Curiouser and Curiouser: Memories of Coeducation

By Carolyn Grillo ·

It was all so seductive! Yale, one of the last Ivy League holdouts, was finally admitting women! The impassable door had opened!

Door: Why it’s simply impassible!
Alice: Why, don’t you mean impossible?
Door: No, I do mean impassible. (chuckles) Nothing’s impossible!

And along with 259 other young women, I could be one of the first to benefit from Yale’s invitation to a superb education. I was thrilled. My mother was thrilled. At my (co-ed) public high school in New Jersey, my teachers were thrilled. How could I — why would I — have said no?

In all the excitement, no one in my life stopped to ask questions like, “Is Yale ready?” Or “Why do they want women?” or “What will it be like for you?” So down the rabbit hole I went.

A little background, of which I was not so aware, as a high school senior:

By 1969, Yale was losing qualified male applicants to schools that offered a more balanced campus life. In my opinion, Yale started out treating women as an accessory — an “extra” to be tacked on — with no intention that women would in any way change the institution. If you haven’t yet read Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant by Anne Gardiner Perkins (367 pp. Sourcebooks), you should. Whether you were excruciatingly aware of the ruptures in the Yale fabric or just vaguely irritated, this book will open your eyes.*

A reminder of some facts of life for women in 1970:

  • Help Wanted ads were separated into Help Wanted: Men and Help Wanted: Women
  • A woman could not get credit — certainly not a credit card, no less a mortgage — in her own name
  • Abortion was illegal in many states, including Connecticut
  • Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug had just led the first prominent Women’s Rights March in New York City.

As we arrived in New Haven, social upheaval was roiling the nation. And yet Yale was still, as some have argued, the premiere men’s club in the country.

  • In 1970, there were only two tenured women on the Yale College Faculty, compared to 391 tenured men. There were no women in the higher ranks of the administration. [source: Yale Needs Women]
  • Women’s Studies were not offered by any Department.
  • Mory’s was not open to women members. Women were not permitted at lunch, when (male) faculty and administrators regularly met and conducted university business.
  • There was as yet no Title IX, and no arrangements for women’s sports at Yale
  • There was one women’s singing group — the Slavic Chorus — but no a capella groups that women could join, or many other kinds of groups and teams that men in our class could take for granted. (Kudos to the Glee Club, and several of the Senior Societies, who included women immediately.)
  • Every one of the men in the Junior and Senior Classes had chosen to attend an all-male college.

Precisely how were we women chosen?

Dr. Elga Wasserman

My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.

Even now, some of the men in our class may not be aware of who Dr. Elga Wasserman was, or what an outsized influence she had on our lives. Kingman Brewster asked Wasserman to head the Co-Education Committee, and she personally screened every woman applicant for the first two classes of women. Every single woman in our class was picked by her.

Years later, we learned about the criteria Elga used in picking the first women: We had to have shown leadership and grit. Ideally, we would have brothers , or would have lived in a foreign culture. She must have known that we would be flying without a net, and that few people would be there to catch us.

Once women were admitted, Brewster named Wasserman as the “Special Assistant” — not Associate Dean — of the Office of Coeducation. She had a budget for one secretary and an intern and mountains to climb. She pressed for the end of the gender quota; for Women’s Studies; for more resources to embed us in the fabric of the University; for more women on the faculty.

She was outspoken, whip smart, and could plant herself in front of a room in a way that made people stop and listen. In a year, she was gone.

I am very proud of being a Yale Woman. I enjoyed a wonderful education and made treasured, lifelong friends. But it wasn’t all good. The absurd gender imbalance — adding a few women onto an institution that was male down to a cellular level — couldn’t not be damaging to the self-esteem, maturing sexuality, and sense of self of anyone who aspired to come into adulthood in as normal an environment as a college campus can be.

And it was exhausting.

We stood on the green while Kingman Brewster extolled his Yale, a College that graduated “1,000 male leaders a year.” I turned to my roommate and asked, “What are we? Chopped liver?”

