Celebrating 150 years of Yale women

We profile 20 extraordinary alumnae--from all of the university's schools--to represent a century and a half of achievement.

Illustration by Christina Dallorso Kortz

Illustration by Christina Dallorso Kortz

An imagined view of Lucinda Foote, who in 1783 was deemed “fully qualified” for Yale “except in regard to sex.” View full image

In 1783, Yale president Ezra Stiles conducted an exam to determine whether a student from nearby Cheshire was qualified to enter Yale College. The student, who was only 12 years old, had learned some Cicero and much of the Aeneid in Latin, as well as the Gospel of St. John in Greek. The test was rigorous. Stiles chose passages from each work and asked for English translations. He also threw in a few quotations from other ancient texts. His judgment: the student had made laudable progress and was, he noted in his diary, “well fitted to be admitted into the Freshman Class.” Her name was Lucinda Foote. She would never go to college, because she was female. But her father had evidently asked Stiles to assess her learning, and Stiles wrote Lucinda a certificate in Latin, on parchment. The final line: “She is fully qualified, except in regard to sex, to be received as a pupil of the freshman class in Yale University.” 

Fortunately, things have changed.

Beginning with the School of Art in 1869, Yale has grown into a place that welcomes women. It wasn’t smooth sailing. Think of Hanna Gray, Yale’s only female president, who was superbly fit for the job but met widespread opposition to the idea of a woman at the top. (She served for 13 months as acting president. Yale has retroactively eliminated “acting” from her title.) Or consider that Yale didn’t give a Black woman tenure until art historian Sylvia Ardyn Boone became a professor in 1988. Or that the graduate school didn’t admit women until 1892, some four decades after the public universities began opening their doors to females.

But today, seven of the fourteen deans of the Yale schools are women. So are the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the heads of the two art galleries. The posts of general counsel, university vice president, vice president for fundraising, and many more are or have been held by women. More than half the students in Yale College are women. We’re on our way.

This issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine rounds off Yale’s year-plus of celebrating women. It has been an eye-opening time, in which women had the spotlight and their work and accomplishments were promoted (something women themselves often neglect to do). We salute the numerous people who worked hard on it, especially the cochairs, Eve Rice ’73 and Linda Lorimer ’77JD. And we highly recommend the anniversary website. You’ll find interviews, speeches, histories, and performances by and about Yale women such as pioneering judge Jane Bolin ’31LLB, Whim ’n Rhythm, actor and director Jodie Foster ’84, opera singer Sara Jakubiak ’06MM, ’07AD, and dozens more.

For this issue of the magazine, we’ve chosen 25 extraordinary alumnae to represent the many Yale women who’ve accomplished good things through hard work—who are, as Yale’s mission statement says, “improving the world.” A few of these 25 are from earlier times; most are alive and working today. They demonstrate that able, talented, expert women were and are everywhere.

Finally, a note to all Yale women: alumnae, professors, staff, students, and those women of past decades who were married to Yale men and did much for the university without pay. We commissioned this image of Lucinda in your honor. She, too, was extraordinary. We can’t vouch for the accuracy of the likeness; we haven’t been able to find a contemporary portrait. But we know, as all of you know, what a determined young girl is like.