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Yale Needs Women

How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant

by Anne Gardiner Perkins

Yale Needs Women by Anne Gardiner Perkins X
Yale Needs Women by Anne Gardiner Perkins
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2019, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2021, 400 pages

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Print Excerpt

PROLOGUE

When I was fifty-­two years old, I decided that the time had come to get my PhD. Better late than never.  The idea was not entirely new. My best friend, Hazel, and I had met in our twenties, when we were both history graduate students, and I had considered getting a doctorate then. But while Hazel went on to get her PhD, I had felt pulled to different work, and after getting my master's, I'd gotten a job teaching in an urban high school.  Thirty years later, I was still in education, now working on policies and programs for Massachusetts's public colleges and universities. I wanted to strengthen my thinking about the issues I worked on, and I knew that UMass Boston had a well-­regarded higher education program. Once again, the doctorate beckoned.

So I began. Monday through Thursday, I worked at my job on Beacon Hill. Fridays, I went to class at UMass Boston.  Weekends, I studied. My husband, Rick, did all the cooking and—­let's be honest—­every other household chore too. But it was exciting to be back in school again.

I never intended to write a history dissertation, though Hazel would tell you that my doing so was entirely predictable. I planned to research some practical topic, one tied more directly to my job, but in my first fall semester, I took a required course on the history of higher education. Needing a topic for the final class paper, I wondered, What about those first women students who arrived at Yale in 1969? I bet there are some amazing stories there.  The idea was not as random as it might sound. You see, I had gone to Yale too.

I arrived as a freshman in 1977, eight years after the first women undergraduates. I studied history and wrote for the Yale Daily News. I covered women's ice hockey and eventually the president's beat. In my junior year, I became editor in chief. Yet throughout that whole time, I knew nothing about the women at Yale who came before me and all the challenges they faced when they got there.

Decades later, I searched for a book that would tell me about Yale's first women undergraduates, but the women were missing from histories of Yale in that era.  The books focused instead on the decision to let women in, as if that were the end of the story. But what happened next? That's what I wanted to know. Here was a college that had been all male for 268 years, and then, suddenly, the first women students arrived. Historian Margaret Nash calls such moments "flashpoints" in history, times when the bright light of a sudden change illuminates all around it and everything, for a time, seems possible. In 1969, the U.S. women's movement had just begun.  The Black Power movement was changing how Americans saw race. And into that moment stepped the first women undergraduates at Yale.

I took a day off from work and drove to New Haven to see what I might find in the Yale archives, and after that, there was no turning back. The story was just too compelling. I went back to the archives a second time, a third, a fourth, still more, now for a week at a time. Eventually, I realized that if I really wanted to understand what had happened at Yale in that flashpoint of history, I needed to talk to the women who had lived through it.

The forty-­two women I interviewed for this book were all wonderful—­inviting me into their kitchens and living rooms and places of work, talking with me far longer than the one hour I'd proposed, trusting me with their stories. "Don't screw it up, Anne," one of them told me after we'd gotten to know one another, and she was only half kidding. But by that point, getting this history right had become as important to me as it was to her. The women who go first and speak out help shape a better world for all of us, yet all too often their stories are lost. I was not going to let that happen to this story.

Excerpted from Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant by Anne Gardiner Perkins. © 2019 by Anne Gardiner Perkins. Used with permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks. All rights reserved.

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