Yale had made a few, sometimes bizarre, gestures in our direction. Yet it frequently felt as if we were invisible in an upside-down world:

  • It started at convocation. We stood on the green while Kingman Brewster extolled his Yale, a College that graduated “1,000 male leaders a year.” I turned to my roommate and asked, “What are we? Chopped liver?”
  • In Vanderbilt Hall, Yale installed a kitchen (certainly high on the list for any serious student). Was it there so the women could cook for the men? It finally came in handy when the dining hall workers went on strike. Ironing boards were available on every floor. I actually ironed a few shirts for male friends before I stopped to ask myself “What am I doing?”
  • But no thought had been given to the bathrooms. The mirrors that teen-aged men had used for ages were too high. At 5’1”, I needed to jump up and down in front of the sinks every morning to be able to catch a glimpse of my face. We had to run up to the 5th floor in Linsly Chittenden Hall to get to the only ladies’ room. I do wonder, now, why some of us didn’t band together and barricade one of the men’s rooms on the first floor? Maybe there weren’t enough of us in any given class? Or maybe we just weren’t ready to buck the system, yet.
  • Dr. Phillip Sarrell, the wonderful gynecologist Yale hired, told his own story. Arriving at DUH, he was given a consulting room, an examination room, and two bathrooms. The officials who showed him around were surprised when he announced that the rooms wouldn’t do at all. But why? “Well, “ he told them, “The bathrooms have urinals.”
  • And of course there were the guards. As newly “liberated women” we railed against parietals. As paternalistic as guards at the gate seemed at the time, the “official rules” were worse. The student handbook still said that women were not allowed in student rooms after 10:00 pm. One of us insisted that we should therefore file out of Vanderbilt at 10:00 pm. After a sizable group of us milled around long enough to attract attention, the campus police asked why we didn’t go back inside. We responded that it was not permitted. They brought a message from Kingman Brewster: “Ladies, the oversight will be corrected”

By Sophomore year, we had been parceled out like party favors to all 12 colleges. That decision meant that all the men would experience coeducation. But it meant a much smaller social circle for each woman: fewer choices for roommates, fewer friendly faces in a crowd. For example, in JE, the smallest college, there were only 17 Sophomore women.

One day in the dining hall the women in our college found ourselves all congregating at one long table with the only woman who was a faculty “Fellow.” We were Joyful, relaxed, and unguarded. I am ashamed to say that it was only at that moment that I began to understand why the Black students so often sat together at their own tables. The next day, that “Fellow” confided that the Master had taken her aside and warned her to never let that happen again. Was he afraid that we were depriving the men of our company? Did he think we were going to start a union? I will never know. Suffice it to say our “Fellow” understood a threat to her position, and it never happened again. 

The Women’s Point of View

“I don’t think …”
“Then you shouldn’t talk,” said the Hatter.

Some faculty and most of our male classmates were very accepting. But still, it could be overwhelming to be asked for “the women’s point of view” in classes. (Yes, it happened, and we were 18 and had no idea what a “woman’s point of view” might be.)

  • Sometimes our female perspective was outright rejected. In a literature class called “Fathers and Sons” I continued to comment on how wives and mothers influenced the characters, until the professor, practically in tears, wailed, “But this is about Fathers and Sons. I don’t care about women!”
  • Or worse, sometimes instructors actively boycotted, not only our ideas, but our existence. A friend of mine recalls, “Half of my professors continued to address the whole class as, ‘Gentlemen.’”
  • Another friend describes a history class where the few women took turns standing up to ask questions, even though the professor never called on them. Finally one day as a woman stood up yet again, the professor said, “Miss X, I didn’t call on you” and brave Ms. X retorted, “No you didn’t. And you never have.”
  • Some of our few women professors had a different dilemma. One fretted that she was losing research time because “Every woman wants me to sit down and talk to her. I’m not a counselor. That’s not my job!”
  • Another story: “Due to a shortage of volunteers for the men’s JE college ice hockey team, I was once illicitly recruited to fill out the roster by a classmate who knew I had grown up playing hockey with my brothers on local frozen ponds. Needing to “pass” as male, I tucked my long hair into a watch cap, put on a padded coat and donned a pair of jeans long enough to hide the distinctive white boots of my women’s figure skates. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, particularly finding that after years of teaching younger sisters to skate by holding both their hands I could skate backwards better than most of my teammates. Regrettably, while still in the first period the referee caught sight of my white skates and saw through my disguise. A loud whistle, a stiff reprimand and I was ejected from the ice.”

“I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.”

If some of the administration were not ready for us, the NY Yale Club literally sent out a patrol.

