By Amy Phillips Penn

A cartoon that made the rounds in the 70’s highlighted two women introducing themselves.

“I’m a Yale man,” said one. The other replied, “I’m a Princeton man, myself.”

The humor may be lost in an archive of a bygone era, but at the time it was sophisticated and it made the news, big time.

The closest most college women got to Yale was at a mixer (that’s what they called them) or at a freezing football weekend packed with alumni, beer and alcoholic fruit punches in nauseatingly unnatural colors.

When Yale first announced that it was going coed in 1969, virtually every woman who could fill out a form applied. The application was bare and cold: no essay, no excuses.

A handful of women made the cut and went on to be the first female Yalies.

My interview at Yale is a fond memory. The man who interviewed me was interested in my equestrian skills, which involved more love than talent.

“Perhaps you could play polo, here?” he suggested.

Polo? Women didn’t play polo.

Years later, polo took over my life.

I spent my first two years at Connecticut College, where I majored in art. “Conn” as it was affectionately known participated in a “twelve college exchange,” in which you could be a guest with benefits at a participating college.

Amherst intrigued me with its “visiting artist” program, in which students were taught by a professional artist.

In order to apply, I needed to get my advisor’s permission.

“Ok, but you’ll never get in,” she sneered.

I took that attitude to my application. I didn’t bother writing a draft. I wrote my essays by hand, with undulating sentences and crossed out words. No white-out ever touched the page. How artsy can you get? I sealed it, mailed it and forgot about it.

When it was time for the decision to arrive, I walked over to the campus post office.

“Damn,” I thought. I’d had a great weekend, now for a mood zapper.

There it was: the envelope with the Amherst seal. It was meticulously folded into three parts.

The first line was all I could see, “We are pleased to inform you,” it started out.

What a mean way to write a rejection letter, I thought.

As I read on, my reality set in: I was to be one of about 20 women who would spend the next year at Amherst. Most of the other chosen few went to Holyoke and Smith. I had defied all odds, because… I had and have no idea.

The night before I was off to Amherst, I called Christina, my roommate-to-be. We had a pleasant, “Hi, I’m your new roommate,” kind of talk. When I arrived the next day, she had already claimed the bigger room without as much as a dime toss.

That night, the women cozied up to each other as we walked into the dining room for the first time.

“They rate us according to our looks,” a B-plus blonde Smithie informed us. She was our unspoken leader as we paraded in. I was glad that I had a man in my life, who didn’t go to Amherst.

It was understood that most alumni and upper-uppers in the dean’s office were not exactly “rah- rah” about women meshing into their masculine net.

I was grateful to see an influx of Smith and Mt. Holyoke students arrive for daily classes, while savoring the identity of being an elite link in a man’s universe.

The classes were comparable to what I had experienced at Conn, except for the visiting artist who gave us assignments that included illustrating stories from the Marquis de Sade. Enough said.

One night, I was awoken by Christina screaming my name. I wobbled in to find a strange man in her room. She had been asleep when he crawled into her bed, hallucinating from some drug or another. As we called campus security, he escaped.

The next day our parents called the dean’s office.

We were summoned to look at mug shots of three Amherst students who may have druggily raided our dorm.

We asked only that our security be improved.

Instead, the students were suspended, and the dean was annoyed.

Still, I enjoyed that year overall—the rides on horseback through the Mt. Holyoke campus, the quirks of the kinky minded artist in residence, the poetry classes with legendary profs, and, most of all, the privilege of being “chosen.”

As polo redefined my stratosphere, I often think back to my Yale interview, and to the man who had the foresight to see that a woman could do anything a man could.

Thank you Amherst, and Yale.


Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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