A brief tour of women at YDS, 1932-2010

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

If you ever happen to be standing outside Sterling Memorial Library on Yale’s downtown campus, it is inevitable you’ll notice an ovular, ebony fountain out front that commemorates the admittance of women into Yale College in 1969. Although Yale Divinity School has no such monument, it does have the privilege of having admitted women into its program over three decades prior to the College.

The theme of this year’s special Women’s Celebration was “Honoring the Past, Challenging the Future,” and YDS Special Collections Librarian Martha Smalley delivered an exciting and enlightening PowerPoint presentation on the history of women at YDS over a pizza lunch on the third day of the celebration.

ForsbergEven though YDS began admitting women in 1932, Smalley was quick to point out, the first real presence of women at the Divinity School were the wives of faculty and students, many of whom were strong-willed women and very active in local ministry around New Haven, like “Divinity Dame” Delia Lyman Porter, who started the Neighborhood House near St. Paul’s Church on Chapel Street— a social services organization serving the local immigrant population.

At the start of the 1930s, the Educational Policy Program at YDS recommended the admission of women to the Bachelor’s in Divinity program, but three key conditions were attached: only a maximum of 10 women were to be admitted each year; financial aid and on-campus housing was to be withheld; and no woman could take a male student’s spot in the already limited enrollment.

Despite these lopsided conditions, Smalley reported, three women enrolled in fall 1932.  By 1945 19 women were registered for classes, most of whom made religious education or missions their primary areas of study. For these first two decades, one easily gets the sense that women at YDS were—like women almost everywhere in academia— cautiously tolerated rather than embraced. Some of the all-male faculty questioned whether women had the mental capacity to do academic work; others warned the women “leave our men alone.”  As one alumnus from this era commented, this was a time in history when women still didn’t have the categories or language to say, “This is a sexist or condescending remark.” But the sexism and condescension were still present.

FarleyIt took the social atmosphere of the 1950s and 60s, and the leadership and sensitivity of Dean Liston Pope, to begin to inaugurate a gradual transition in the institution’s attitude towards women, according to Smalley’s report. Pope responded to some of the problems women faced—difficulty supporting themselves, not having proper access to field work, and not having housing—by appointing a Committee on Programs for Women Students, thereby giving female students a hint of the long overdue attention they deserved.

By 1965 45 female students were enrolled. The radical tenor of the late 1960s culminated in an event in 1970 that marked the beginning of what might be called “the feminist era” at YDS. Fed up with the second-class citizen treatment of not having a restroom to use in the Divinity Library, the women of the student body staged a sit-in in the library’s men’s restroom demanding equal treatment and accessibility, Smalley reported. The demonstration, written up in the Yale Daily News, made some crucial points: women at YDS had acquired the categories and language to call something or someone out as sexist or condescending, and they were not going to take it anymore. Stated simply, as Professor Emerita Margaret Farley—a Ph.D. student at the time—recalls, “It raised a lot of consciousness around the Divinity School.”

The sit-in demonstrated that fissures were beginning to form in the dam of sexism at YDS, and pressure continued to build with the flood of feminine progress made in the 1970s. In 1971, Joan Bates Forsberg became advocate for women and registrar and was promoted to assistant dean, and Margaret Farley, who would go on to become the first full-time YDS female faculty member, was hired as lecturer in Christian Ethics. Later in the decade, Letty Russell, Barbara Hargrove and Bonnie Kittle also joined the faculty; women organized inter-seminary conferences for females, the Women’s Center (designed to give female students a place for dialogue and counseling) opened; the first issue of Reflection focusing entirely on women at YDS was published; and the enrollment of women had skyrocketed from thirty women in 1969 to 190 women in 1979.

RussellOver the past three decades, according to Smalley’s analysis, YDS has seen a consistent flow of women into all its offices, faculty and administrative alike. For a decade, Margot Fassler served as director of the Institute of Sacred Music and Tangeman Professor of Music. For a brief stint in 2001, Rebecca Chopp was dean (she left the following year to become President of Colgate University). Just three years ago, Emilie Townes left an endowed chair at Union Theological Seminary to became the first woman and the first African American to serve as the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs.

As of 2010, eight decades after women first became students at YDS, women comprise approximately half the student body and nearly forty percent of the faculty.