From the Dean’s Desk

Gregory E. Sterling

This is a special year at Yale. We are celebrating the 50th year of co-education at Yale College and the 150th year of women in the graduate and professional schools at Yale University. One way to celebrate is to remember and retell the story of women at Yale Divinity School, and also own our institutional failures to treat women as full equals. 

YDS was not the first school at Yale to admit women; that distinction belongs to the School of Fine Arts that opened in 1869. Women began taking classes – primarily religious education classes – at YDS in 1907, 112 years ago but nearly four decades after women came to the School of Fine Arts. This is a relatively unknown chapter in our history, as Ann-Catherine Wilkening ’19 M.A.R. writes, but it should become a part of the narrative. I attempted to do this at opening Convocation and will continue to incorporate it. 

We began admitting women to degree programs at YDS in 1932, but in restricted numbers. For those of us who walk the halls and view the class portraits of these decades, it is embarrassing to see the limited number of female students. Realizing there was a correlation between the era’s disapproval of women in ministry and their restricted presence at YDS makes the quota comprehensible but not laudable. The women who graduated were pioneers. I have had the privilege of knowing several of them personally. Elizabeth Frazier ’40 B.D., who recently died at 104, was strong, independent minded, and passionate about her faith. Ordained in 1972, she served churches in Connecticut and Florida. Rena Karefa-Smart ’45 B.D. was no less strong than Elizabeth but gentler in spirit. She was the first African- American woman to graduate from YDS, the first to earn a Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School, and the first woman tenured professor at Howard University. Both were remarkable women who elected to work for change within systems and were successful. The articles by current Student Council President Jessica Church ’21 M.Div. and recent graduate Emma McDonald ’19 M.A.R. represent the same determination to be agents of change within institutions. 

The seismic cultural shifts of the 1960s set up a number of changes. In 1971, Margaret Farley became the first woman on a tenure track in the faculty, and Joan Forsberg became the registrar and Advocate for Women. Letty Russell joined Margaret on the faculty three years later. The three had an immediate impact: The number of women students quickly grew. All three women are honored in this issue; all have their portraits in the Common Room as a reminder to all of their significance for our history. 

It has taken longer to reach the same success in the ranks of the upper administration and faculty, but progress is real. This year, for the first time, women comprise more than 50 percent of the tenure track faculty. Several women have had significant roles as administrators: Margot Fassler served as the Director of the ISM (1995-2005); Rebecca Chopp as Dean of YDS (2001-2002); Emilie Townes as the Academic Dean (2008-2013) and, additionally, was the first African-American woman to be tenured; Jennifer Herdt is completing her second term as Academic Dean (2013-2019); and Sarah Drummond is launching Andover Newton Seminary at YDS as the first woman to head that school in its 212-year history. At Berkeley Divinity School, Associate Dean Cathy George will serve as Acting Dean in Spring 2020 while Andrew McGowan is on leave. She is the first woman to serve as the head of BDS in its 166 years. All six women contribute to this issue. 

We will mark this year in other ways as well. Every endowed lecture this year will be given by a woman. Every alumni/ae award will be given to a woman. They were not chosen on the basis of gender, but on the basis of excellence; the selections came from pre-existing lists of candidates and were coordinated to coincide this year. 

I think that I was able to express our deep appreciation to Elizabeth Frazier and Rena Karefa-Smart before their deaths. This Reflections expresses gratitude to all who have contributed to the place of women at YDS and challenges us to remember the principle that in Christ Jesus gender is irrelevant (Gal 3:28).