Women on the wall

Graphic by Alex Swanson

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and the back of Sterling Memorial Library’s nave has turned into a reception hall. The circulation desk has been transformed into a surprisingly elegant bar; tables full of cheeses, fruits, and mini-quiches flank either side of the nave in front of the circulation desk. In the Starr side of the transept, a well-dressed crowd has gathered around a large canvas hanging on the wall facing the Alma Mater mural. Most, but not all, of those gathered are women; most, but not all, are white. Along with a handful of grad students, I’m one of the few here under fifty, although the prospect of free food has begun to draw some curious undergrads from their study spots. The crowd, amidst the chatter, is gazing at this new canvas, which features a cluster of women in period costume holding a variety of objects—a telescope, a copy of El Cid, a round-bottom flask, and what appears to be a miniature of the Globe Theater.

The crowd quiets down as Paula Kavathas, professor of immunology, chair of the Women Faculty Forum (WFF), and co-chair of the Portrait Project, steps up to the podium and begins her introduction. “We are commemorating the coeducation of the Graduate School,” she says, “but we’re also enhancing the iconography on campus. As Yale becomes more diverse, the iconography should also become more diverse. It is incredible in this hallowed space to now have this portrait of these amazing women.” And so begins the inaugural ceremony for Yale’s newest painting, a group portrait of the school’s first seven women PhDs, who earned their degrees in 1894.

The placement of the PhD portrait is a very conscious step by those involved to literally change the face of these permanent fixtures, at least in Sterling nave. Placed in the nave of Sterling, the heart of the university, the portrait aims to subtly change the character of a hallowed Yale space that had previously featured no women. The first women PhDs hang across from the portrait of Edward Bouchet, the first African American to receive a PhD from Yale in 1876. This placement is no accident. “It brings into reality the presence and aspirations of a much wider group of people,” said Laura Wexler, professor of WGSS and American Studies and co-chair of the Portrait Project.


The idea for the WFF Portrait Project came out of a 2009 symposium organized by Kavathas and Wexler, WFF co-chair at the time, to commemorate 40 years of coeducation in Yale College. Jon Butler, then Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, was in the audience, and was struck with the idea of creating a portrait of the first female PhD recipient. “We had this symposium in the auditorium of the art gallery,” Kavathas said. “He was surrounded by these portraits, and here we are commemorating coeducation at Yale College, and he’s Dean of the Graduate School.” He proposed the idea to Wexler and Kavathas, who took it on as co-chairs of the Portrait Project.

Initially, Wexler and Kavathas assumed they would be commissioning a painting of a single woman—the first PhD recipient—but the university’s chief research archivist Judith Schiff informed them that not one but seven women graduated with PhDs in 1894. With this new knowledge from Schiff, Wexler and then-WFF co-chair Shirley McCarthy put WFF postgraduate research associates Liena Vayzman and Ruth Vaughan to the task of scouring the East Coast for any photographs of, writing by, or other documentary evidence of the seven. By 2012, they had managed to find photographs of six of the seven women, and that fall Vayzman, Vaughan, and Wexler published an article on their research in the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Butler, who also served as interim University Librarian from 2010 to 2011, and his successor in that position, current University Librarian Susan Gibbons, agreed that the soon-to-be commissioned portrait should hang in the nave of Sterling Memorial Library, although the project had to be placed on hold when the renovations to Sterling were announced in 2011. But as the renovations came to a close in 2014, the Portrait Project was revived under new WFF chair Kavathas, who formed a selection committee to choose the portrait artist. A national competition was announced in early 2014, and out of the submissions a group of semifinalists were selected to submit sketches for their vision of the portrait. From those semifinalists, Brooklyn-based portraitist Brenda Zlamany’s sketch was chosen.

The project’s revival coincided with an increased focus on diversity in public art at the highest levels of University administration. Many of the conversations raised last semester involved public art at Yale, including those focusing on the renaming of Calhoun College and the removal of the portrait of John C. Calhoun from its dining hall, the naming of the new residential colleges, and the Next Yale demand for a monument by a native artist recognizing that the university was founded on stolen indigenous land. In the initiatives announced last November in response to these demands, President Salovey announced he would re-convene the Committee on Art in Public Spaces to “consult the campus community on ideas for how we might better convey and celebrate our diversity and its history.” Wexler, who joined the committee after the announcement of the initiatives, said that it had existed prior to this announcement but had not been particularly active. Salovey’s directive marked a reinvigoration and refocusing of its goals.

In an email, Martha Highsmith, the new chair of the Committee on Art in Public Spaces, said that they “will be identifying additional opportunities to honor other members of our community who have been traditionally overlooked in the art that is publicly displayed,” acknowledging the portrait of the seven women PhDs as “an important part of diversifying the iconography on campus so it better represents Yale.” Wexler said she saw the unveiling of the women PhD portrait functioning as the kickoff of this committee’s work.

