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First-person stories: May Day

“I was taken aback to see policemen throwing tear gas canisters over the Vanderbilt gate into the courtyard of our dormitory.”

These stories were written by women responding to our request for memories of their experiences as the first female undergrads at Yale. See other stories on these topics: In the Colleges, Gratitude, Yale Administration, In the Classroom, and Yale Men.

You’ll see that some writers’ names are asterisked. These women submitted their stories also to the Written History Project, founded by the 50th Anniversary Committee so that all alumnae of the time can contribute to the history of coeducation at Yale College. (There’s also an Oral History Project and an Archives Project.)

And finally: we invite all readers to send their letters and reactions—including stories of their own experiences of breaking boundaries at Yale—to editor@yalealumnimagazine.com.

Julia Preston ’73 (graduated ’76)
Contributing writer, The Marshall Project

For me, at least, being a pioneering woman at Yale that year was not even the main event. In 1969, Yale was a gateway into a national vortex of protest and change. The Black Panthers. Vietnam. The invasion of Cambodia. By April, the turmoil was so intense that the faculty suspended classes. Yale College without women was already a distant past. 

 

Kathleen Virginia “Kit” McClure ’73 (graduated ’75)
Jazz saxophonist and band leader; founder of Women in Jazz, Inc.

At the time of the May Day 1970 demonstrations, I was taken aback to see policemen throwing tear gas canisters over the Vanderbilt gate into the courtyard of our dormitory. I ran from police charging us at the demonstration and observed them from our room.

 

Leslie Danoff ’73
Former broadcast journalist at CBS and PBS, now cofounder and COO of the conservation nonprofit Global Forest Generation

The first year of coeducation coincided with an expectation of impending campus doom in the spring of 1970, amid the widespread fear that there would be blood—students’ blood—on the streets of New Haven. Everyone took themselves very seriously. It was a grim and humorless time as we prepared for the anticipated apocalypse of May Day 1970. Yippie radicals Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and an army of outside agitators were coming to the New Haven Green. There they would join Yale students at a rally in support of Black Panther Bobby Seale, on trial in New Haven for murder. The National Guard was expected, accompanied by tanks, and all hell was forecast to break loose.  My roommates trained to be student marshals. Wearing white armbands, they would offer first aid to the fallen until ambulances arrived.

But the master of my residential college could be a force for calm and reason. Vincent Scully, Morse’s master, was among the small group that had gathered in our courtyard that clear, balmy night to talk about what to expect and how to prepare for the following day’s invasion. The Yale student who addressed us—a charismatic black power advocate—warned that if we weren’t willing to pick up a gun and be prepared to fight, then we should leave campus. After Master Scully said, “I endorse every word that he’s said,” I didn’t want to stick around. If there was to be violence, which everyone expected and too many in the Yale community appeared to relish, I would watch it from a safe distance in nearby Hamden. On television. Ultimately, despite some rock throwing and tear gas, the protest turned out to be mostly peaceful. For this lifelong liberal Democrat, five decades have not dulled the memory of how quickly a venerable institution dedicated to rational discourse can be overtaken by its most strident voices.

2 comments

  • Alexis Krasilovsky
    Alexis Krasilovsky, 1:40am September 11 2019 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    For a fictionalization of the May Day experience, read "Pillow Book of a Yale Co-Ed," Part One of the novel "Sex and the Cyborg Goddess" (published under the pseudonym Alexis Rafael).

  • Leah Greenwald
    Leah Greenwald, 11:26am September 17 2019 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Starting in late April of 1970, I handed out leaflets of information and chatted with visiting alums and assured them that the reason for the protests was to try to get Bobby Seale a fair trial, not to try to get charges dismissed without a trial. That was before the US bombing of Cambodia was known, which is what triggered protests nationwide, notably Kent State, and which merged at Yale with the original cause of the strike. I remember a guy who said he was an independent journalist following my friend David Parrella (who was on the strike steering committee) and me around. We never told him anything interesting, and it occurred to me not long after that he was probably FBI. I remember the Stiles dining hall doing what they could to feed the influx of protesters, which at breakfast included muesli made partly from crushed matzo from the pantry that hadn't been finished earlier in April during Passover. I remember David letting guys from the Venceremos brigade stay in his dorm room, and they stole his Wings album. I remember the University-wide Ingalls Rink meeting coverage on NBC news that included a one-second image of me and David kissing, which was the first his parents learned of my existence. I remember walking over to the Green during a huge rally, with many people who had come to New Haven for it. The Chicago 7 were the main speakers. Jerry Rubin was leading the rally in a fist-raising chant of "Fuck Kingston Brewer!" (I will never know if he was aware he had the name wrong or that Kingman Brewster was hardly the cause of the strike and that the Yale administration had learned many lessons about what not to do from Columbia's reaction in '68). Almost all the crowd joined in the chant enthusiastically, and of course they had no idea what they were saying. I realized that they could have been chanting "Heil Hitler!" about as easily, and I've felt skeptical about huge crowds ever since. I'll add, though, that I've been to several mass political marches in subsequent decades in which it was clear that the marchers understood the import of their words and purpose.

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