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A Century of Women at Yale

Yale deserves credit, and our loyalty, for its alacrity in admitting women to graduate education significantly earlier than many other universities, including our archrival, Harvard. In 1892, the data on women in professional education were still quite sparse, and the cognitive dissonance of having women as a genuine part of a scholarly brotherhood was still severe.

Against this background, it was a bold and visionary step that Yale took in admitting women for the first time as players in the academic enterprise. Yet even as we note the fact, we should amend the statement. Women have always been a part of Yale, from the beginning; they have not always been recognized as such.

Remember the professors’ wives and daughters who did the chores and hushed the children so the men could think; who copied out the manuscripts and edited the prose and contributed ideas that were far more important than the ritual acknowledgments. Remember the legions of women who cleaned the rooms and cooked the meals for the undergraduates and the professors. Remember the secretaries who arranged the schedules and soothed the neuroses and handled the crises so skillfully that other people (meaning mainly the professors) usually forgot that they were there.

Thus we should be careful about speaking of that benchmark year of 1892 as though women had been entirely absent from Yale’s life before; and we should be equally careful not to overstate the significance of what happened in that benchmark year.

Consider the whole concept of “admitting” women to the University: The verb itself is revealing in this context. Yale University had been designed, as part of a familiar institutional pattern, by and for men. It was in many ways, not all of them self-conscious, a male establishment. To allow women to enter, to admit them to the brotherhood, was not intended in any sense to alter that. The women were admitted as honorary men, to conform in all possible respects to the behavior of their male peers.

With this as the operating mind-set, progress had nonetheless been made in other areas across the generations. The numbers of women were slowly increased in the various professional schools. The first women were admitted to the faculty, and gradually were accorded tenure, even offered deanships and masterships. After the huge step of admitting women to Yale College in 1969 (and the even more miraculous decisions to allow women to enter Mory’s, and now the mysterious inner bastions of the secret societies), it might seem that our story is complete.

But that is not so. The basic mind-set that has controlled this gradual progress since 1892—admitting women to a male establishment—has only within the past few years begun to be supplanted by an alternative perspective: one of inclusion and incorporation rather than admittance, seeing women as full partners, in every part of the University, as contributing members on equal terms, as peers.

So far, I’ve spoken of “women” as though we are a homogeneous category rather than a complicated one. I’ve been generalizing greatly, and I now remind us that women of different ages, races, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, religions, and sexual orientations cannot so easily be lumped together for most purposes. A full policy of inclusion would mean welcoming women from many different categories and experiences, and it would mean recognizing that women of these varied backgrounds bring different strengths and perspectives to the University along with their common ambitions and thirst for knowledge.

A few years ago, I was looking through the books that I had read so carefully in preparation for my general exams for the PhD at Yale. I was thunderstruck by what I had not noticed at the time. Measured by the infallible yardstick of what I had chosen to underline or comment upon in the margin (this was before the days of bright yellow highlighters, you must recall), I managed to read diligently without comment whole paragraphs of egregiously sexist prose.

As I leafed through those books, I mused on what it meant to have been provided with a Yale graduate education in the mid-1960s. That brought back memories of wonderful opportunities, but also of depressing inequalities, not just in the ways we were depicted in the texts we studied, but also in the attention of our professors. Even in the advice they gave us on what career paths we should seek, they made certain assumptions about what we would be qualified to do.

My point is that progress has indeed been made, and a brief look back is the best way to establish this. The offensive passages in all those earnest books would seldom make it nowadays past even the most minimally sensitive editor, and if they did, they would attract the ferocious scratchings of our red pens across the whole margin of the book. Some of those same professors, or mostly their successors, now take pride in mentoring their female graduate students as fully as the males, even though we’re still wrestling with tricky questions about whether one keeps the door open during office hours, and whether women can drink beer.

Let’s return to that distinction between “admitting” women to Yale and incorporating us fully into the University’s common life. What would it mean—what will it mean—to make good on that commitment for this University?

Suppose we start by looking at the most revealing numbers, the decreasing female percentages as one moves up the pyramid. Women hold their own in making up at least half the pool from the point of admission to Yale College through the baccalaureate degree. The numbers also look good in admission to graduate school in many disciplines, though not in all. And women even have a pretty good record of getting jobs now, right alongside men.

But then what happens? Why are there fewer women than men in tenure-track jobs in most colleges and in all the major universities, including Yale? If half the people in Yale College, and almost half of those in graduate school, are women, why are only 22 percent of Yale’s faculty women, and only 11 percent of the tenured faculty?

Last October, the report of the Jaynes Committee on minority and women faculty at Yale publicized these disturbing statistics, noting that of 17 leading academic institutions, Yale ranked 15th in the percentage of women and minority faculty members. Even in a field of institutions that all have problems, Yale does not look good.

This is the sobering fact that has to change if we are to make good in our generation on the commitment undertaken by Yale 100 years ago and continue the progress of the decades since. If women are going to be full members of this University, the most important single step will be an increase in the number of women on the faculty, the tenured faculty, the administration, and the Corporation.

