Invading the Ivory Tower

by Jane Voytek

I was fortunate to be a member of the first class of freshman women entering Yale University in 1969.This seems very weird to long-time Californians - UC Berkeley began admitting women in 1871, 2 years after its founding, and Stanford was coeducational from its start in 1891. However, in East Coast circles, the coeducation of the Yale undergraduate program was regarded as a big step towards women’s equality - Yale had a long history of providing leaders to business and industry, and women were now to be allowed to part of that select group. (Small numbers of women had been enrolled in graduate programs since 1869.)

I recently attended a 50th reunion staged just for the women who entered Yale that year, which gave me a chance to reflect on what that experience meant to me. Many of my classmates provided written stories capturing their experiences. I don’t view myself as a writer, but this challenge offered me an opportunity to try to tell that story in fabric.

The right hand side of the quilt represents the many generations of men (mostly white, mostly protestant) who until 1968 had been required to wear coats and ties to dinner. I used rectangular blocks, a regular pattern, and muted colors to capture the conservative feel of this time.

The left hand side of the quilt represents that changes that came to Yale in the late 60’s – not only women, but people of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds. Also the strikes, protest movements, and the other social unrest of the late 60's that made the campus a much livelier place than it had been previously. This called for irregular shapes, free-form quilting, and lots of color.

The gate in the middle of the quilt represents women entering the “Old Campus”, where the freshmen dorms were located. I like using texture in quilts, so experimented with ways to add some depth to the stone building. The ivy fabric, which I just happened across in my fabric stash, gave me an opportunity to represent the ivy-covered walls that are a prominent feature on Yale’s campus. The sparkly background seen through the gate is an attempt to capture some of the mystery and excitement I felt at the time.

I learned at the recent reunion that I was not the only entering freshman that felt somewhat intimidated by being selected to attend, and somewhat awed by the whole experience. I grew up in New Orleans, in a reasonably well-off family, but led a fairly sheltered existence before heading off to Yale. It was my exposure to an incredibly diverse group of people and experiences, rather than the academics, that provided my major growth experiences at Yale. I feel fortunate to have had that opportunity.

Before ending this reflection, I need to note that while Yale has made progress diversifying its student body, it still has work to do to appropriately diversify its faculty.