I just read a powerful book about the first class of women at Yale University – in the fall semester of 1969.
Yale, bless its crusty old heart, managed to enroll female students who were more than up to the academics of the great university, but also quite able to speak up – and act up -- for their rights.
It was the 60’s, after all.
That tumultuous year of 1969 is the backdrop for the book, “Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant,” by Anne Gardiner Perkins, who arrived at Yale eight years after the first female undergraduates.
After years of pressure, Yale finally joined many all-male schools that had accepted women, however imperfectly. Given the limit of 230 spots for women (along with the usual 1,000 spots for male freshmen, all regarded as “leaders”) the admissions department did a fine job, finding women with talent and guts to go along with the brains.
Many pioneers depicted in the book do not come off as stereotypical silver-spoon, prep-school graduates but rather the best and brightest from all over – rock stars in their way, with the spirit of Tina Turner and Grace Slick and other icons.
In Perkins’ book, these women are as diverse as any admissions director would dream: Among my favorites are Connie Royster, boarding-school grad, actor, African-American, worldly, teaching her instant good friend, Betty Spahn, white, from the Midwest, how to handle chopsticks; Kit McClure, from a New Jersey suburb, talking her way into playing her trombone on the all-male marching band, later cutting much of her red hair and helping form a rock band with a powerful feminist soul.
Another pioneer was Lawrie Mifflin, who forced Yale to start a field hockey team – with real uniforms! with a real field! With a real coach! Lawrie became a journalist after shaming the all-male Yale Daily News into covering female sports. She later became a deputy sports editor at the Times -- and a good friend of mine -- and is today the managing editor of “The Hechinger Report” and was recently honored by Yale for her many accomplishments.
Not all the women were activists at heart, but most were pushed into action by conditions: no locks in the bathrooms, not enough security at the dorms or around the campus, hardly any female teachers or administrators, and the feeling of being patronized in the classroom while also being hustled for dates (and more) by male students -- and male teachers. (The university still bussed in women from all-female schools, a long tradition.)
Fortunately, the women had a champion in Elga Wasserman, with a doctorate in chemistry, who was appointed a sort of dean of women – but without the title, without the power. Wasserman fought for the women, minute by minute, but was eventually seen as a problem by the patrician president, Kingman Brewster, Jr.
Two other heroes were a couple, Philip and Lorna Sarrel, he a gynecologist, she a pediatric social worker, who worked as a team to offer medical services and counseling, so much in demand that their one lecture class on sexuality was attended by over 1,000 students – women and men.
Facing difficulties they probably could not have imagined, the women demonstrated, infiltrating clubby bastions, making the establishment aware of how things worked, and did not work. There was pain, including at least two rapes of women in the freshman class.
Within the four years of their entry, the women had lobbied for more spots, challenging the quota of 1,000 male “leaders” who were accepted annually. Eventually, they achieved gender-free admissions, to the point of numerical equality today.
Yale, being Yale, could attract these women -- and diverse men -- of excellence. On campus during the first four years of the pioneers were such future leaders as Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Janet L. Yellen, Kurt L. Schmoke and – sound the trumpets! -- from my old school, Jamaica High in Queens – Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, in her 13th term, now from Houston.
Perkins has written a gripping guide on how to seek change in today’s world – as young people realize that our “leaders” are “leading” the U.S. in an assault on democracy and law, prejudices are seeping back, and young people face a future on a smoldering planet.
The women of 1969 are admirable role models for all.
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I mentioned the Yale book to my kid brother, Christopher Vecsey, a professor at Colgate University, which went coed a year after Yale did. Chris (he never tells me anything!) said Colgate held a symposium last April: “Women and Religion, Philosophy and Feminism,” featuring pioneers of 1970. Chris is also the editor of a book from the symposium:
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NYT retrospective this fall:
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)