Second thoughts on being 'first'

September 08, 1995|By Laurie Frank

IN SEPTEMBER 1969, I became a member of Yale's class of '73 -- the first in the university's 268-year history to accept women as full four-year undergraduates. There had been a lot of hoopla surrounding the college's decision to let us in, culminating in a promise from the then-president of Yale, Kingman Brewster, not to let the 250 alleged Yale "superwomen" undermine the school's commitment to graduate "5,000 male leaders a year."

Those were the heady days before feminism became, at worst, the "f-word," and, at best, pathetically followed by the disclaimer: "I'm not a feminist, but . . ." Well, I am a feminist and, as a member of a generation that continually broke ground for women, I was greatly moved by Shannon Faulkner's tortuous and heroic journey in and out of The Citadel Military Academy. I don't know why in the world a woman would want to go to a place like The Citadel, but I do know if someone dared say no to me, I'd be right there beside her.

You probably couldn't find two people with less in common than she and I. Yet for both of us, the experience of being "first" was an emotional minefield. Ironically, my Yale experience ultimately

provided me with my first real sense of belonging -- I had never fit in before. Ms. Faulkner's story has a different ending, one the ,, world watched, rapt. Hers took a thousand times the courage because, although she had the advantage of our struggle, that struggle is now seen as passe. Most important, she did it alone.

In September 1969 I felt alone, too. Alone and scared. When I was accepted to Yale, my father told me, "Everyone there will be much smarter than you, so don't expect to do too well." What he didn't mention was that almost everyone would also appear to be far blonder, a vast Fort Knox richer and familiar with everyone else. They had all, it seemed, prepped and summered together for years.

When I arrived on that historic first day, in my purple suede jumper and thigh high boots, I did stick out like a Martian in a mini skirt. I remember arriving at Vanderbilt Hall, the freshman dorm reserved for "the women." It was an imposing structure, high Gothic, with a healthy peppering of jeering, contemptuous Yale men blocking the entryways.

My father, shaky on his feet, was terminally ill -- he died a few months later. That day, he could offer no help carrying my trunks and cardboard boxes up the six flights to my room. Trip after agonizing trip up those stairs, I watched the Yale men watch me. No one offered a hand, no one helped carry up a box or offered even a gesture of welcome.

At first, I had a hard time assimilating, but the university, anticipating a trying transition to coeducation, had assembled an incredible support structure. It included an intricate system of advisers and mental-health professionals, and a husband-and-wife team of doctors specializing not only in gynecology, but also in the psychology of female sexuality.

By January, however, only a smattering of women were living at Vanderbilt Hall -- the rest had moved in with their boyfriends. Days would go by without seeing another woman socially. What at first seemed like paradise for an 18-year-old on her own for the first time became increasingly alienating.

But all the women shared a common realization: As glorious as it was to be a girl surrounded by guys, it was awfully lonely not to have other women to turn to. By March, we started searching and, by April, we found each other again. Those female friendships became the root of my experience at Yale. Almost all the tight friendships I made there have survived the ensuing 20 years -- these people are my family now, same as blood.

By my junior year, nothing about coeducation seemed new or strange -- but there was one remarkable footnote. Almost half the co-eds took time off or dropped out. Perhaps we were exhausted from the effort of finding a place for ourselves. I moved to France; two of my friends went to Africa to work with the paleontologist Richard Leakey; another to Peru, as part of a literacy program in the Andes. Like me, many of these women felt the pull of Yale and returned after a year or two; but for some, like my friend in South America, it took 10 years before she finally found her way back to New Haven, back to Yale, back home.

Of course, there is always one more hurdle. When I graduated and moved back to New York, I immediately joined the Yale Club. There I was an entrenched part of a high tradition and a member of the even more exclusive club of being one of the first female graduates of Yale. But there was a hitch -- certain privileges of the Yale Club, such as access to the Grill Room and the pool, continued to be for "men only."

Being more of an eater than a swimmer, I marched up to the maitre d' of the Grill Room. "I would like a table," I told him, gathering my courage, but steeled for a fight -- after all, I was no novice at shattering tradition. He apologized. "I'm so sorry," he said, "but the Grill Room is reserved for male members only."

"I would like a table," I repeated stonily. "I am a full member of

this club." We locked eyes for a moment. Then he shrugged. Every eye in the room was on me as he escorted me to a table. Sometimes, what starts with a bang, ends with a whimper.

Laurie Frank, a screenwriter, wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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