In April 1969, five months after Yale University announced it was becoming coeducational, its first female undergrads got stuck with a nickname they would never quite shake. The university announced in late 1968 that it would accept women as undergraduate students starting the next academic year, and the following spring, The New York Times Magazine published a feature by a Yale student about the selection process for Yale’s first undergraduate women. “With the proviso that the identities of the girls be guarded, I was granted permission to look through a sampling of the applicants’ folders,” he wrote. “The experience was humbling: there on paper were the female versions of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch”—supermen. And so the first female Yalies were forever called “superwomen.”
Yale’s first female four-year undergraduate students matriculated 50 years ago this fall—an occasion that’s being celebrated on campus this month as well as commemorated in a new book titled Yale Needs Women—after the university completed a somewhat haphazard process of going coed. By the mid-1960s, Yale was behind the times: Though the then-268-year-old institution had welcomed women into its graduate programs, Yale had only ever accepted men as undergrads, while some 75 percent of other American colleges and universities were coeducational. Yale was also one of only three Ivy League schools where women could not enroll at all in undergraduate classes: While Brown, Columbia, and Harvard, for example, were still technically male-only, students from their institutions’ adjacent women’s colleges—Pembroke, Barnard, and Radcliffe, respectively—could also take classes on campus. After an abortive attempt to merge with the then-all-women’s Vassar College, Yale’s then-president, Kingman Brewster, announced that female students would be accepted in the class of 1973. More than 2,800 “female Uebermensches” applied for what would eventually be 230 spots in the freshman class. (Smaller numbers of female students also transferred into the sophomore and junior classes that fall.) I spoke with four of those 230 female freshmen, and they shared their memories of that first turbulent, dazzling, groundbreaking year.
While plenty of the so-called superwomen of 1969 wore (and wear) that label proudly, some of the women I spoke with for this story still feel ambivalent about it. They arrived on campus preceded by an oppressively auspicious reputation, which some felt kept them from being treated like ordinary students. But 1969 was anything but an ordinary time in the United States—the Vietnam War was in full swing, young men were being drafted, and the trial of the Black Panther Bobby Seale would unfold right there in New Haven the following year—and that tumult frequently upstaged and overshadowed the unique situation in which Yale’s first undergrad women found themselves.
The high-school senior Rebecca Newman read the Times story at home in Denver, Colorado, while she was waiting to find out whether she would be one of Yale’s lucky “superwomen.” “My mother, God bless her, said, ‘Well, I think you’re in this category!” Newman remembers with a laugh. She began mentally prepping herself—and her mother—for her matriculation at the University of Chicago that fall. After she found out she’d been accepted to Yale, Newman told me, she promptly received letters from the three women with whom she would soon be sharing a freshman dorm suite. “Each one started out the same way: ‘No, I am not a superwoman!’”
When Newman landed at New York’s LaGuardia Airport in the fall of 1969, she took a shuttle to Connecticut and ended up next to a woman from New Haven. “She said to me, ‘Are you one of the young women who is coming to Yale?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I am,’” Newman recalled. Two college-age men sat in front of them; Newman’s seatmate tapped one on the shoulder and informed them that the young lady sitting behind them was one of their classmates.
“They had been carefully trying not to pay attention,” she said with a laugh. “But they said, ‘Well, welcome to Yale. Do you have stuff that you need help carrying from the bus station?’" The pair helped take her bags to her room on the top floor of Vanderbilt Hall, and when they stopped on the way at their dormitory, Newman remembers overhearing a conversation between two men observing the arrival of women at Yale in real time.
“One guy looked at the other and said, ‘It will never be the same.’ And they both broke into huge grins,” she said. “Like, It’s not gonna be the same, and boy, are we glad!”
Vanderbilt Hall, where most of the female freshmen were housed, presented some of the first mild indignities of being a woman at a college that had been built with only male students in mind. According to Eve Rice, the chair of the 50th Anniversary Committee and a member of the class of 1973, in the process of converting Vanderbilt from a men’s dorm to a women’s dorm, the university stationed a 24-hour guard at its entrance, making it the only dorm on campus with a guard. According to the university’s website, the bathrooms were outfitted with shelves and mirrors ahead of the women’s arrival—though as Joyce Majure, a classmate of Newman and Rice’s, recalls, many of the mirrors were mounted up too high to be of much use to some women. Because “it was really kind of a last-minute decision to go coed,” Majure told me, “there was not a huge amount of preparation.”