With its seven subjects, this new painting may be a bit more crowded than most typical Yale portraits, but in many ways it represents a longstanding tradition—after all, the halls and walls of Yale are covered in portraits of notable past graduates and professors. But, the Portrait Project asserts, the act of memorializing these women through this public portrait is highly significant. Both Kavathas and Wexler emphasized that the very presence of diverse characters on Yale’s walls was critical to creating a sense of whom the institution represents and supports. “The iconography really says who belongs here, and it affects how we experience Yale,” said Kavathas.

Both Kavathas and Wexler mentioned past and current WFF surveys of the portraiture at Yale, whose findings have underscored the lack of gender diversity represented in campus paintings. “This gets to be a worse and worse feeling to us, as women feel more and more at home at Yale, that we’re not represented on the wall,” said Wexler. The dominating presence of white men on Yale walls in Yale public art, she argued, “tells you you’re not the one who’s in focus. Your kind of person was not meant to be here.” Although students and faculty may not be consciously analyzing campus art, Wexler said, its presence has an impact nonetheless. “Representation matters […] and it matters more to us than we are always consciously aware of.”

Matt Ampleman, LAW ’17, agreed with this sentiment, reflecting on his own experiences with gender in portraiture in the law school. He served on the committee for the Yale Law Women Portraits Project last semester, an initiative that focused on the Law School’s portraits of women, which make up six of 74 total paintings hanging there. “The collective sense of who we are in the community is influenced by the faces that we see around us,” said Ampleman. “That includes the professors, that includes the people who are speaking most frequently in class […] and that includes the people who are permanent fixtures by virtue of their portraits.”  He argued that the lack of gender diversity in portrait representations was damaging to many groups in the Law School community besides women.


The significance of the portrait, the WFF argues, extends beyond just the mere fact that those pictured are women—but that they are women PhDs. Kavathas emphasized this point to me, explaining that the hodgepodge of objects in the portrait was a very intentional requirement of the commission. “One of the things we asked for was that there be some type of symbol or image within the portrait that would indicate their scholarship […] personally, as a woman in STEM, I wanted the people looking at this portrait to know that there was a woman who was a chemist, and a woman who was an astronomer.”

Just as having diversity among students and faculty at Yale today actively benefits the university as a whole, the diversity these women brought to their academic fields was not just a bonus for women, but a boon to their fields as a whole, Wexler argued. “It’s not just a favor to include this; it’s central to what our academic and intellectual and political accomplishments can be,” Wexler argued. “It’s not just that they were new people; they brought new perspectives to what they supported.”

Julia Salevan, a fourth year PhD candidate in mechanical engineering and a board member of Women in Science at Yale (WISAY), said that memorialization of a broader range of scholars is an important step in encouraging diversity in academic fields. “If all the images of people held up in academia are old white men, then, for the rest of us, it’s hard to imagine yourself in that role.” Salevan especially praised the portrait for highlighting women outside of the traditionally celebrated female stars of academia. While it’s important to celebrate women like Rachel Carson, there is value in recognizing women who had regular, successful academic careers even in a time when societal misogyny suggested this was not possible. “From a women-in-science perspective, it’s important to have iconography that’s beyond Marie Curie, you know?”


Even as the portrait brings real women to Sterling’s walls for the first time, it only represents one very specific facet of Yale diversity and is only a first step in a larger process. “The fact is these are seven white women,” said Wexler. “While we celebrate them, we take this as the gateway to a larger project to recognize and celebrate and put transformation on the walls.”

This transformation likely will not come overnight. The women PhD portrait unveiled this week, after all, was six years in the making. “The project actually took a tremendous amount of effort,” said Kavathas, noting the many hours she spent negotiating with lawyers, traveling to the artist’s studio, and fundraising. Hanging a portrait in an institution like Yale is a bureaucratic process in itself that presents unique challenges across the university. Ampleman noted that in the Law School, limited wall space is as large a hurdle as funding in bringing more women to the halls of 127 Wall Street. “There are important community considerations about who could be replaced by the women portraits because there’s not enough space to have significantly more portraits, period.”

During the unveiling ceremony for the portrait, Salovey expanded on this sentiment. “Someday, and I hope it’s before I retire from this place, we’ll all be able to walk around this campus and see portraits of a very different nature than the ones that most of us have seen during our times at Yale,” Salovey said. “So in the next portrait—as much as we all love this one, and as dramatic and terrific as this one is—we’ll also have some women of color, some international women, and continue the push towards representing the New Yale.”

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