At first, Yale University didn’t seem to be an option for Dixie Terrell Wilhite.
In October of her senior year at Cheyenne Mountain High School, she visited several East Coast schools, including Harvard and MIT. She didn’t visit Yale because at the time, 50 years ago, the school didn’t allow women.
A month later, a friend called to tell her Yale was going co-ed.
“She said, ‘Let’s apply,” Wilhite said. “I thought it would be fun to do as a fluke.”
Once accepted, she weighed the pros and cons just as most college-bound students do. She saw being among the first women there as a pro.
“I lived in Colorado, and I was familiar with the colleges I had visited,” she said. “I thought it would be fun to go out East and kind of have a clean, blank slate.”
Thus Wilhite made history. She was one of 230 freshmen women Yale enrolled in 1969.
Their stories are chronicled in a new book, “Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant,” written by Anne Perkins, who attended Yale eight years after the first class of women arrived.
“When I got to Yale, no one talked about those first women,” Perkins said. “It’s like they never existed. And I’m embarrassed to say I never asked about them.”
Perkins wanted to compensate for that by documenting their experiences so their “stories would not be lost to history.”
Wilhite remembers a lot of news coverage and attention — “some good, some not so good” — during her first month or so at Yale.
“There was a lot of female camaraderie,” she says. “There were a lot of males who viewed us as friends, and some viewed us as date material.”
The first female students were outnumbered 7-to-1 under Yale’s gender quota, Perkins writes. Women had no sports teams and weren’t allowed to participate in many clubs or extracurricular activities.
During one home football game weekend, Wilhite recalled, a Yale alum made it very clear that he didn’t think Yale should’ve let women in.
“He told me I didn’t belong there,” she said. “It was somewhat hurtful. At the same time, I was there. He was history, so to speak.”
Perkins’ book is full of such anecdotes and stories, which she compiled through interviews with dozens of women.
“They felt like they were constantly being stared at,” Perkins said. “Think about being at the dining hall… 40 pairs of male eyes would all turn to you every time you went up to get a cup of coffee.”
But such experiences made the women stronger and more confident.
“Being a female in a male world, you had to learn how to deal with it and be comfortable with it and how you present yourself,” Wilhite said. “That prepared me for what was ahead.
“At times, it was lonely too,” she added. “Don’t get me wrong.”
Wilhite studied physics and history and took photos for the Yale Daily News. She went on to become an attorney. She lives in Wisconsin now.
When she saw in a Facebook group that a book was coming out about her first year at Yale, she immediately pre-ordered it.
“I think it’s important people know what it was really like, what different experiences different women had,” she said.
“This brings it alive for the younger generation that doesn’t realize Yale became co-ed that recently.”
Perkins quit her full-time job to write “Yale Needs Women,” partly as an act of gratitude for the women who attended Yale before her. She also wrote it with her 30-year-old daughter in mind.
“There are so many powerful stories about women we haven’t told,” she said.
“I would love to see younger women be inspired by what women did who came before them and not take it for granted.”