The Forgotten Women of YDS

Ann-Catherine Wilkening

Louise Triplett, born in 1904, came from a family of ministers. After completing many YDS courses, she graduated from Yale in 1928, and began a long career in service to Congregational churches. She later became director of religious education and young people’s work in the Congregational Church conferences of Wisconsin and Ohio. In her final professional years, she followed a call to serve a church in Hawaii and became a noted supporter of the civil rights movement. She passed away in 1983.

So concluded a wide-ranging life of Christian service, grounded in many classroom hours at YDS – yet she never received a YDS degree, because women were not allowed to enroll in the Divinity School in her day. Her Yale degree was a Master of Arts, conferred by the Department of Education. 

Unearthing History 

When I initially became of aware Louise’s story, after I happened to meet her niece when she visited YDS earlier this year, I thought she might have been a singular case. But as I would learn, the history of women attending Yale Divinity School reaches back 20 years before Louise Triplett. As it turns out, Louise was one of many women who were determined to attend YDS as either non-degree-seeking students or Yale students enrolled in other schools before the co-educational reforms of 1932 took effect. I had stumbled upon a neglected chapter of YDS history – an overlooked part of the history of women at Yale as well. 

Before YDS’s policy change in 1932, Yale promoted the following policy regarding women students: “Properly qualified women are admitted as candidates for all degrees except those offered by the two Undergraduate Schools, the Divinity School, the School of Forestry, and the higher degrees in Engineering.”2 Yet this did not stop women from pursuing YDS course work. From 1907 on, women are listed in the YDS bulletins among the attending “Students from other departments.” The first two women to appear in the Eighth General Catalogue of the Yale Divinity School are Lottie Genevieve Bishop and Ethel Zivley Rather. 

Although women appear only sporadically in the records of the first two decades of the 20th century, women attended YDS continuously beginning in 1920. Their numbers are comparable to the number of women who later enrolled in YDS as degree-seeking students from the mid-1930s to the 1950s. In addition to recovering the names of these women, I have tracked down traces of their biographies, though many remain uncovered. 

A Picture Emerges 

Louise Triplett is listed as an Education Department student in the Divinity School’s bulletins in 1927-28 and 1928-29 under the heading “Students from other Schools of the University.”3 Those two bulletins list 15 and 16 other women, respectively – mostly from Education, but also from the departments of Religion, History, English, and other degree programs. In both years, women made up just over 25 percent of students from other schools of the University attending YDS classes. Percentage-wise, the statistical high-water mark for women in this era was in 1920-21, when women constituted 63 percent of students from other parts of the university doing YDS course work. These numbers are quite astonishing given the fact that the Divinity School would, starting in 1932, limit the women admitted to its degree programs to 10 per year until the 1950s. 

The vast majority of women who studied at YDS pre-1932 were Master of Arts degree candidates from the Education Department, often with a concentration in Religious Education. In addition, YDS established a Department of Religious Education in 1912.4 Thus students interested in religious education would have taken classes there. 

Global Sense of Mission 

Besides Louise Triplett, I found other hints that many women graduate students primarily attended YDS classes: Lavinia Scott, a Master in Education graduate, appears in YDS records between 1930 and 1933. Lavinia was later interviewed by the Yale Alumni Magazine about her time at Yale and her subsequent career. She made sure to mention that “she did at least half her work at the Divinity School.”5 Immediately after her graduation in 1932, Lavinia left America to move to South Africa as a missionary and teacher, a calling that she had felt since her childhood and had brought her to Yale in the first place. In South Africa, Lavinia worked as a teacher and, eventually, the principal of Inanda Seminary, a secondary school for Zulu girls. During the rise of apartheid, Lavinia fought to keep her school from becoming government-controlled and also served as a substitute teacher for the education of black ministers at a theological seminary before retiring in the States in 1974.

Between 1920 and 1927 the YDS bulletin also lists students who were not enrolled at Yale but took classes at YDS as non-degree seeking students. The number of women in this group rose steadily through 1927. After that, the bulletin no longer lists non-degree students, and it is unclear if the school still allowed non-Yalies in the classroom. Nonetheless, some of these students stayed at YDS for more than one year, demonstrating another way women pursued a Yale Divinity education without the option of seeking a degree from the school. 

One of these women was the Rev. Elsie Stowe, a pioneer in women’s ministry and ordination who appears in the records as a student “pursuing resident study not leading to a degree” for three consecutive years, 1920-23. She first came to New Haven in 1916, where she enrolled at the Blakeslee Deaconess Training School. She served as pastor and deaconess in various Connecticut and New York churches from 1917 onwards. In 1920, the same year she came to Yale, she was consecrated as a Methodist Episcopal Church deaconess and granted a local preacher’s license at the First Quarterly Conference of the Newtown Church in Sandy Hook, CT. With this license she had the opportunity to perform wedding, baptismal, and burial ceremonies. Elsie officiated the wedding of her own brother in September 1924. In 1927, Elsie was the first woman to be ordained in the denomination’s New York East Annual Conference.

Another factor contributed to so many Yale women affiliating with YDS before the admissions reform: the school’s location. Until 1932, the Divinity School was located in the heart of Yale’s downtown campus at the present-day site of Grace Hopper College. This address made it easier for students from other departments to take classes at YDS and placed the school in closer proximity to broader campus life. 

