History is Our Present

Posted on 11. Oct, 2009 by in Features

“I think you have to remember the historical moment when we arrived.”

–Julia Preston, YC’73

Julia Preston was one of roughly 500 females accepted into the first co-educational class at Yale. At the time, being a woman at Yale was just one of a handful of things that were seen as politically and experientially important events of the year. As Preston reminded me, “We were in the throes of the Vietnam war. The country was in tumult.” Campuses nationwide were abuzz with dissent and protest. The women at Yale, however, did not go unnoticed amidst the chaos. “I think the situation we walked into could better be described as chaos or upheaval…It was clearly a university that did not have the experience of having women on its campus. I felt that every day.” Women at Yale were different, it seemed, at least to the Yale boys, than average women. In the company of “1,000 male leaders,” Preston explained, “We were strange creatures and an intimidating group. The kind of competition we went through to get in is not exceptional now, but certainly was then. There were 500 freshman women and we were preceded by some reputation that we were either outrageous nerds or intellectual amazons.” Though neither was really true, she remembers, “I just had a feeling of being unfamiliar, that we were ‘The Other’ coming to campus.”

When Preston was a freshman, the women had a curfew—everyone had to be in their rooms by ten. However, men would stay in girls’ dorms well past this time in order to get “accidentally” locked in overnight. The ‘lock-ins’ replaced bussing. Before women became readily accessible in a dorm on Old Campus, buses from women’s colleges like Barnard and Smith would park along Phelps Gate. Women were being imported. In retrospect, the situations seem rife with chauvinism, but, according to Preston, “The whole inequality thing was never part of my experience. I always thought of being part of that whole group of women as an incredibly empowering experience.”

In the spring of 1971 Preston took a leave of absence to travel to South America. When she returned in 1975, a mere six years after gender integration, the campus had, in Preston’s words, entered a new era. “On the one hand, co-education had become quite routine, but on the other hand, in the spring of 1975 the war in Vietnam had ended. So I came back to a university that was settled.” This made Preston a bit uneasy. “[It was] comforting to not be a strange creature anymore but also worrisome in the sense that there was a sharp decline in the of the activism of the student body.” Yale, it seemed, cooled down—the calm wrought by accepted change.

*

“History was our present.  It had only been eleven years and we felt so empowered.  We could meet every fight.  We had to.”

–Elizabeth Alexander YC’84
Poet, Chair of African-American Studies at Yale University

By the time Elizabeth Alexander matriculated at Yale in 1980, a shift both cultural and political was taking place across the country, as well as on campus.  Alexander remembers watching from the Morse Dining Hall as Reagan was elected in the fall of her freshman year. The role of being an active participant in politics had shifted from protestor to witness; from acting to watching.  Alexander remembers her freshman year as being both historically important and radical. According to her, it was “a brief and wonderful period after the sexual revolution and before the AIDS epidemic…It was very powerful to be eighteen and feeling that being sexually free was part of being an intellectual and of being political.”  It was a brief and wonderful period to be a woman.  Discourse on the roles and rights of women at Yale pervaded campus. Being empowered to talk privately about current situations was no longer enough; the critical voice had made it, not only into the culture but into to the classroom, too.  It was the foundation of the work being conducted inside the university and on its grounds as well.  “In the classroom, in the academy, it was very present, very real.”  There was a self-determined ideal: a watermark, a goal for where women should be and how they should be received.

The women’s role at Yale felt to Alexander like a challenge, but one that was unstable. “We were called upon to do our best and better.” Between 1984 and 2009, that feeling, says Alexander, has evaporated.  Speaking about the Yale of today as both an alumnus and a professor active in student life, Alexander addressed a shift away from classroom-based political discussions.  Whereas studies of old movements are the norm, it is rare that a class diverts away from a syllabus to talk about campus dynamics.  “Change is not made by slackers,” she remarks. Yet today’s Yale women are far from slacking. As with our men, the women of Yale are highly pressured, and highly motivated, and often wildly dedicated. So why, then, aren’t they making change?

At first glance, it seems that there is less at stake. Thought about women and change at Yale is no longer based in imperatives, but suggested in terms of additions, improvements, and patches. It’s true—today, few could imagine the college without female students, let alone our female professors and staff. This comfort, however, may prove a different challenge. Today’s Yale must be aware of the quieter hurts, based on gender and insidious strains of sexism that still riddle the campus. The newer generations must look with sharper eyes.

*

“I have been trying to think about why there was such a small reaction to the ‘scouting report.’ A lot of women thought it was funny.  I am trying to think about why.  There is a whole spirit of being antifeminist.  Men perpetrate it too, thinking that it will make them more masculine.  And women think it’s the only way to be sexy.”

—Rachel Kauder Nalebuff YC’13
Student, editor of My Little Red Book

Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, SM ‘13 was disgusted at Yale’s reaction to the “preseason scouting report,” an anonymous email profiling 53 incoming freshman women.  The women were rated on a scale from sober to ten beers, the more sober, of course, being the more desirable. The review often got personal, even citing specific facebook pictures, as if these women really had been scouted by the students before they arrived.

“I was surprised that no real action was taken… I think we need better sexual education,” Kauder Nalebuff says.  “People do not know basic, fundamental things that people interacting with other people really need to know. Things like sexual etiquette.”
What needs to change for women to feel not only equal, but comfortable in this community?  Why is it that our student body needs to be educated about how to cope with being co-educated? What happened in the 40 years since women first entered Yale?

The sense of entitlement to co-education on the collegiate level is understandable.  It is a choice, and one seldom made, to be educated in a single sex environment.  Of course women feel entitled to be at Yale.  Who would ever reverse that decision?

But it’s not enough, perhaps, to say that if men and women both get x, we have equality.  Is it then ridiculous to want to firm a deeper sensibility, not just actions but perceptions? The hour does not feel as though it has come to do more than talk privately about our discontent.  Or has it? Perhaps we as Yale women and as women in general should put those questions from the past 40 years back on the table.

Image: Yale Women’s Center

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