Celebrating 150 years of Yale women

Tanya Marcuse

Tanya Marcuse

Left to right: Birthday Club members Tanya Marcuse, Mary Berridge, Laura Letinsky, Marion Belanger, Ann Burke Daly, and Jennette Williams. View full image

Rift #22, by Marion Belanger, 2006 View full image

Fallen NÂș 129, by Tanya Marcuse, 2010 View full image

Anti-Monuments (Versailles), by Ann Burke Daly, 2001; View full image

Tracie, from A Positive Life: Portraits of Women Living with HIV, by Mary Berridge, 1996 View full image

The Birthday Club

By Eve Romm ’18

As a child, I couldn’t stop looking at the photographs on the walls of our house. One, still hanging above our couch, is an otherworldly still life, where a vase seems to hang suspended in midair, and a saucer perched on the edge of a white tablecloth appears to teeter on the edge of an abyss. Another shows a statue shrouded in black cloth, out of which two white marble arms stretch unnervingly out into space. When I was young, I found its eerie beauty enthralling and frightening at the same time.

It was only years later that I realized that these and other images I grew up with were made by my mother’s close friends: “the girls,” she called them. My mother, Tanya Marcuse ’90MFA, met these five women—Laura Letinsky ’91MFA, Marion Belanger ’90MFA, Ann Burke Daly ’90MFA, Jennette Williams ’91MFA, and Mary Berridge ’91MFA—in the Yale photography program. Although they quickly became close friends as well as colleagues, my mother’s initial contact with these women was in the form of serious engagement with their work and thought. They shared darkrooms, took classes together, critiqued each other’s prints, collaborated on papers, and photographed one another.

After leaving Yale, these six artists continued to stay in close touch, trading editorial insights and technical expertise, brainstorming titles and strategies for book projects, and celebrating personal and artistic achievements. They developed a ritual of exchanging photographs as gifts every five years for milestone birthdays; over more than 25 years, they have exchanged upwards of 125 photographic prints.

The “Birthday Club,” as they playfully call themselves, now has only five members. Jennette Williams received a terminal prognosis in 2015, and passed away in April 2017. Before her death, she invited the “the girls” to her house on Shelter Island to help sequence her final book. Once they had assembled, Jennette proposed a change of direction: not a book of her work alone, but one that would document and investigate the Birthday Club’s decades of creative conversation. Though Jennette didn’t live to see this vision realized, the book is still very much on its way. As a first step, the Birthday Club recently published a folio of six prints—one from each artist—which is now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.
The summer after my senior year at Yale, I worked in Manuscripts and Archives at Sterling Library, documenting Yale’s archival holdings relating to coeducation. As I paged through endless administrative memos, Yale Daily News op-eds, student zines, and alumni letters, I began to see my own experience as a “coed” (to use the language of that time) within a larger historical context. I continue to marvel at the vast numbers of Yale women whose fierce commitment to scholarship and creativity must have shaped my own education in ways I cannot begin to fathom or enumerate.
The Birthday Club, in my mind, is an important part of that intergenerational legacy. One of my favorite photographs in the Gallery’s folio also hangs in our bathroom at home. It’s from a series called The Bathers, taken by Jennette Williams: lush platinum prints depicting women in bathhouses in Budapest and Istanbul. In this particular image, women lounge on a hexagonal stone platform in a misty, vaulted hall. They are conversing and massaging one another, appearing completely at ease and unconcerned with the camera’s gaze. It’s a remarkable vision of female community, and has a sense of warmth and strength which I see in the Birthday Club itself, in my own female friends and mentors, and in the growing networks of female artists, scholars, writers, scientists, and more who, 150 years after coeducation, have made Yale University their own.