We know that it will not be easy to accomplish this, given the slow pace of change, and the small number of jobs that turn over in any one year. Even with a 50-50 hiring and tenure record annually, it will still take a long time to change those numbers. But it is important to identify a significant increase in the number of women on the faculty and in the administration of our University as a goal.

My argument does not rest on any simplistic assumption that all women care about women’s issues, but on the clear evidence that there is strength in numbers. When there are enough of us, in any group of human beings, some of us are freed to speak up actively for change, and—equally important—others are freed from the necessity to do so.

But it takes at least a few of us as activists to press for incorporating change into the structure of an establishment institution, and even activists are more comfortable when there’s some company around.

Let’s look now to the future not only for Yale, but for all the universities, corporations, businesses, hospitals, and law firms in our society. What are the obstacles to full inclusion of women in these institutions at the top ranks? How can these be changed, and more specifically, given our common interests and concerns, how can Yale help—both in the education it provides its current women students, and through the work of those of us who are proud to be Yale alumnae?

For quite some time now, we’ve been hearing that in all such situations, the solution is what you might call “trickle-up”: that as there are more and more women in the pipeline—which means in undergraduate and graduate education—they will gradually filter to the top. It should be revealing to us that this image is so counter-intuitive: Things don’t gravitate to the top of anything, not even a metaphorical pyramid.

A recent issue of Science magazine included a special section on women in science. To use the image that dominates the article on neuroscience, which quoted several Yale graduates and faculty members, there is lots of leakage in that pipeline along the way from freshman year to a full professorship.

The magazine reported that, “Although roughly 45 percent of the students entering neuroscience graduate programs for the past decade have been women, last year’s survey showed only 38 percent of the PhDs going to women.” First leak in the pipeline. “Only a third of the post-docs are women—in spite of the fact that women are more likely to wind up doing second and third post-docs rather than moving into faculty jobs.” Second leak in the pipeline. “Then comes the worst news of all, at the ­faculty level. There, although women fill fully 36 percent of the non-tenure track jobs, … they hold only 18 percent of the tenure track.” Third leak in the pipeline.

What about the final points of leakage—between being on the tenure track and getting tenure, and promotion to full professor? In 1979, women held 5 percent of the tenured positions in all science and engineering fields combined, and in 1989, only 7 percent of all tenured positions in these fields were held by women. Hardly a rapid rate of progress, despite significant increases in the number of women getting PhDs.

Although the numbers look better overall in the humanities and most of the social sciences, the pattern is the same: a steady erosion in the numbers of women at each step on the academic ladder, an erosion that persists stubbornly despite the increasing numbers who enter the pipeline every year.

These leakages occur, to give yet one more twist to that hydraulic meta­phor, because of significant blockage in the pipeline at several points along the way. A more familiar metaphor for such blockage is the “glass ceiling”—an invisible obstacle that deflects ambition and thwarts our efforts at success. What creates this glass ceiling, and how can it be broken?

According to one explanation, the problem lies with men: Men control the gateways to success, and they are reluctant to let women in. Men fear successful women, are uncomfortable with women leaders, and resist threats to male bonding and changes in the familiar scenery.

Other explanations for the glass ceiling attribute the problem to something that is wrong with women—perhaps we lack ambition; perhaps we fear success. Or perhaps women do not want other women to succeed.

There may have been a good deal of truth in such explanations in the past, when ambitions were systematically suppressed and even ridiculed, and success was fraught with dangers and unknowns; when the rare woman who made it to the top had fought so hard that she could not bring herself to want the path to be easier for those coming up behind. But today, young women fresh out of graduate school seem just as ambitious as their brothers, and they show no fear of the successes that come to them at the start of their careers. And many successful women nowadays do indeed want other women to succeed, and go out of their way to help them do so.

The most primitive explanations for the glass ceiling are sociobiological: In our instinctual constitutions, women most of all want to have babies, and when the biological clock begins ticking in our 30s, our bodies realize this. No matter how ambitious or energetic we have been about our jobs, we inevitably resort back to nature.

But the young woman who marries is expected to become a successful homemaker and mother at the same time as she struggles for professional recognition. Insofar as more and more male partners are assuming increased responsibilities in the home, this is becoming a problem for ambitious young men as well. And here we come to the heart of the issue: It is impossible for any human being to succeed both at a high-powered professional career and at parenting, all by herself, at the same moment in time.

A few years back, Ellen Goodman, the syndicated columnist for the Boston Globe, meditated on this “superwoman” phenomenon, which is sometimes taken as a model by ambitious young women. Superwoman rises early to wake her 2.3 children, prepares them a good nutritious breakfast (which they eat), and sends them off to school serenely, without forgetting their lunches or leaving anything behind. Then she changes into her Anne Klein suit, drives her husband to his commuter train, and heads for the office.

