Pioneer Women: Out of the ’30s

Ray Waddle
Martha Smalley

In 1932, YDS moved into an iconic new building – Sterling Memorial Quadrangle, up the hill from the main campus. It also adopted a historic policy: Women were allowed to enroll in a degree program. 

The decision came with conditions: No more than 10 women could enter per year, and no existing scholarship funds would be available to them. Four women – Esther Brown, Bernice Buehler, Thelma Diener, and Gloria Diener, Thelma’s older sister – enrolled that Fall, breaking decades of institutional resistance. 

Previously, women were permitted to take YDS classes but not pursue a divinity degree. (See Ann-Catherine Wilkening’s article on p. 66.) Now finally they could officially matriculate at YDS and earn the three-year Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.). 

Of the pioneering four, Esther Brown was the first to graduate – in 1934, having entered YDS as a second-year student in 1932. Two of that original quartet, Thelma Diener and Bernice Buehler, became the School’s first women to take the full B.D. program and graduate in 1935. The fourth, Gloria Diener, didn’t finish. 

In reminiscences, early YDS women described a largely welcoming if wary student body, but they were reminded at every turn that they were newcomers in a universe of male prerogative. The women were informed they were taking a man’s place by being there, so they should work hard and avoid marriage, which could remove them from the job market and defeat the purpose of their YDS education. They must not allow their femininity to be “disruptive.” A presumption lingered that women were there to pursue a husband, not a degree. 

They had to endure occasional tomfoolery. Thelma Diener recalls her first semester with bemusement: 

On my first day of classes, I was on my way to Marquand Chapel when I met a fellow student on the sidewalk. He looked me over from head to heel and asked, “What’s the matter with you?” 

I said, “I’m not sure. Why do you ask?” 

He answered, “No girl would come here to school unless she couldn’t find a man and that can’t be your problem.”1

For the first 25 years, there was no campus housing for women. Inconvenient off-campus arrangements had to be made. Many stayed at the boarding house at 301 Prospect St. Jane Ann Stoneburner Moore ’56 B.D. bluntly enumerated other limitations of those years: “Only one female restroom on campus. No women welcome in the chapel choir. No women in the chapel pulpit until one brave sister in my last year did splendidly. No women on the faculty. No female advisor or mentor we could emulate.” 

One ’56 alumna said she felt lucky to be there at a time of theological ferment, despite the era’s sexism. “We didn’t have the categories at that point to say, ‘this is a sexist remark, this is a condescending remark,’ and so forth. In fact, I had the opposite response. I said, ‘Well I’m one of the privileged few. I better do something about it.’ And so I worked very hard and did well academically.”

The quota on women persisted until the 1960s. One reason for the limit was the difficult job market for women in ministry. Even after some postwar breakthroughs (e.g., United Methodists began ordaining women in 1956), women’s vocations were usually limited to education, chaplaincy, administration, or mission field, never senior minister. 

“A woman’s 1940 church career expectations were different from a man’s,” alumna Elizabeth Frazier ’40 B.D. recounted. “Professional models for all women were limited. All professors were male. Language was patriarchal. The YMCA could provide 20 work-study opportunities for men. The YWCA had none. Pulpits went to men; religious education opportunities went to women. I worked in the library; my husband pastored a church.”

The first two women to graduate after completing the full B.D. program went on to distinguished careers. Born in Ohio in 1905, Bernice Buehler was ordained in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, became a religious educator, pastored churches in the 1950s, and later joined the faculty at Eden Theological Seminary. Thelma Diener, born in Oklahoma in 1908, became a widely known writer and editor of fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books (aka Terry Allen), and founded the David Diener Scholarship at YDS. Both women lived to be 100. 

1 Yale Divinity School Women’s History Project, compiled by Joyce V. Trickett ’93 M.Div., 1993. 

2 Ruth Ferguson Hooke ’56 B.D. in Eight Decades of Women: Milestones and Recollections, compiled by Martha Smalley. 

3 Elizabeth Frazier ’40 B.D., in The Age of the Giants, compiled by Graham R. Hodges ’40 B.D.