Ironies of Admission 

In 1932, however, big changes came to YDS. The school moved to Sterling Divinity Quadrangle, approximately one mile up Prospect Hill. In the same year, YDS decided to admit women to the Bachelor of Divinity program (the equivalent of today’s M.Div.). Ironically, the relocation contributed to women’s struggles to attend the school in subsequent years – it was further from the downtown campus, and there was no women’s housing at YDS. In 1933, the percentage of YDS women students who were affiliates from other parts of Yale dropped to its lowest point since 1919. 

Esther Temperly Barker, a degree-seeking student at YDS in 1936, remembers the difficulties of being a woman at YDS at the time. One February day, after a snowstorm, she was “one of the very few people who got up there that morning,” trudging through snow for several blocks to get to campus. The men who lived in the Sterling Quadrangle residences, however, had time to spare, enjoying the snow, donning swimsuits, and hamming for photos.8

Bernice Buehler ’35 B.D., one of the first women to graduate from YDS, remembers that the school “did not make any arrangements for women to be in the dorms at that time.” Though they appreciated being full-fledged students at YDS, “the women felt a little left out that we could not [live] on campus, she said.”9 In the end, the move to Sterling Quadrangle, which secluded YDS from the rest of campus downtown and made it more self-contained with its own refectory and (male) dormitories, gave the school more a boy’s club atmosphere than it had been in the 1920s when it was closer to other graduate programs and more easily accessible for Yale women. 

Acknowledging Their Stories 

The stories of the first women attending YDS have often been ignored outside of commemoration anecdotes. The women who attended YDS before 1932 are not part of the narrative that the school tells about its institution today. The YDS website and the school history displayed on a wall near the Admissions Office mention nothing about the earliest women at YDS. According to the school’s website, the “first women of YDS” were Bernice Buehler and Thelma Diener Allen, both ’35 B.D., “the first two women to complete the full course of study and graduate from YDS in its current location.”10

Whether women received degrees is an important question because degrees are credentials that provide proof of one’s education and help one to find a job within a professional field. Yet there were many women of YDS who came before Bernice and Thelma, though marginalized by the school’s admission policy. Even without seeking YDS degrees, their presence would have influenced the school, including the classroom, as much as they were shaped by it. Some of them considered the Divinity School their primary site of educational belonging while at Yale. Later in their lives, many of these women influenced the world of religion in important ways. Their education at Yale took them along diverse career paths in the field of religion and ministry, as they became professors, preachers, missionaries, and religious teachers. 

My research has only scratched the surface and has highlighted just a few early YDS women. Much work remains to be done, especially in regards to the history of early women of color. In light of the 150th anniversary of women at Yale being celebrated this year, it is imperative to think hard about and, indeed, revise who we remember as a school. The recovery of the names and stories of the women who slipped through our institutional memory can challenge our established narratives.

In recent years, YDS has, thankfully, made efforts to remember and celebrate its first black student, the Rev. James W.C. Pennington, an escapee from slavery who attended YDS classes in the 1830s and never received a degree from the school. Many of the women who attended YDS before 1932 were pioneers in a larger historical trajectory of women’s emancipation in ministry, theology, and religious studies. Women such as Louise Triplett likely influenced and paved the way to the later decision to grant women full and equal access to a Divinity School education. It is my hope that YDS eventually finds a way to memorialize these women more permanently and acknowledge their stories as part of the school’s history. 

Ann-Catherine Wilkening ’19 M.A.R. is pursuing a Ph.D. at Harvard in the Religions of the Americas subfield. She is interested in how non-English archival sources might be better incorporated into historical research in order to tell the stories of often disregarded and marginalized groups in American history. 


1 See Louise Triplett, Presenting Missions: Methods for Youth Groups (New York: Friendship Press, 1948). I thank Catherine Kling, Louise’s niece, for providing me with biographical information about her aunt and a copy of her obituary. 

2 See e.g. “Bulletin” (1931/32), Yale University Divinity School Memorabilia Collection RG 53 Series IV Box IV-2, Yale Divinity Special Collections. 

3 All bulletins I used as primary sources for my study can be found in “Bulletin 1856-1959,” Yale University Divinity School Memorabilia Collection RG 53 Series IV Box IV-2, Yale Divinity Special Collections. 

4 See “New Department of Religious Education at School of Religion,” Yale Daily News, March 1, 1917, Vol. XXXX No. 119. 

5 Catherine Stearns, “‘The Power of Love’: A Missionary Finds Her Niche in South Africa’s Stormy History,” Yale Alumni Magazine, November 1982, p. 26. 

6 Ibid., pp. 26-29. 

7 See United Methodist Church, “Rev. Elsie F. Stowe Spring 2011,” accessed May 3, 2019, revelsiefstowespring2001. Her papers are housed at the United Methodist Christman Archives in White Plains, NY. 

8 “Yale Divinity School’s Women’s History Project” (n.d.), YDS Memorabilia Collection RG 53 Series VI Box II, Yale Divinity Special Collections, p. 2. 

9 Ibid., p. 3. 

10 “First Women of YDS,” Yale Divinity School, accessed April 14, 2019, first-women-yds.