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The Yale Woman: carving her own tradition

The women's table stands as a monument to all women who have passed through Yale's gates.

By Meredith Gordon

The zeroes on Maya Lin's, SY '81, ARCH '86, Women's Table go on for a while. They spiral outward in a seemingly endless stream, with only a few single and double digits slowly emerging to represent the presence of women in Yale's graduate schools. These small numbers provide little suggestion of the major change that was to take place in 1969: women were admitted to Yale College for the first time. In that one year, the total number of women attending the University grew by over 700, and for every year after that, the numbers have only gone up. In 1995, the number of women in the freshman class exceeded the number of men. So what does it mean to be a woman at Yale, a classic old boy school where, according to the traditional football fight song, it's "the sons of Eli," not the daughters, who "break through the line"?

Nina Glickson, DC '73, special assistant to President Richard Levin, GRD '74, and a member of Yale College's first co-educational class, remembers a time when women at Yale were still far from accepted. There was a sense of "tremendous excitement" among the first-year female students, Glickson said, but Yale was "ill-prepared" for their entrance. Many women found themselves in classrooms where they were the lone female. "Many of us felt that we did not have enough women friends," Glickson added. Since that time, women at Yale have come a long way and now play a major role in every facet of student life.

The Women's Studies program, which has been part of the curriculum for the past 19 years, offers all students the opportunity to take classes on everything from women's health to the historical role of gender in theater. It boasts preeminent scholars, such as history professors Nancy Cott and Cynthia Russett, and is proof of Yale's recognition of the impact of women in modern society. The department is being revamped, and this fall it will exist as one of several tracks within the broader department of Gender Studies.

Women are not limited to a single area of study, but pervade all fields--even the traditionally male-dominated Group IV courses. For instance, Women In Science is a discussion group for female Yalies interested in all areas of science.

Many extracurricular and support groups exist at Yale to serve the needs of women. The Yale Women's Center, established 28 years ago and located in the basement of Durfee Hall on Old Campus, serves as an umbrella organization for many groups involved with women's issues. The Center holds weekly coffee hours, organizes educational outreach programs in New Haven, and houses Aurora, the well-respected feminist publication at Yale. It also hosts meetings of BiWays, Prism, and YaLesbians, discussion groups for women dealing with issues of sexual orientation, and maintains a small library and archive. Yalies can become active in the Women's Center as coordinators or staffers, and all are always welcome at the Wednesday night Aurora editorial meetings.

Not everything at Yale is perfect for women. Women's tenure is a subject of heated debate--as this year only 11 percent of tenured faculty are female. Yale is also not immune to incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault. During the 1996-97 school year, a controversial sexual relationship between a Yale student and professor prompted the revision of University regulations regarding professor-student relations, and this past year, the alleged sexual assault of a female student by two varsity football players ignited serious tensions throughout campus.

Although problems with women's status at Yale still exist, a significant number of Yalies are committed to fixing them. The Tenure Action Coalition (TAC), based out of the Women's Center, is leading the campus movement for tenure reform. And for the first time in several years, the Women's Center organized a Take Back the Night rally this year, marching through the streets of New Haven and providing a forum for open discussion. Yale also maintains Consent and Walden, two anonymous student-run counseling hotlines for victims of sexual asault, and ECHO, a hotline for students with eating disorders.

Women are a strong and essential part of the Yale community, participating in every sphere of student life. Being a successful woman at Yale requires nothing more than hard work, determination, and a strong will--the same characteristics that got women here in the first place. Welcome to Yale, and may you break through the line.

Kate Mason contributed to this article.

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