“On the advisability and feasibility of women at Yale”

How it happened

Interviews with three who worked for coeducation

Elga Wasserman ’76JD
Elga Wasserman, a Harvard PhD in organic chemistry, was an assistant dean of the Graduate School in 1968 when Brewster made her chair of the planning committee on coeducation. She oversaw the first four coed classes, particularly the academic aspects. 

Why Yale College went coed
“The public line was that Yale was going coed for women's sake. The real impetus was, I think, twofold. This was never stated, but when a school expands, the motive is frequently financial. If they expanded with all men, they knew they would have to lower their standards, because they were already taking the best-qualified men. But I would say the overriding motive for going coed in November 1968 was that Princeton had done it, and Harvard and Brown had women's schools. Brewster was smart enough to see where the country was heading and wanted to keep up with the times.”

The transition
“I think it went extremely well. The two major problems early on were very obvious very quickly. One was that the ratio of women to men was so small that it was very difficult for the women. The other was that they had almost no women on the senior faculty, and very few on the nontenured faculty.

”In addition, the media were all over campus. You would think we were admitting women to a college on the moon. They wanted to televise classes. We had admitted women knowing they would be in a fishbowl, and we took women who we thought were sturdy.“

Consequences of coeducation
”I think it has opened many doors for women. But the doors were opening anyhow. Women could go to Berkeley, or the University of Michigan -- top schools -- and get a great education. But one thing it has done: because women are now teaching at Yale, men can see that women can hold positions of power even at the most elite institutions. If they were taught only by men, they did not think of women as equals. Yale still needs more senior women in the sciences.“



Avi Soifer ’69, ’72MUrbS, ’72JD
During the late 1960s, a number of male undergraduates pressured Yale to go coed. Avi Soifer ’69, ’72MUrbS, ’72JD, chaired Coeducation Week—a student-run project that brought women from other schools to attend classes and show that coeducation could work. Soifer is now dean of the law school at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. 

Genesis of Coeducation Week
”In part it was a product of the activism of the times. But the more direct link was that I had been active on the Yale Daily News, and I covered the press conference when Kingman Brewster announced his plan for a partnership with Vassar. In that press conference, he said that women have special educational needs -- such as home economics. And even to me [laughs], a Yale undergraduate, that didn't seem quite right.“

Why men wanted coeducation
”There's no denying that some people just wanted girlfriends. But people were beginning to wake up to the important civil rights aspects of what became the feminist movement. And my class was the first class that had a majority from public schools -- coed high schools. The Yale we discovered in the fall of 1965 was intimidating. But it was also very strange to find the customs as they were. If someone brought an attractive date into Commons, people would “spoon” -- everyone would start hitting their glasses. We were taken aback by some of the traditions and the sexism of those traditions.“



Henry ”Sam“ Chauncey Jr. ’57
Henry Chauncey Jr., who comes from an old Yale family, worked in Yale administration for 25 years, including as director of admissions and secretary of the university. He was assistant to Brewster during the coeducation debates and handled administrative aspects of the transition. 

Brewster on the cusp
”One of the roles I had was to try to persuade Kingman of two things. One was a big issue, and one was a parochial issue. The big issue was that if we believed we were an institution which was training leaders in this country—and you can argue about that—but if you thought that, how could we exclude 50 percent of the population?

“The second part was that he lived in fear and trembling that he would die by the alumni sword, because of the desire of Yale alumni to have their sons admitted. And I remember looking him in the eye one day, and I said, 'Kingman, I will make you a bet that the wrath of a Yale graduate whose daughter is turned down will be twice as bad as the wrath of a Yale graduate whose son is turned down.' He said, 'Do you really believe that?'

”But when we were still debating coeducation, I remember a Yale alumnus saying to me, 'We want our sons to get a good education. You know full well that they'll be just sitting there gawking at those girls.' There was a belief that it was not possible for men and women to be friends, to be intellectual colleagues, to be working together -- that every time a man and a woman came together, sex was the object. The generation that had to make this decision for the most part belonged to that group. I had the advantage that I started work at Yale when I was 21. I was of a different generation.

“Coeducation was the best thing I ever was involved in at Yale.”