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Pierson’s Pioneers: Reflections on 50 Years of Coeducation

Against a backdrop of students dashing through Cross Campus, a crowd slowly gathered around the Women’s Table. There was lively conversation, warm embraces among old friends, new introductions, and an unmistakable sense of togetherness. Curious students could not help but turn their heads; the excitement exuding from the group was contagious to all passing by. When the crowd dispersed, floods of women wandered through familiar streets, but on a distinctly different campus from the one they had experienced fifty years ago.

On the weekend of September 19th, Yale welcomed back alumnae from the graduating classes of 1971, 1972, and 1973, to celebrate the women who will forever signify a turning point in the history of Yale College. Fifty years after the first class of women arrived on Old Campus for move-in day, their footprints remain etched in the legacies and traditions of organizations like the New Blue and the Yale Slavic Chorus, which were both formed in 1969 as musical equivalents to their male-only counterparts. While the weekend was filled with a range of campus-wide celebrations, events, and lectures, smaller groups on campus are also taking the initiative to recognize how these trailblazing women transformed Yale College. 

The residential college system is one of Yale’s most distinguishing features and has played a fundamental role in shaping every student’s experience since the system was founded over 75 years ago. Residential colleges are not simply living spaces; they often inform students’ sense of community and are the home that they return to every night. Fifty years ago, the residential colleges adapted to accommodate female students, and many colleges today are reflecting on the significance of this transition. Pierson College is among those working to honor its alumnae by fostering conversation and reflection about the experiences of women from the earliest classes. Last spring, Pierson Head of College Dr. Stephen Davis spearheaded a committee of Pierson students under the leadership of Emily Yankowitz ’17, a current PhD student in History, to arrange a series of Teas throughout the fall and facilitate an oral history project that will be made available online by the spring of 2020. 

The origin of the project, however, began a few years ago with a previous research project conducted by Yankowitz. As the campus began to think more intensively about inclusion in public portraiture and public representation, Dr. Davis commissioned Yankowitz to conduct a study of Pierson alumnae with the idea of inviting people for Teas or potentially for portraiture. She created a database of Piersonite women that contains information about their time at Yale and their post-Yale experiences. “Dr. Davis and I agreed that it made the most sense to begin with the first few classes of women, looking ahead to the anniversary and recognizing the unique position these women played as trailblazers of co-education at Yale and in Pierson,” she said. Her expansive and detailed report encompassed over 624 women from the class of 1971-1990. To distill this information, Yankowitz wrote short biographies of women whose experiences at Yale really stood out, paying particular attention to racial, ethnic, sexual, socioeconomic, geographic, and professional diversity. This tremendous undertaking became the starting point for reflection, and ultimately informed the Committee’s current project. 

Last spring, when the organizers of the anniversary weekend met with the Heads of College to encourage discussion and collaboration, Dr. Davis immediately thought of building off of Yankowitz’s research to complement the campus-wide events. He said, “I thought that this would be a great basis and foundation for work that we could do locally. We could use the information she compiled and reach out… that’s where the invitation for students to get involved came from, and why I thought Emily was a great person to help lead that initiative.”

In thinking about some of the goals for the Committee, Dr. Davis said, “In many ways what I was hoping for was something that also looped back in those efforts to think and act on the subject of public representation and who is recognized and honored publicly in a variety of ways.” He also noted that forming the Committee within Pierson to facilitate student involvement was particularly important to him in achieving this goal. “In my role as Head of College, it’s important for me both to have ideas and pursue conversation, but also to create a space for students to bring ideas to the table, to have the opportunity to be invested and to be a part of that visionary process and that leadership. That’s why I wanted to create space for the Committee to think together about what they would like to see happen.”

Courtney Green ’21, a member of the Committee, reflected on her decision to become involved in Pierson’s project. “I think that listening to these women who have come through the gates of Pierson, who have come through the gates of Yale and really made history was something that I didn’t want to miss out on,” Green said. She interviewed Cornelia Emerson ’73, who has devoted her career to the arts, higher education and culture, serving for seventeen years as the Development Officer at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. 

