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Yale 62

Tales from the Distaff Side

“The Vassar Transfer”

By Laurie, Yale ’72

I came to Yale in the fall of 1969 as a sophomore transfer from Vassar College. Vassar College was where my mother and grandmother had gone to college, and I had dreamed of going there all my life, but when I arrived in the fall of 1968, it was a disappointment. I noticed that most of students spent weekends away at men’s colleges, and no one seemed engaged with campus activities. When Yale, which my grandfather had attended as an engineering student, opened up to women, I thought I could make at least a weak argument for family loyalty and applied to transfer. To my delight, my high school roommate who had spent the year in France also applied to Yale so when I arrived in the fall of 1969, I was immensely lucky to have my best friend on campus too. Well, sort of on campus, because she was a freshman and lived on the Old Campus, and I was sent to live in a tower with thirty other female transfer students in Branford College. Our experiences that semester could not have been more different. She was instantly enmeshed in a co-ed group of nutty and fascinating first year students, while I had difficulty getting along with the other women in Branford College and ended up gratefully finding a friend among one of the very few male transfer students in the college.

My life changed radically, however, one day in December 1969. That fall, a Jamaican philosophy professor attached to Branford College had advertised a lecture in the College on the topic “The University in a Class Society.” I was curious (I had no concept of a class society), so I went along. In subsequent days, some of the other students who attended formed groups to continue the conversation, and, when the news reported that Chicago police had raided an apartment and killed a member of the Black Panther Party, these groups decided to bring this injustice to the attention of Yale students by going into classrooms to present a theatrical version of the murder. As I recall, there was only one other female, but we ended up in two different groups. My group performed uninvited for a large class where an assistant professor was lecturing on Brecht; his departmental supervisor was alarmed and had us disciplined for class disruption. We were suspended until the end of the semester. It was well into December at this point, so the practical effect it had on me was to send me off campus in search of a temporary place to live. I ended up camping for a month on the floor of one of the male members of my performance group and beginning an intensive immersion in Marxist theory and history. The rupture with my liberal background and education was sudden and unexpected, but it has proved enduring. And I now had lots of new friends, including that other woman who had attended the lecture and later became my roommate and lifelong friend.

As a student who matriculated at Yale in 1969, my spring was marked by the Bobby Seale trial, the Yale strike, the invasion of Cambodia, and on 5 May 1970, as we were cutting a cake to celebrate Karl Marx’s birthday, the Kent State massacres. Political action and analysis were inextricable from my Yale education, which occurred more on picket lines and over mimeograph machines than in classrooms. In subsequent years, however, two part-time Yale faculty members made a powerful impression on my intellectual development. Rick Wolff, a Marxist economics professor who at the time was teaching at City College of New York, supervised a tutorial for me and my roommate, and later enlisted me in work on a progressive local newspaper, Modern Times. Somehow, despite being an academic, Rick Woolf modeled what it would be like to be an engaged intellectual with or without a university position. Paul Sweezy, the founder and longtime editor of the socialist journal Monthly Review, gave a college seminar on Karl Marx. Our reading list included volume one of Das Kapital, and when he announced the assignment of the final section on primitive accumulation, Sweezy delivered the fatal instruction, “Read this chapter as history.” I did and learned that, far from being a product of the industrial revolution, capitalism had emerged during the early modern era, the 16th to the 18th centuries. That was my introduction to the period that has since become my historical home, about which I have written and taught for almost fifty years. Even though it took me a long time to recover from my experience as a woman at Yale, and my time there was deeply contested and very different from what I imagined college would be like, I have some good friends and a reading history that I wouldn’t trade for a more conventional biography.


By Jane, Yale ’72

I just finished reading Shelter In A Time Of Storm by Jelani M. Favors, an illuminating study of how Historically Black Colleges fostered generations of leadership and activism. Favors describes Black Colleges as providing “communitas”–protected spaces in which an unwritten second curriculum fostering racial consciousness thrived, where students were trained by their teachers and by one another to liberate themselves from white supremacy and to promote and advance justice and equal rights.

This made me think of the small but enduring “communitas” of women I found at Yale College in 1969, the first year of coeducation. I transferred to Yale as a sophomore, and was assigned to Davenport College. Of all the residential colleges,Davenport had the most women: about 45transfer students in the college, and 25 or so freshmen who lived in Vanderbilt Hall.We were a varied bunch –black,white, Asian;some had gone to private schools, others public; we had come from cities, suburbs, and rural areas; we were rich and poor and middle-class; religious and secular; some were serious students who knew exactly what they were after, and others, like me, tried a little of this and little of that.

But we bonded with one another – and supported one another – because we knew we were making history, and because we were living in a fish bowl. We got the message that, as “co-eds,” we were admitted principally to make Yale a better place for its 1000 male leaders, and for the most part had to forge our own paths. Unlike the communitas of Historically Black Colleges where teachers inculcated students with racial consciousness and mission, no one was training us in feminism. We had few if any role models. The institution had yet to develop any curriculum – first, second, or otherwise – specifically designed to promote the place of women in the world. I once had an appointment in the career counseling office, and, as I recall, was not asked anything about my interests or experiences. The counselor just offered, “Have you considered nursing?”

As we saw at the Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration of the First Women in Yale College,our paths led us in many directions. Architects, college presidents, journalists, musicians, artists, ministers, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, more doctors, more lawyers. It seemed that, often,the flame driving these endeavors was lit by something we found at Yale. For me, a now retired criminal justice lawyer, two statements by Kingman Brewster were seminal. The first is the well-known skepticism he expressed in the tumultuous spring of 1970 “of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.” The second I came upon much later at Brewster’s grave in Grove Street cemetery: “The presumption of innocence is not only a legal concept; in common law and in common sense, it requires a generosity of spirit toward the stranger, the expectation of what is best, rather than what is worst, in the other.”A precept we might all aspire to, not just at criminal trials.

Our paths weren’t always smooth, however, and often were uphill. And this returns me to the “communitas.’ Thanks to the remarkable efforts of Class member Connie Royster, women of the Class of 1972 have been meeting regularly for years. We recently shared adjectives used (generally by men) to describe women (including us) particularly in the workplace. They include: officious, over-achiever, overbearing, obnoxious, haughty, domineering, nasty, angry, supercilious, shrill, feisty, pushy, aggressive, lacking in stature, and lecturing. Whew.

Lucky for us, we were admitted to Yale because we had, according to Sam Chauncey, “a certain toughness, a pioneer quality,”and, as Elga Wasserman put it, we were “sturdy, confident, mature and assertive.” Looking back now over more than 50 years, we can be proud that we thrived despite Sam’s fear that we might be“over-wooed.”

And we can look forward to what’s still ahead, mindful of that sage insight from one of your own: “Happy motoring and back to the freeway which is already in progress!”