The pioneers

In 1894, when women could not yet vote, seven remarkable scholars became the first women to earn Yale PhDs.

Liena Vayzman ’02PhD and Ruth Vaughan ’09MAR recently served as postdoctoral/postgraduate associates with the Yale Women Faculty Forum (WFF). Laura Wexler is a Yale professor of American studies and of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and recent cochair of WFF. Their research on Yale’s first female PhDs was undertaken for WFF.

<i>The Yale Record</i> 1893

The Yale Record 1893

A Yale Record cartoon from 1893 reflected common attitudes of undergraduate men about higher education for women. View full image

Starting after the Civil War, gaining momentum in the 1870s, and reaching full force around 1890, a national push toward coeducation changed US history and the lives of millions of women. One of the critical points on that trajectory was the arrival of the first female graduate students at Yale, 120 years ago in the fall of 1892.

Yale was a latecomer to women’s education. The earliest proponents of higher education for women, such as Oberlin, Antioch, and Bates, had already been educating female college students for several generations. Between 1870 and 1900, US college enrollment boomed, and women’s enrollment most of all: the female college population grew eightfold, from 11,000 to 85,000—or from 21 to 35 percent of the total. Women’s colleges proliferated; Vassar was established early, in 1865, Smith and Wellesley in 1875, Spelman in 1881. An 1885 survey identified many coeducational institutions, including Boston University and land grant universities in Iowa, California, Minnesota, Kansas, and Indiana.

In the face of this trend, the New York Times observed delicately in March 1892, “there has long been a feeling, which has frequently found expression, that the superior educational facilities at Yale should not be entirely denied to women seekers after knowledge.” The fine arts were, already, generally considered appropriate for women; Yale’s art and music schools were both coeducational when they opened, the art school in 1869 and the music school in 1894. But academic programs at Yale did not grant degrees to women. (The single exception: Alice Rufie Blake Jordan ’86JD had applied to Yale Law School using her initials instead of her first name. Having admitted her, the school allowed her to attend, but added a new rule expressly banning future female students.) And Yale was hardly alone in its attitude to coeducation. The elite old schools of the East, including Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia, had all resisted admitting women. But the public debate over graduate education for women surged in the years after 1889, as Cornell historian Margaret Rossiter has shown. Women in academia made it a rallying point and a goal, and books and articles on the subject started appearing regularly.

During 1890–92, women were officially admitted to graduate study in at least five major US universities. Both Stanford and the University of Chicago had full coeducation from the moment they opened their doors, in 1891 and 1892. Columbia and Brown admitted women to their graduate schools and added separate women’s colleges. Yale too briefly considered establishing a “woman’s annex” for college students but rejected the idea. Instead, Yale admitted women to graduate study only.

There was no question of full coeducation at Yale College itself, whose students and alumni treasured its all-male social life—“the famous ‘Yale spirit,’” as one newspaper put it. But admitting women to graduate study was more palatable: the Graduate School was less than a tenth the size of the college and less celebrated; it didn’t have a building of its own until 1892. Moreover, because graduate study is specialized, it was relatively easy for professors to avoid teaching female graduate students if they wanted to. Admitting women as graduate students, a Yale professor assured the Times in March 1892, would not “commit the members of either the academic or scientific departments… of the university to coeducation in any sense.” Old school alliances, forged by the special undergraduate “Yale spirit,” could continue undisturbed. Yale College would not become coed until 1969.

Nevertheless, for an elite eastern university to make this move was a breakthrough. Yale had seemed “the last place in the world to expect such a change,” the Boston Evening Transcriptdeclared. Harper’s Magazine saw it as a step toward full co-education and even, eventually, women’s suffrage. “Venerable Yale, even before venerable Harvard,” wrote the editor, “recognizes that in a modern world of larger and juster views, which permits women to use every industrial faculty to the utmost, … it is useless longer to insist with chivalry that woman is a goddess ‘too bright and good’” for education.

In all, 20 women enrolled as Yale graduate students in the fall of 1892. They endured “open hostility” on campus, the Boston Evening Transcript reported. They were caricatured in undergraduate magazines and plays, and “many professors… made no secret of the fact that they did not desire the attendance of the women students at their lectures and recitations.”

But among those who stayed, many triumphed. Yale professor A. S. Cook was the editor of a scholarly series called Yale Studies in English; by 1898, he had published six volumes, of which five were written by women. And the first seven women to earn PhDs at Yale—graduating in 1894, in a class of 21—went on to careers that included professorships at top women’s colleges and scholarly contributions in the sciences, literary studies, and women’s rights.

Their education even before Yale had prepared them well; in some cases, Yale family connections mark them as a privileged class. Like many women of the time who entered professions, they either did not want, or no longer fit into, the standard domestic arrangements: none of them married, though at least one had a long romantic partnership with another woman. In their professional lives, they were highly able, active scholars whose accomplishments were trailblazing.

Yale has not yet officially commemorated these seven pioneers. In fact, the Yale archives have no images of any of them except Elizabeth Deering Hanscom—whose last name, coming first alphabetically among the seven women, made her the Graduate School’s official first female graduate. The Yale Women Faculty Forum will soon commission a group portrait of all seven women to hang in Sterling Memorial Library. We have also collected their biographies, and we offer excerpts here—to celebrate their achievements, to help restore their place of honor in Yale’s history, and to give all alumni and alumnae a glimpse of some remarkable fellow Yale graduates.