Newman and another fellow 1969 freshman, Julia Preston, also recalled considerable hand-wringing over the fact that just one bathroom in Vanderbilt Hall had a bathtub. “There were some very apologetic messages from the administration about the lack of bathtubs,” Preston told me. It wasn’t clear why exactly officials thought this was such an inconvenience. “It kind of felt like they thought somehow women couldn’t adequately care for their hygiene in a shower,” she added with a laugh.
Rebecca Newman discovered—in somewhat jarring fashion—another way in which Yale was adapting when she showed up to take the famous Yale Swimming Test, where students had to demonstrate that they could swim the length of the pool at the Payne Whitney Gym. Newman had shown up to the gymnasium in a bathing suit and cover-up, and soon noticed a sign posted near the elevators that reminded gentlemen that “clothing must now be worn in all public places.” This is how Newman learned that historically, Yale men had completed the test in the nude.
Some of the other challenges of being a woman enrolled in a previously all-male school were almost comically apt visual metaphors: The doors on certain academic buildings were so heavy that some women had difficulty opening them. “I was like, Oh, my gosh, I need both arms to pull the door open,” Majure told me.
At an institutional level, however, Yale did take some key measures to ensure that women would be comfortable—and successful—on campus. Newman and Majure both remembered the late Elga Wasserman, the then-chair of Yale’s Committee on Coeducation, as a veritable godsend. “Elga was an absolute advocate for us. And if there was a problem, if she found out about it, she took care of it,” Majure remembered. When a few women living in Vanderbilt Hall discovered that men had been peering through an unsecured emergency exit into the women’s bathroom, “that got taken care of immediately,” Majure said. “Boys being bad, that did not last.”
Women’s particular health needs were addressed in thoughtful, helpful ways, too. Birth control, then relatively new, was made available through the Department of University Health, according to Rice, and Newman remembers that a Yale ob-gyn, Philip Sarrel, and his wife, Lorna (both of whom also founded the Yale Sex Counseling Service), introduced themselves to students and told the young women to come to them with any questions or concerns about their sexual health. “It was very sensitive,” Newman recalls. “And it was stated so matter-of-factly. Like, This is part of life.”
“This whole project to have women there, they wanted it to succeed,” Majure told me. “And, you know, the last thing they wanted was to have a bunch of pregnant freshmen.”
Integrating women into Yale didn’t just require some adjustments on the part of the administration, however. Everyone had to adapt—including the faculty and the existing student body. When Yale went coed in 1969, administrators did not reduce the number of men admitted into the freshman class; rather, Yale admitted its usual 1,000 men (which many attributed to Kingman Brewster’s rumored vow to “produce 1,000 leaders per year”) plus the women, resulting in a freshman class of more than 1,200 where men outnumbered women at a rate of about four to one. At first, this was weird for everybody. “In the dining room, some of us were so self-conscious that we would make our roommates walk to the coffee machine across the room with us,” Newman told me. “Because, you know, otherwise, there were, like, 80 pairs of eyes watching you get coffee. It was like, Hey, let’s all five of us go get coffee.”
But the novelty wore off, to some extent. Majure remembers being dazzled by the intellectually stimulating conversation that dependably arose in the dining halls among students of different genders and walks of life. “We would basically sit around after dinner and talk about politics and race relations and classes,” she said.
Some of the women I spoke with remembered classroom settings as similarly vibrant. “In general, everyone was quite happy that women were in the classrooms,” Newman remembered. (She does remember one biology teacher who taught a seminar class consisting of Newman, another woman, and 10 men, and could not tell Newman and the other woman apart. “She and I would look at each other and think, Is there a problem here?” That was, of course, just one shell-shocked professor, Newman added.)
