergraduate body. On November 6, 1968, Lever and Schwartz report, a crowd of students held a rally that “ended at President [Kingman] Brewster’s house,” who shouted to the crowd, “By 1972, there will be women at Yale.”
That day would actually come much sooner. Despite howls from many alumni, in 1969 nearly 600 female undergraduates, both transfers and freshmen—or, as the commemorative journal Celebrating Women: Twenty Years of Coeducation at Yale College (1990) puts it, “freshpeople”—were admitted. Competition was fierce for that groundbreaking class, with 2,850 applications for just 240 first-year positions. As a result, many of the admitted were extremely accomplished, giving rise to the mocking moniker, “Superwomen.”
It was an adjustment, to say the least, for both the new students and the established. Like many Ivy League schools, Yale had an intense culture that was lauded both for producing America’s leaders and fostering friendships between young men, often through sports, hazing and various fraternal societies. Before 1969, women penetrated this bubble indirectly and only on weekends, when Yalies would go on dates or go home to see Mother. Quoted in Women at Yale, one male sophomore at the time remarked on his estimation of how well women would integrate into Yale life: The coed, he said, would “never really meet Yale—Yale won’t let her.”
Of course, that wasn’t true in the end. But the transition didn’t happen quickly, either. An anonymous piece in Celebrating Women, written by a first-generation female Literature major, class of 1977, describes how, even several years into coeducation at Yale, female role models and subjects remained in short supply. With rare exception, she says, her coursework was directed by male professors assigning works written by men featuring characters who, if they were interesting at all, were also men. Then, when it came to preparing female students for success after college, the Yale the author knew “was not ready to adapt itself for the good of its new constituency”—a group of people who “faced the problem of creating ourselves from scratch, when we had never seen or read about, much less known, women like us.” Though the school had increased women’s access to education, she concludes, it hadn’t done much to increase their level of opportunity.
In the 25th Reunion Class Book for the class of 1973—the first four-year class with women to graduate Yale—member Joyce A. Majure offers a more forgiving take. In an essay titled “A Yale Woman in a Man’s World,” she writes, “What Yale reinforced in me was my belief in myself. Had I believed in the stereotypes, or hesitated when obstacles were placed before me, I would not be the person I am today.”
Among all the uncommon women that have in turn made the university what it is today, Majure evinces what seems to be a common attribute: the strength to believe in themselves and fight for their interests, even when the rest of the world didn’t.
Written by Anne Ewbank. Photographed by Dan Mims. Image, from left, depicts Cornelia H.B. Rogers (Romance Languages and Literatures), Sara Bulkley Rogers (History), Margaretta Palmer (Mathematics), Mary Augusta Scott (English), Laura Johnson Wylie (English), Charlotte Fitch Roberts (Chemistry), Elizabeth Deering Hanscom (English) in a painting by Brenda Zlamany.