Green recounted that one of the most meaningful parts about conducting the interview was “listening to [Emerson] tell these first-person accounts of her experiences living with men, interacting with professors, and building other relationships with Pierson women. It was quite a journey that she experienced.”

Some of the initial challenges that members of the earliest classes faced concerned adjusting to an extremely male-dominated space. In the class of 1971, there were only 230 women in total and they were outnumbered by a ratio of seven to one. All transfer students moved immediately into their respective residential colleges, and only first-year women were housed together in Vanderbilt Hall. Even in Vanderbilt Hall, residential college divisions separated the women into different suites and floors, and the transition to living in their respective colleges isolated them further.

The implications and costs of being one of very few women on campus was a common theme that echoed throughout several oral histories. Emerson commented, “I felt a little conspicuous, especially at the beginning.” On move-in day, Emerson felt particularly noticed. She recalled, “I remember walking into the courtyard with my parents and going back and forth to the room, taking things in, and feeling that I was in a fish bowl.” She believed that the women “were definitely objects of curiosity” in the eyes of men. 

Annie Hurlbut ’73, the co-founder of Peruvian Connection—an international retail company that sells artisan-made clothing and accessories in native Andean fibers—was interviewed for the oral history project as well. She also remembered vividly the contrast in the number of male and female students. “It was challenging. Certainly a lot of people appreciated [coeducation] and understood it, but a lot of people didn’t really. They were on the cusp of the movement. Women were definitely objects to some of the upperclassmen, and I’m sure [to] some of our classmates as well.”

Hurlbut also reiterated how the isolation that many women already felt from being one of the few on campus was further exacerbated by the residential college system. She said, “You would think that there would be this community of women when there are so few of us, but you know what? There wasn’t. We were scattered.”

While coeducation began the process of making Yale a more inclusive space, changes in campus culture take time. When the College first admitted women, there were many structural barriers still in place. Hurlbut recalled that there were initially no women’s locker rooms in Payne Whitney, and during her time at Yale, only a few of the societies accepted women. “I mean it was the first year, so we had to take our knocks because we were the pioneers,” she said. Regarding campus culture, she knew that “[it was] not going to change overnight.”

Despite some of the challenges of integrating into a male-dominated space, both women found a sense of belonging at Yale and within Pierson College. Emerson commented, “I loved being in Pierson and I felt very comfortable there. Pierson makes me think of an ideal time. I envy the people who live there now.” 

Hurlbut shared a similar sentiment. “Pierson was definitely home. I remember walking over to Pierson from Vanderbilt the very first night with my roommate to go to dinner, and I remember thinking, ‘I am really happy.’”

As the leader of the Committee, Yankowitz emphasized the significance of the project and how it is situated among the broader campus-wide events that commemorate the 50th anniversary. She said, “As an undergraduate, you hear a lot about how the residential colleges function as microcosms of the larger university and foster a sense of community. In a similar way, Pierson’s project branches off from the campus-wide events, to a certain degree making the celebration of this anniversary more personal, so to say. It gives students in Pierson, and Yale more broadly, a unique chance to talk with female alumnae about their experiences.”

The oral histories demystify and illuminate what it was truly like to be among the earliest classes of women at Yale, while also bringing Pierson alumnae and current students together through a shared connection to the College. As a current student participating in this project, Green appreciated drawing parallels between her college experience and Emerson’s. “I think one reason why I enjoyed interviewing her so much is that she just really talked about her experience at Yale as kind of like this journey. There were some things that she discovered that she really liked, there were some things that she didn’t like. I felt like that’s something I really related to.”

Although there has certainly been progress in many respects, celebrating the 50th anniversary of coeducation should remind us of the fraction of time that women have occupied in Yale’s extensive history. While Yale has since added locker rooms for women in Payne Whitney, and female and male students are now comparable in number, these oral histories still raise questions about how Yale has changed, and how Yale can continue to evolve. In addition to hosting Teas and conducting oral histories, Pierson’s Committee will display an exhibit and dedicate a new tree and bench in honor of Pierson’s alumnae. These measures represent small steps toward diversifying public representation, and underline that engaging with these questions is one way that Yale can actively foster an inclusive space for women on campus and beyond.