Yale’s Female Iconography: Former Yale College Dean Mary Miller’s Portrait

 “When I was 18, I didn’t think I’d still be fighting feminist battles my whole life, but I am.” Mary Miller ’81 PhD, reflected as we spoke about her portrait recently installed in the Faculty Room in Yale’s Connecticut College, where it hangs with seven other paintings of Yale College Deans, all white, all male. In addition to being the first (and only) female Dean of Yale College, a position she held from 2008-2014, Miller previously served for a decade as Master of Saybrook College, has taught art history at Yale for over 36 years, and currently claims the title of Senior Director of Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.

According to a sample study of portraiture conducted by the Women Faculty Forum at Yale, about 11% of campus portraits include female figures. Some spaces boast better numbers, such as Saybrook Dining Hall, where another portrait of Mary Miller hangs alongside 3 other portraits of women, making the tally there 4 out of 15 or about 30%. And the hall outside of the President’s Room upstairs in Woolsey Rotunda offers 75% with 4 portraits of past Yale provosts, including three women. Inside the President’s Room, though, men still dominate; here hang no portraits of women out of 8 portraits total. Will those numbers ever change? Will a portrait of a woman one day make it into the President’s Room? While we can’t know the answer to that question, we do know that with the addition of Miller’s portrait in the Faculty Room, the faculty who gather there no longer have only men to, quite literally, look up to. Now they also have this portrait of a woman of accomplishment to inspire them.

As Dean of Yale College, Miller served as chief academic officer of the undergraduate school of 5400 students, managed a staff of 240, and personally raised over $450 million ($100 million in 2014 alone, more than any previous Dean of Yale College in a single year). During her tenure, Miller also identified the need for a clear policy addressing sexual misconduct. Not only did she spearhead the effort to write a new policy; she also developed an ongoing program of Peer Educators to guide students in consent and intervention. Over the years, she explained, she had learned that the world is not a better place, that one could never declare victory—that, in essence, for a policy of sexual misconduct to be effective, people must be reminded year after year that sexual misconduct is possible and that each person must make their own choices. “You are your own person, intellectually, sexually. You are your own self. That should be liberating to both men and women. 

When she committed to sitting for her portrait for 20+ hours, Miller hoped for a “warm and authoritative” effect. In the painting, she stands in a dark blue blazer covering a black outfit, hands crossed at mid-section, holding a pair of glasses. She gazes out at the viewer with an unmistakable authority. Alone among the 8 portraits that hang in the Faculty Room, Miller’s includes no props of her profession, while the 7 other images boast urns, paintings, maps, books (open, in piles, in rows), and even a machine alight with scientific discovery. Miller, on the other hand, stands against a rich gold background, a background that she said got “lighter and lighter” as the artist worked, finally “luminous” in contrast to the other darker paintings. While Miller explained that the bright, uncluttered trappings resulted from the artist’s desire for a 21st century portrait style, I can’t help but think about how these choices mark the subject as decidedly different. Unlike the others, this figure looks toward the future, suggesting: It’s not the props of my profession that matter, or the credentials; it’s the legacy I’ve left, the determined work toward an unwritten future.

- Alice Rebecca Moore ’16 PhD


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