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Pondering “The Women’s Table” (Dec. 1993)

The sculpture installed on the Cross Campus in October to honor the role of women at Yale set one recent alumna to thinking about some things she had taken for granted.

On the mid-October day I first saw The Women’s Table, Maya Lin’s sculptural tribute to women at Yale, a handful of girls and women from the ages of about 6 to 80 were gathered around it. Touching it, intellectualizing about it, critiquing it, participating in its message. I sat down on its base and watched the glassy water ripple out in concentric circles from the fountain at its center, and the depth of emotion I experienced over Yale’s monument to coeducation surprised me.

In my first months at Yale, in 1989, the College was celebrating 20 years of coeducation. There were t-shirts and posters and lectures to mark the anniversary, all of which seemed ridiculous to me at first. Although I found it shocking that women as young as my mother had been denied access to a Yale education, I didn’t see coeducation as anything to celebrate. It was simply the way things should be, and throughout my lifetime it had been the way things were.

I did attend the lecture series “Celebrating Women” that year, though more for the opportunity to hear from accomplished individuals than to celebrate our common chromosomes or Yale pedigrees. Eventually I even bought a t-shirt, which is today the most prized in my collection. But the real lessons of coeducation are not ones we can absorb selectively, by attending the lectures that interest us or buying the souvenirs that catch our eye. Coeducation is about more than men and women reading the same books and taking the same exams. It’s about more than men and women being friends or sharing bathrooms or even belonging to the same secret societies.

During a reception at the Supreme Court recently, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it felt great to be the second woman on the nation’s highest court. “What will be even greater,” Ginsburg quoted her daughter as saying, “is when we stop counting.”

As Yale College celebrated two decades of coeducation, I still didn’t notice the gender gap among the Yale faculty. I didn’t know what sexual harassment was, and I didn’t know anybody who had been date-raped. But since then I’ve come to realize how short a time 20 years really is to an institution whose collective conscience is even older than the country in which it exists. I’ve realized what it means to attend a University whose tenured faculty is only 11 percent female, and I have seen promising scholars—men and women alike—sacrifice their own chances for academic renown in order to raise a family amidst inflexible parental-leave policies and unyielding tenure clocks. I know how it feels when friends are sexually assaulted by their peers. And I know the anger that comes from seeing those friends victimized again when Yale administrators (well-meaning though they may be) haven’t a clue how to handle the real challenges of coeducation because they themselves are not the products of such an environment.

Mine is a generation of women who have been promised a lot. We were told by our parents and teachers that we could be whatever we wanted to be. We are told by our universities that we do not have to endure sexual harassment, and we have been told by our freshman counselors that we can avoid becoming the victims of sexual violence if we just remind each other that “no means no.” Our generation—male and female—is fluent in the language of coeducation, but our leaders and role models are still struggling to learn its alphabet. Despite what we are told, it can be terribly difficult for us to find any real guidance when we try to translate word into action, promise into truth.

This is a challenge that rests upon our generation.

It was not through any filter of maturity or perspective that I first viewed The Women’s Table. It was through the eyes of a recently graduated “coed” whose battle scars are still tender. But the immediacy and relevancy of our experiences will be more valuable to the next years of undergraduates than the maturity or wisdom of our predecessors. As the products of coeducation, we must remain faithful to its lessons. We must stay aware of how the process of coeducation unfolds, both at Yale and at our new posts in the real world. We are the ones who are responsible for drilling our age-old institutions in the language of the day.

Under the water on The Women’s Table, figures marking the number of women who have enrolled at Yale each year spiral out, from a string of zeroes to 4,947 in 1992. After the figures are added for the women who entered this fall, the numbers will stop.

Maybe soon we can all stop counting.

As an undergraduate, Karen Alexander ’93 lived in Berkeley College and was the editorial page editor of the Yale Daily News. She is currently an intern at National Public Radio in Washington.

Filed under coeducation, alumnae, 1990s
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