Freshman year I was in the Glee Club when we went down to the NYC Yale Club to give a concert. We tumbled from our buses into the lobby. Instantly, a small army of men in blue weskits materialized to shoo the women into a holding pen – actually, a little area near the elevators, cordoned off by folding screens. They wanted us back there, with a few chairs with petite point embroidered seats, where women guests usually sat to wait for their husbands.

“But,” we protested, “We are Yale students!

“That doesn’t matter. Women aren’t allowed in the lobby!” And so we were hustled away behind the screens.

Sex, Sexuality and the Great Saturday Night Drought

“When better women are made, Yale men will make them.” That was one of the first banners I saw when I arrived on campus. I remember actually sucking in my breath when I saw it. This was so brutal. So arrogant. And so … acceptable?

Nothing illustrates that contempt better than the day two of my Vanderbilt friends visited the gym: A friend recalls: “Two of us were standing near the pool when a man with a towel wrapped around his waist walked by, let his towel drop open, snickered, and walked on. Nothing daunted, my friend (who had brothers!) said, “It looks like a penis. Only smaller.”

Given the numbers, seeing women as either sexual prey or unattainable might have seemed like the only options for the straight men (I can only imagine the isolation of the LGBTQ people among us).

There was a lot of dating drought. One Saturday evening, 6 of 8 attractive, intelligent, engaging women from two quads sat in our room together. None of us had a date. We were in a drought in the middle of a sea of men.

Talking to our (platonic) male classmates later, this is what we learned: “We all thought all of you must already be taken.” Years afterwards, I had a long and stimulating conversation with a man who had also lived in my college. I said, “Why didn’t we ever sit down to talk like this in college?” and his surprisingly candid answer was, “Because I was intimidated.”

“A Little Dinner, A little Dancing …” There was a little pharmacy a few blocks from Vanderbilt Hall. A few weeks into the school year, I walked in with my prescription for a diaphragm. The pharmacist was an older man with a heavy Eastern European accent. He looked at the prescription, raised his eyebrows, and then went into the back to get what I needed.

When he came back, he stood behind the counter looking at me solemnly for a long minute. It occurred to me that a Yale “girl” coming to him for contraception might be new. He had doubtless dispensed thousands of condoms to Yale boys over the years, but this might be a first.

He motioned me to the counter, looked at me closely, and asked “You know how to use this?” “Yes, “I said, “I’ve had one before.”

Even if he had spent years chatting with and providing for his Yale boys, “the girls” were here now.

“You have to be careful with these boys,” he said. “Because” and he leaned in close and although we were alone in the store, lowered his voice, “You know how it is, a little dinner, a little dancing …”

Was there romance and love? By all means. Was there sexual experimentation, with or without love? Why, yes. Was there sexual pressure from male faculty? You know there was. Date rape? (long before we had the term). Yes. All of the above. But my point is that the environment for meeting, respecting, and loving other people was not normal. Not by a long shot.

What Happens Now?

“Do you know, I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too! I never saw one alive before!”

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

At the beginning of 2024, the Presidents of six of the eight Ivy League schools were women. From 1977–78, Yale allowed Provost Hanna Holborn Gray to act as interim President. Then the Trustees named a man, and that was that. Dr. Gray left to run the University of Chicago.

Yale is in the midst of its search for a new President. Dr. Elga Wasserman would have been a bang-up choice.

I don’t want Yale to choose a new President because she is a woman. I would like Yale to choose a woman because she will have a rich perspective to offer. She will have opened doors. And she will recognize, in ways that excellent male candidates cannot, the systemic barriers and assumptions that still are booby traps for women and minorities at Yale. She will need our support. Whenever she arrives, I hope we will be there for her.


Carolyn GrilloCarolyn Grillo [JE] was an intern in the Office of Coeducation during our sophomore and junior years, working first for Elga Wasserman and then for Mary Arnstein. Carolyn was also on the Committee for Co-Education; Kingman Brewster’s Working Group on the Quality of Student Life; and a Co-Founder of Student to Student Counseling Services at DUH. She now lives near Washington, D.C. with two Cheshire cats.

Many thanks to Anne Riney, Phyllis Orrick, and Kate Wodell for their anecdotes and good conversations.
* Full disclosure, I make a brief appearance in the book.