They Became Leaders and Helped Yale Become a Leader

Anne Gardiner Perkins ’81, is the author of Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant (Sourcebooks, 2019). At Yale, she was elected the first woman editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News and won the Porter Prize in history. She is a Rhodes scholar and holds a PhD in higher education from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s in public administration from Harvard. Yale Needs Women, her first book, grew out of her doctoral dissertation on the same subject

Q: What drew you to the topic of the first women at Yale—first, for your dissertation, and later, for this book?

I had been working at the time as the Associate Commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, and I had gone back to get my doctorate. I took a required history course, and I said, “well, I’m just going to write my final paper on the first women at Yale, because it’s embarrassing that I know nothing about them.”  

And so, I started researching the paper. And I was just shocked that the histories that had been written to date relied almost exclusively on male voices. Once I started interviewing these first women, they were so remarkable and so inspiring that I just felt like it would be a crime if their story wasn’t told.

Q: Did your research change how you think about Yale? Were there any revelations?

I had always had this fuzzy idea that Yale admitting women had something to do with the women’s movement, an acknowledgement that women should have the same opportunities as men. Then I find that--at least among top administration officials and trustees--Yale’s decision to admit women had much more to do with attracting the top men, who wanted to go to a school with women on campus, than it did with treating women equally. And that really shocked me.

Plus, I hadn’t realized there was such a strict quota system. That first year, only 13% of the undergraduate class was women. That was jaw-dropping. 

Q: As you think about what these women accomplished in these first years, what stands out?

I was blown away by how much these first women accomplished, and how many institutional practices they challenged—from activism around pushing Yale to end its quota system, to bringing in women’s studies courses, to starting women’s singing groups and athletic teams, to hosting women’s liberation conferences and sponsoring on-campus women’s rights groups.

They became leaders and helped Yale become a leader. The woman studies courses they snuck in as college seminars were among the earliest such courses in the country. Female graduate students coined the term ‘sexual harassment’ in 1972. They were on the cutting edge of the women’s movement, which should be acknowledged and celebrated.

Q: You were Class of ’81. What was the difference between your experience and that of first-wave women?

By the time I got to Yale, the percentage of women students was approaching 40%. We were no longer an extreme minority.  The first year, women comprised only 13%. This meant they were always in the spotlight, “never allowed to screw up” as one woman put it. But on the other hand, they were also invisible and kept out of so many things.   

During my time, women were moving into the positions of leadership. We had the first female head of the Yale marching band. The first woman head of the Yale Political Union. Where women might have been included in these groups only in the margins, they were now leading them.

Q: Thinking about the time period since the first women were admitted, where has Yale made progress?  And where does it need to improve?

Yale has made progress in terms of the composition of its student body.  That’s a remarkable change over 50 years. Now women are at equal standing in terms of admissions. And it’s wonderful to see the plethora of student organizations that support women, and that women run. 

There needs to be a commitment at the top levels of Yale leadership to diversify leadership in the top levels of its faculty and its administration. Yale’s tenured faculty is still just 27 percent women.* That’s too low. Furthermore, the presidency has never been held by a woman. I think it’s symbolically important to acknowledge that a woman is equally qualified to be president of Yale as a man.  

And finally, as at campuses across the country, for many Yale women the cost of attaining a college degree includes sexual harassment or assault. That’s not acceptable.  

Q: Last word: how do you sum up your perspectives on first-wave women?

I feel incredible admiration for them.  At the same time, I feel sad that they had to experience some of what they experienced. For instance, I get emails from them saying, “I hadn’t realized that other women were lonely, too.” As the mother of a daughter, it’s painful to hear that these young women were so lonely. But they still graduated at the same rate as men, and did better academically than men, and found ways to succeed in a very challenging environment. So I have nothing but admiration for them.

I love talking to younger women about this, because they are invariably inspired by it. These stories remind them of how powerful that women their age can be. Those first women students walked into Yale College, an institution that had been a bastion of maleness for 268 years, and made their mark on it.

*Editor’s note: Read the Yale Women Faculty Forum’s annual report (https://wff.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Annual%20Report%202018-2019.pdf) for more statistics about the current status of women at Yale.

— Laura Teller ’77 is on the YaleWomen Governing Council

 

 

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