“On the advisability and feasibility of women at Yale”

Looking back

Interviews with four women who entered Yale College in the fall of 1969

Frances Beinecke ’71, ’74MFS, grew up in New Jersey and went to private school; she started college at Penn, but she comes from an old Yale family and transferring seemed natural. She is executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council and has served on the Yale Corporation.

“I had a great time. It was a very rich experience. I remember just sitting for hours in the dining hall, where people would be sweeping in and out and you really felt part of a community. Most of the people I hung around with were the boys -- because there were so many of them.

”Coeducation was part of a series of decisions that Brewster and the Corporation [Yale's governing body] were making to modernize the university. The whole nation was moving in that direction, and if Yale hadn't, it would have been left seriously behind. Yale now is a completely different place from what it was in the first half of the twentieth century. People almost don't recognize it, but I think they are excited by the energy. Yale has done an amazing job of continuing to look ahead: what do you need to do to succeed in the world that you're going to be part of? It's not that there weren't always talents in these sectors. But society wasn't ready for more diverse leadership.“


Lawrie Mifflin ’73, who attended public high school in Pennsylvania, chose Yale partly for ”the pioneering adventure aspect“ of being in the first coed class. She is a senior editor at the New York Times.

”The one thing that Yale clearly had not prepared for was women who wanted to play competitive intercollegiate sports. When I went to ask where I could sign up for the field hockey team, I was met with blank stares and open mouths.

“I never thought, I must do this to strike a blow for women. I just thought, Damn it, I'm not going to let them stop me. Another girl, Jane Curtis [’73], and I asked the athletic department to give us a coach and a field for the following season [fall of 1970], and they did. Our coach was the mother of a Yale student from the New Haven area. We organized almost everything for the first season ourselves, including writing to nearby colleges to ask them to play us. We played that season in t-shirts and cutoff jeans. My senior year was a great triumph. We had proper coaching and proper equipment and proper uniforms. We were the first varsity women's sport at Yale.”



Vera Wells ’71 was raised in Pittsburgh and went to public schools. She entered Howard University but then married, moved to New Haven, and transferred to Yale. She has worked in international development and as an NBC executive.

“At Yale, the guys tripped over themselves to accommodate women: 'What is the female opinion on this? Are you comfortable with this?' But I realized what was missing was that I didn't see any black women who were professors. So, even though I didn't consider myself an activist, another student and I proposed a college seminar on black women. They recruited Sylvia Ardyn Boone from Hunter College. She taught two sections, and the classes were oversubscribed. It was right at the beginning of Afro-American Studies.

”It was my mother's aim in life that I get an education. The only occupation I thought of for women at that time was being a public-school teacher, or maybe a librarian. Yale opened up a whole new framework of possibilities for what I might be able to do with my life.“




Diane ”Cookie“ Polan ’73, ’80JD, grew up in suburban New Jersey and attended public schools; she had a cousin who'd gone to Yale. She has a law practice in New Haven specializing in criminal defense.

”I think Yale felt it was at a competitive disadvantage. It wasn't that they wanted to educate women, but that they felt they were losing male students to coed schools. I remember Kingman Brewster saying that they were still going to produce 'a thousand male leaders' every year. As a woman, I felt like an add-on.

“It's hard to be the people who are the pioneers. That was true for the black students too. I don't think Yale set things up intentionally to make it miserable for these young women. But you definitely felt that it wasn't about you and your education. Becoming a part of the feminist movement when I was barely 19 -- that was definitely a consequence of being in that class.

”If I had it to do over again, I probably would have gone to Berkeley. But I am happy with how my life in New Haven has turned out. The experience was what made me think I could be a political activist and a lawyer -- that this was actually a way to work for social change."  

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