It Never Occurred to Us to Rebel

Jeanne Harbison Hein

These remarks by Jeanne Hein about her Divinity School days in the 1940s and 50s, edited here, were made during a YDS reunion panel in 1993. She attended YDS from 1940-42, then married businessman Stanley Harbison, a pacifist in World War II. Together they pursued a wide-ranging ministry in Puerto Rico through the 1940s, including rural reconstruction projects there. After they returned to New Haven in 1948, Harbison entered YDS, graduated in 1952, but died of polio weeks later. Jeanne then completed her YDS degree and also raised their two children. She married YDS professor Norvin Hein in 1959, with whom she had three children. A tireless public advocate for people with disabilities, she received the YDS Award for Distinction in Lay Ministry in 1992. She died in 2013 in Bethany, CT, age 94. 

In 1940 it came as a shock to find the not-too-subtle attitude among men on campus – that women came there to get a man. All the women I ever knew resented that attitude, and I never knew a woman who filled that description, except possibly my roommate who brazenly declared her intention to pursue her fiancé to YDS for the purpose of protecting him from the likes of me and other YDS women predators! So you see the notion did not originate at YDS – it was in the air we breathed. It was wherever women were beginning to invade male domains. 

In the classroom I felt an equal. A woman hell-bent on a theological education in order to serve out a career in the church was not seen as a threat to men. She was quite safe, for she dispelled their fears by her serious academic and vocational endeavors. To a YDS male friend she was asexual – a buddy. 

Much later – after graduation in 1954 – I took a YDS job as Dean Liston Pope’s secretary. Ever a sensitive social liberal, he always seemed somewhat uneasy because I as a YDS graduate was doing secretarial work. So he expanded my job as far as he could beyond the usual secretarial work – but, as he would tell me, there was no way within the limits of the system that existed in the University that he could elevate me to a job commensurate with my education and experience. 

One day, he burst into the office and triumphantly announced he had gotten me the title of “advisor to women students.” I was astonished because we had never even discussed it. Dean Pope had simply convinced the provost that women were now very much a part of his concern as dean and he needed help. To me he also admitted it was the only way he could elevate my pay scale, a matter that genuinely concerned him. 

I soon learned that advising women students had to be a peripheral responsibility. For how could a dean of the Divinity School allow his secretary (at the time his only personal aide) to absent herself from his office even for such a worthwhile reason as helping women students? Consequently I did very little as an advisor beyond setting up a few informal discussion groups with women and dashing over to 301 Prospect St. (the boarding house off campus for women) when I got notice of an impending crisis. Both he and I simply made do with the situation. 

As it turned out, it remained for Joan Forsberg in the early 1970s to define a place for a professional woman on the staff and faculty and really open YDS to women, as well as create a new job as dean of students – for men and women. 

I know now that the reluctance to receive women into true equality at YDS was not really because we were scheming predators whose very sexuality would undermine the church, nor do I think that men really looked on us that way – however much they boasted. That was the cover-up of a larger and deeper matter – the great change that threatened the power and role of men. We, men and women alike, were all creatures of our time, caught in an age which still considered the role of women as adjunct to men, whether in the home or in the workplace. We accepted this and cooperated with it, and its impact on us was profound. It never occurred to us to rebel. 

We were all caught in the struggle over power, politics, place, and privilege in a still male-dominated society of which YDS was and I think still is a vital part. Our school bent farther than most. But YDS is but one of many institutions of our society. Here as elsewhere it has taken many years of struggle and growing awareness by women about who they are and what their work is, to bring about long-lasting change throughout our land.