I was among the first 200+ women admitted to an elite men’s club of 4000. For its first 250 years it had admitted only men. The club? Yale College.
Yale College is the undergraduate college of Yale University, one of 8 so-called “Ivy League” universities. Until that fateful date, only two colleges in the Ivy League had admitted women as fully-entitled undergraduates.
In a wave of co-education the remainder, including Harvard and Princeton, would admit very small numbers of young women until over many years the proportions of women and men were about equal. That’s right, women won the vote in the US in 1919, but it wasn’t until many decades later that the most coveted men’s clubs – Yale, Harvard, Princeton – admitted women. Until then their members were usually white, Christian men. Strict and minimal quotas applied to others.
I learned a lot as one of the first women to enter the gargoyle- and ivy-covered halls of Yale. I learned to stand tall, which is not very tall at all given my height, and to be confident of my opinion, even if I was often the only female voice in the room. I also learned that as a woman and a conspicuous minority I was considered a representative of the entire species. I was often called upon to give ‘the woman’s perspective’. As in “Please give us the woman’s perspective on Kant” when I was struggling merely to make sense of Kant’s writings. It was an early lesson in representation and judgment. It was not only I who was being judged. All of womankind was in the dock.
I learned that even when a men’s club votes overwhelmingly to accept women, many current members will go to extreme lengths to make you feel unwelcome, an intruder disrupting a revered culture.
I remember the day, running around the track, that a male student pushed me into the wall. I remember walking through the cafeteria with my meal tray one day, and spotting a row of male students flashing up ‘score cards’ as each woman walked past. I remember the seemingly endless exclusion, still more locked doors even when you thought you’d finally gained admission.
Yale College has a dozen or so exclusive clubs (‘Secret Societies’), but only one voted early on to admit women. So even after beating the odds (25 to 1 this year), and getting into the male club of Yale, I learned to live with exclusion from the most elite clubs within the club.
I learned resilience. Again. One of the essential criteria for admission for Yale’s first women was clear evidence of resilience, preferably demonstrated by having bounced back after a powerful or even tragic life event. No chances of failure were being taken there! The process of selection of the first women at Yale was designed to make sure that coeducation succeeded regardless of what eventuated, at least by the measure of dropout rate, which was in fact pretty low all things considered.
Of course I also learned how the other half lived, since the majority of men at Yale came from privileged and distinguished backgrounds with proud multigenerational legacies at Yale.
I learned what I had missed out on by having a middle-class upbringing as I mingled with the progeny of towering figures like Dean Acheson, Walt Rostow, William Buckley, several of Manhattan’s most successful property developers, and many others. And so I learned how to network and hold my own in an elite club designed by and for men, and controlled by them.
I learned how admission to an elite, all-male institution confers further privilege: Through Yale I had the chance to apply for, and win, an internship with David Rockefeller when he was head of Chase Manhattan Bank. Being at Yale wasn’t just a stepping stone or ladder. It was more like an express lift straight to the boardroom. Quite literally, because my first ever boardroom meeting actually took place in Chase Manhattan’s boardroom with David Rockefeller and the 8 of us who were his interns that. I was still in my teens, but I had arrived.
I learned that being a conspicuous minority, which every black, brown and gender non-conforming person lives with every day of their lives, requires huge courage, especially in young adulthood when you are still figuring out your identity, value, status, talents, passions and destiny. There is now a term for the many small but hurtful slights that re familiar to minorities in august ‘clubs’: microaggressions.
I learned that there were many men at Yale who were appalled and aggrieved for us because of the tough time we were having as the first women, and they acted to support and protect us. I learned that having supportive male friends, colleagues and especially mentors, is essential to advancing a career. They are necessary for any club to even move to a vote to admit its first women. But I learned they are also essential to the changes that must ensue for women to feel welcome. It’s a privilege to be admitted to an elite club, but just as important is the support women need to feel welcome.
Today all of the Ivy League universities in America are well and truly coed with about equal proportions of men and women and overt acceptance of transgender, non-binary and other students. Yet in the real world all-male clubs persist. I learned through my Yale experience that some clubs will continue to exclude women until a persuasive minority convinces a majority of voting members not only that they have lost touch with the real world, but that their financial sustainability, status and exalted reputation are all truly threatened.
And if and when an all-male club does accept women? The history of the first women at Yale suggests that the transition won’t be smooth and resentments may occasionally break out in microaggressions or worse. As one of the first women admitted to Yale I learned that the first women in any male club will need resilience, courage and determination. But isn’t that what it still takes for a woman to rise to the top in any endeavour in Australia today?