Her job has lots of power, but also room for creativity and doing socially useful things. Superwoman sparkles all day on committees, over an elegant business lunch, at the computer, interacting sensitively with her colleagues, her boss, and her subordinates. She comes home and has a snack on the table for her children after school, interacts with them meaningfully for an hour (it’s the quality of the time that counts). Then she goes for a 6.2-mile run, showers, and prepares a gourmet meal, making sure to have a cold martini ready for her husband as he walks in the door.

Over a gourmet dinner the family discusses the political campaign or the crisis in Middle Europe. After she washes the dinner dishes, Superwoman reads to the children and puts them to bed. Then she settles down for an hour’s meaningful conversation with her husband at the fireside, hearing all about his day and giving him the support he needs in his job; then they go to bed, where she is seductive and playful and gets eight hours of refreshing sleep before morning rolls around again.

We are all aware of the punishing difficulties of combining career and family; even with a cooperative and supportive partner, the demands are enormous. And as we all know, most women don’t have cooperative and supportive partners. Even with full-time jobs, women take responsibility for almost all the housework and a large proportion of the childcare. Yet jobs—including academic jobs—are still constructed with the expectation that there will be one partner in the home, and the other in the workplace, even though only a small percentage of Americans actually live that way.

High-powered and professionally visible jobs make scant allowance for the fact that Johnny might get sick or Mary have the starring role in the school play. Academic life allows more flexibility than almost any other, in controlling our own time, but it also demands a lot of concentrated time to do research and prepare for classes. That time is hard to come by when one is raising a family.

For significant change to occur in the pattern of women in demanding and flexible jobs, therefore, there will need to be more flexibility in our expectations for how one performs in high-powered jobs at different stages of one’s life, and also in the support systems for working parents. More flexible timetables for coming up for tenure, or the chance to attain tenure as a part-time professor, as well as more generous child-care and leave provisions and other policies that recognize the actual circumstances of people’s lives, could make a big difference in opening up those blockages in the pipeline.

Changes will occur only if people press for them, if desirable young working couples insist on such arrangements before they will accept employment, and if citizens press for changes in our laws and tax structures to make room for such support. And people will press for changes only if they are aware that change is possible, and aware of what they need, and why.

I spoke earlier of the “admitting” mind-set that dominated our thinking from 1892 until quite recently. The “incorporation” mind-set, by comparison, acknowledges and celebrates the fact that including women as full partners makes a difference in the tone and temper of any human community or enterprise.

This is a crucial time to be thinking about the future for women and men in our society, and at Yale. To increase the likelihood that it will be a fruitful time for all of us, we as women should take seriously the opportunity—and the responsibility—to press our University and our society to make these changes for the better. And the most effective way to do that is not to take things for granted, but to ask hard questions.

I commend to you the example of Virginia Woolf, who should have been a Yalie, even though she wasn’t. In her book Three Guineas, Woolf used the image of standing on a bridge connecting the public world of business, government, and the universities, with the private household world that women had up to that time inhabited almost exclusively. “We are here, on the bridge, to ask ourselves certain questions,” she contends. “And they are very important questions; and we have little time to answer them. The questions that we have to ask and answer about that procession during this moment of transition are so important they may as well change the lives of all men and women for ever.

“For we have to ask ourselves, here and now, do we wish to join that procession, or don’t we? On what terms shall we join that procession?… Let us never cease from thinking—What is this ‘civilization’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where, in short, is it leading us, the procession of … educated men?”

Later in the same book, Woolf gives us an example of what happens when such questions are seriously asked. She has doubts about “the value of professional life—not its cash value; that is great; but its spiritual, its moral, its intellectual value.” There is too much evidence, she points out, that “if people are highly successful in their professions, they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation.

“They have lost their sense of proportion—the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes … Health goes. And so competitive do they become that they will not share their work with others though they have more to do than they can do themselves. What then remains of a human being who has lost sight, sound and sense of proportion? Only a cripple in a cave.”

Let it be our mission as women of Yale to keep the humanity and perspective alive in our institutions. We know, now, that we can do all the rest—that we’re just as logical, just as rational, just as disciplined, and just as good at what we do as any man in any field. So now let’s be brave enough to speak up for the fullness of human life, and to work for institutions that include whole people, not just truncated parts of us, not just cripples in a cave.

In asking such hard questions, and suggesting thoughtful answers, we can take comfort from the example of the most famous questioner of all, the Sphinx—at least as she’s portrayed in this poem by Muriel Rukeyser, called “Myth”:

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the roads. He smelled a familiar smell.

It was the Sphinx.

Oedipus said, “I want to ask you one question. Why didn’t you recognize my mother?”

“You gave the wrong answer,” said the Sphinx.

“But that was what made everything possible,” said Oedipus.

“No,” she said.

“When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered, Man.

You didn’t say anything about woman.”

“When you say Man,” said Oedipus,you include woman too. Everyone knows that.”

She said, “That’s what you think.”  the end


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