Not everyone found class so welcoming, however. Linda Bunch remembers her seminar classes as particularly intimidating places—and not just because women were outnumbered by men, or because Bunch describes herself as “shy” at the time. “I didn’t feel like these people wanted me in the class,” she told me. Bunch, one of just 26 black women in Yale’s inaugural freshman class, recalls getting the impression that a number of her Yale classmates met black people for the first time when they arrived on campus; she remembers one male classmate once remarking to her that their conversation marked the first time he’d spent time alone with a woman of color. So when Bunch thinks back on her seminar classes, she told me, she suspects that some of the tension she felt in the room “was a racial thing.”
Some of the women I spoke with remembered taking great care to ensure that they were not seen as simply wives in waiting, or girls who’d come to college for the social life. “I wore jeans, turtlenecks. Practical clothes,” Newman told me. Newman and her friends were wary of being seen as “coeds,” a term often used in a time when coeducational campuses were less common to describe female students who were not all that serious about college as an intellectual pursuit. “We wanted to be seen as women students, but we mostly wanted to be seen as students,” Newman told me. “We wanted to be taken seriously.”
“A lot of the women, to be honest, were very wary of getting romantically involved” with male students, Majure told me. “I think part of it was just the sense that everybody was watching you—you know, you’re this superwoman. I’m here to get an education. Most of us didn’t want to be accused of going to Yale to get our ‘MRS degrees.’” (Perhaps this fear was justified: A popular joke on campus at the time was that Yale would now produce 1,000 male leaders per year as well as 250 housewives.) Majure, a now-retired surgeon and a former president of the Association of Women Surgeons, remembers being one of only a few women in many of her premed classes as an undergrad.
At times, perhaps this blending-in strategy worked a little too well. Yale’s first undergraduate women were, according to Newman and Majure, somewhat dismayed to find that the “activities fee” that all students paid was partly helping to fund weekend mixer-style parties, for which students from all-women’s colleges nearby were brought to campus by the busload. Their activities fees, it seemed to them, were just helping Yale’s male students meet girls and find dates from other schools: “The guys were all our friends during the week, going to class. Then the parties would come, and all of a sudden they didn’t know us anymore,” Majure remembered with a chuckle.
Still, Julia Preston remembers that during her freshman year, she often had to avoid social advances from male students when she was trying to study—especially from upperclassmen, for whom the college experience as they knew it had been transformed. “Sometimes I had difficulty being able to study in the big libraries, the big reading rooms. Guys would come up to me and want to chat, and they would sit down,” she told me.
Preston eventually made her go-to study space the “stacks” in Sterling Memorial Library, where she could read and do homework in a quiet carrel, undisturbed. For some Yale men, she noted, “making the transition from socializing with women to studying with women was not automatic.”
Today, when Preston thinks back on those days in Sterling Library and nights in Vanderbilt Hall, the bumbling ways in which the administration and the student body tried to acclimatize to the presence of female students strike her as trivial.
The women I spoke with for this story certainly have fond memories of their early years at Yale. Once, early in her freshman year, Linda Bunch bought a ticket for one to see the Paul Newman movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and ended up at a premiere event held by the Yale School of Drama, where Newman briefly studied. Bunch, who had a poster of Newman in her bedroom as a girl, excitedly chatted up the actor, right up until “he got tired of me.” Joyce Majure, meanwhile, remembers with amusement that she and her roommate used to meet up with some guy friends around a freshman counselor’s dorm-room television on Sunday evenings to watch Mission: Impossible (the TV series that predated the movie franchise of the same title). But every interview I did, at one point or another, eventually gravitated toward the Vietnam War and the inescapable tumult of the late 1960s.
What Preston—who told me her grandfather, father, uncle, cousin, and two older brothers all preceded her at Yale—now remembers most vividly from her freshman year is how the political upheaval that was playing out across the country affected New Haven. When people ask what it was like to be “a woman storming the ramparts at this backward, dyed-in-the-wool, conservative, male university,” she reminds them—and reminded me—that coeducation quickly became an afterthought for many students once they arrived at Yale. The activist groups on campus, she told me, never seemed to think twice about welcoming women students into their ranks, and “the fact that there hadn’t been undergraduate women on the Yale campus prior to our arrival just became evanescent so quickly.”
