An update to this post: After sharing this post, I heard from a few women in our community who pointed out how I had overlooked the oppression of women of color during this period and failed to acknowledge the racial and class privileges that are central to Lucinda Foote’s story. This was a real blindspot on my part and I apologize for any harm it caused. My next step is to do some further learning and work around intersectionality, and I’m very grateful to those who took the time and energy to write. The post as originally published is below.
* * * * *
Today I want to tell you about Lucinda Foote, a young girl who applied for admission to Yale College – in 1783. She was only twelve years old at the time, but she was brilliant and ready. She aced her entrance exams – “translating and expounding with perfect ease” in Latin and Greek, her examiner wrote.
“Were it not for her sex,” he continued, “she would be considered fit to be admitted as a student of Yale.”
We don’t have Lucinda’s own account of the experience, so we can’t know what drove her – whether she harbored a genuine hope that she’d be admitted 200 years before co-education was seriously on the table; whether she undertook this act as a protest against an exclusionary system; whether she simply was moved by a blind passion to further her learning. I wish we could peek inside her mind and know.
That she applied does not surprise me – women everywhere have remarkable courage. What strikes me most about her story is what happened after her exam. Lucinda Foote “was declared to be worthy of admission by the Yale President.” And then, “she was given a parchment to document that achievement — and nothing else.”*
It was this – that the time was taken to give her a congratulatory document but then to deny her admission – that caused a pang of pain in my chest, because I saw in that gesture so many of our time.
We still have our ways of saying to women, “You are qualified. You cleared all our bars. You clearly deserve this. Yet this door is closed to you.”
You took all the right steps in your career, but we won’t be giving you this job.
Your pitch is excellent, but we will not be investing in it.
You are the most qualified candidate, but we will not be electing you.
This part of Lucinda’s story persists in our historical moment – acts of cognitive dissonance, of recognizing women’s qualifications but not opening the doors to power to them. This is compounded for women who hold multiple marginalized identities, be that of ethnicity, class, sexual orientation or others.
And here the lie told to women is exposed: “Just go get educated, go get qualified, and then you’ll have access to all the power roles in our culture, of course you will. We will wait here while you go get yourself ready.”
This turns out to have been less a roadmap for women’s advancement than a stalling technique for the systems that exclude us. And it has indeed kept us busy for quite a while.
So, to the solutions. What constructive things are there to say about this troubling reality? One is that we must recognize the Lucindas in our midst and open the doors of access wide for them, especially when it makes us uncomfortable to do so. Another is that we can be incredibly resourceful in working around and outside of exclusionary institutions; Lucinda Foote went on to pursue a full course of college studies – independently. And another lesson is that sometimes we’re called to show up in ways that are hundreds of years early for the culture – remembering it will mean something to someone generations down the line.
* Thelin, John R.. A History Of American Higher Education. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Photo by Thomas Kelly