What Happened When Women Got Through The Door

Sterling LibraryOn a bracing March day about 40 years ago, the members of the women’s Yale crew team got tired of waiting, shivering after practice, for the boys to finish their showers. So they stripped naked in the gymnasium and wrote “Title IX” on their bodies to make a point.

New and slow to co-education, and even slower at providing facilities and equipment for its women athletes, Yale University in 1976 was on the receiving end of that demonstration, underlining the need for women’s showers and facilities equal to those of men.

That red-letter moment got a lot of media attention and is credited with advancing gender equity at schools that receive federal funds. It’s also one of the highlights of “588 Superwomen and 4,000 Male Leaders,” part of the annual exhibition of student research projects on view at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, on view until Apr. 28.

Naked Equality

The display on the achievements of the first classes of women at Yale was created by anthropology major Helen Price, based on her research in a history department course. It is both revelatory and, at least by the grace of 40 years’ hindsight, a hoot.

It shares the library corridor, just off Sterling’s cavernous nave, with three other vitrines each showcasing a student interest as advanced by poking around in library resources, with a resulting display of the findings.

While the point of the group show is to highlight student achievement and the library’s deep resources, the results are not only a touching reminder of the subjects still resonant for undergrads today; they also open windows on histories worth peering into by the general public as well.

How many of us knew, for example, how slow Yale was to respond to the growing “experiment” in coeducation?

According to the informative labels that Price has provided, “Yale was late to a national trend — 75 percent of U.S. colleges were co-educational by 1965…. The decision making process was slowed by the strong opinions of alumni: While many supported coeducation, others were vehemently opposed and threatened to end their donations should women be admitted to Yale.”

In 1976, five years after the first class of women had been admitted, the athletes still felt compelled to conduct their demonstration and send their letter of protest and demand to the head of Yale athletics. That letter, dated March 3, 1976, included: “These are the bodies Yale is exploiting.”

While the women may have struggled with showers, bathrooms, and re-defining a female version of the stereotyped “Yale man,” the guys appeared to like the idea unequivocally.

Price in her exhibit shows a Yale Daily News article by Paul Taylor, reviewing an experimental weekend back in 1968, the year before the first class of women was selected.

That’s when 700 women came to Yale for several days of classes. He writes that the women’s presence on campus caused the men to realize they had “existed here abnormally for so long.”

Child Prodigy

Graduate student Camille Owen has excavated the little-known life of a 19th-century blind, African-American child genius — Oscar Moore — who, under the tutelage of his white managers, displayed feats of “memory or mathematics” beginning when he was two years old.

According the P.T. Barnum-style hyped advertisements for the performances, Oscar took a break from nursing at his mom’s breast to correct his older siblings’ mistakes at the multiplication tables.

{media_4}He apparently was also able to memorize anything thrown his way from an audience, and to tally up the number of books, chapters, and verses in the Bible.

The one extant photo of Moore, which Owen has been able to unearth, shows the intense child, hardly more than an infant, in his be-ribboned finery and shiny shoes bestriding a volume, suggesting he knew everything inside it.

Owen bemoans the fact that nothing actually written by Moore, who disappears from the records she’s been able to cull when he was sixteen, has been found. He “cannot appear except through the words of his white managers, audiences, and inquisitors,” Owen writes.

Still, what she’s found is eye-opening about what white Americans at the end of the 19th century may have thought of as brightness and genius, particularly in an African-American.

The two other mini-exhibitions are “Between Scrapbook and Scalpel,” organized by Rebecca Straub, and “Palmyra, ISIS, and the Restorative Power of Digital Archeology,” by Maria de las Mercedes Martinez-Milantchi.

Straub, an art history major, shows the charming ostrich drawings made by a very young Harvey Cushing. She’s suggesting that before Cushing went on to become a pioneering neurosurgeon — his contributions to medicine in World War One are now on view in his eponymous library at the Yale Medical School — maybe he was thinking of a career in art.

Martinez-Milantchi uses 3D prints and imagery to create models of the Temple of Bel and other monuments that ISIS deliberately destroyed in Palmyra, Syria in 2015.

If you like your exhibitions like tapas, a kind of tasty tasting menu of interesting subjects across a range of worlds, this one’s for you. It’s free and open to the general public.

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posted by: HewNaven on March 15, 2017  3:31pm

Thank goodness they did away with the glass screen on Phelps Gate. Not a good look, 70s Yale!

posted by: 1644 on March 16, 2017  7:57am

Yale wasn’t slow in going co-ed.  It admitted female undergrads about the same time as other Ivies and traditional single sex schools.  Dartmouth was even later, and Washington and Lee stayed all male much longer.    Women in Cambridge attended Radcliffe, not Harvard, for much longer, even though they were integrated. The full merger was not completed until 1999, and effective merger in 1977. What Yale lacked was a co-located sister college, as Harvard had with Radcliffe, Brown with Pembrooke, Columbia with Barnard, which made it less attractive to male applicants than those other schools.  Several of the Seven Sisters are still single sex.

Of course, Yale had long had female graduate and professional students.  A member of the class of 1918 once told me that whenever a woman entered the Old Campus,  shouts of “Fire” would ring out and all the guys would go outside or hang out the dormitory windows to feast their eyes on the wonder that is woman.

Those glass doors were installed to give the women a safe space in Vanderbilt Hall’s courtyard.  The membrane was called “The Hymen”.

posted by: 1644 on March 16, 2017  8:32am

From Yale’s website, a discussion of changes to Vanderbilt to accommodate women:

posted by: HewNaven on March 16, 2017  10:47am

ohhh. That’s Vanderbilt, not Phelps Gate! Got it.