Bunch remembers the campus-activism scene a little differently. In her encounters with men from student groups like the Black Students Association of Yale, or the BSAY, she found them less than welcoming. “They were not about women being free thinkers or anything,” she told me. “I felt that I was supposed to act a certain way and think a certain way, and I didn’t always.” Today, Bunch lives in her hometown of Washington, D.C., and works as an administrative coordinator for the Potomac Electric Power Company.
Preston has vibrant memories of the feminist and civil-rights movements on campus: consciousness-raising meetings and rallies, discussions of Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer with other Yale women (“There was this big debate going on—how to relate to men, should you have no relationship with men?”), a “fabulous women’s-liberation rock band” formed by members of her class. Later, toward the end of her freshman year, the Black Panther Bobby Seale was tried for murder at the courthouse across the street, and Yale students who supported the Black Panthers protested and housed other protesters in their dormitories. One of the people Preston remembers as a role model is Kurt Schmoke, later the dean of Howard University Law School and the Baltimore City mayor, a black student leader who effectively served as a liaison between the student body and Yale administrators when unrest was at its most intense.
Students were restless on other fronts, too: While men who were enrolled in college were generally granted deferments for the draft, in 1969, many Yale men were still technically eligible for it. Others had served already and returned to school. Rebecca Newman, who volunteered with a service on campus where she counseled men on what their rights were with regard to the draft, knew several people who had served; on campus, she said, “there was such a strong anti-war sentiment that the people who had served and come back were very slow to tell you about it.”
Newman, who now lives in Los Angeles and works as an artist, remembers the war as a constant backdrop of every day of her first year at Yale. Before dinner every night, she and her dorm friends would gather around the common-room television to watch the evening news and its coverage of the war. At the time, a veterans’ memorial on campus was “covered on one side with names of young men who died in World War I. And on the other, World War II. And now Korea,” Newman remembers. “They hadn’t started to put the names from Vietnam up. But you could see there was a space, waiting.”
To Linda Bunch, the Vietnam War felt much farther away and smaller than the Black Panther trial. A lot was going on in 1969, she noted, but to her, “all of the issues sort of took a second place to ... what black people were going through in this country.”
Bunch remembers feeling somewhat isolated as a freshman at Yale—perhaps as a direct result of the Black Panther trial’s inescapable presence in New Haven that year. On the one hand, Yale’s support for the Black Panthers seemed somewhat hollow given the unfriendliness she’d experienced in class. On the other hand, Bunch also didn’t feel entirely at home among the more radical and politically active black students. “I had white friends all through college; I have white friends now,” she told me. “Some people would say to me, ‘How can you have friends in the BSAY if you have white friends?’ So there was always that tension.”
Julia Preston remembers feeling both exhilarated by the political discourse on campus and overwhelmed by it. In addition to extensive reading and paper-writing and studying for exams, she felt like she had to also read Angela Davis, and also be familiar with the details of the Vietnam War.
“I didn’t feel like I could just stand back. I felt like I needed to be engaged. But I also felt in some small way that I needed to know what I was talking about on some of these issues, that I didn’t feel that I knew enough about the world to come to a conclusion,” she added. “It was extremely, really exhausting for me.” Preston ultimately left Yale after her sophomore year; she went to Latin America and learned Spanish, traveling to Mexico and the mountains of Peru. “I did see quite a bit of the world, as you can imagine.” Preston largely attributes her now-decades-long career as a journalist to those years she spent traveling. In 1998, she and her New York Times colleagues won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on drug corruption in Mexico.
Preston returned to Yale four years after she left, and finished her degree in 1976. By then, the war was over, and the Yale she returned to was “a totally different campus—the political activism had just subsided completely.” But Preston’s most vivid memories of Yale, she told me, will always be of her first two years, of a campus and a generation that were rapidly transforming in more ways than the obvious one. “Our arrival at Yale was a step into a vortex of social change,” she told me, “of which coeducation was just one piece.”