Bass Library installs portrait of champion for the first women students of Yale College

  • Painting of woman hangs on brick wall. She sits at a desk with six books on surface. She has short wavy brown hair and wears.a blouse with pink, orange, white, red swirls and holds black glasses and a pen in her right hand.
    Elga Ruth Wasserman, JD ’76
  • Black wall plaque with white lettering that reads "Elga Ruth Wasserman, For her service to Yale University and for guiding the introduction of coeducation to Yale College, 1962—1973, Painted in 2022 by Brenda Zlamany
July 3, 2023

A colorful painting of Elga Ruth Wasserman, JD ’76, the key player in Yale College’s transition to coeducation, now hangs on the north wall of Bass Library. The artist painted Wasserman seated at a table, with assorted books by and about women spread in front of her—a tribute to her work for women’s equity in access to education.

Undergraduate women first enrolled in Yale College in 1969. During the years of a complicated transition, Wasserman advocated for and supported the first classes of women. She oversaw all aspects of the process—admissions, academics, and housing—to ensure the new students had a supportive and welcoming experience.

Since 1962, Wasserman had been assistant dean at the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In 1969, President Kingman Brewster Jr. appointed her as special assistant on the education of women and chair of the Committee on Coeducation. At the time, she partnered with Sam Chauncey, Brewster’s assistant, who later became the secretary of Yale University. Chauncey said that Wasserman “had a vision of a Yale with equal access for women students and faculty. She gave her heart and soul to lay the groundwork for that vision.”

The portrait was unveiled on June 3 at a reunion gathering. During the event, Yale President Peter Salovey described the painting as “an expression of enormous gratitude by this institution.”

“I ask all of us to recognize Elga’s role in championing equity and diversity at Yale and throughout higher education,” he said.

The library’s portrait of Wasserman is by New York artist Brenda Zlamany, who also painted the portrait of the first seven women to earn PhDs at Yale, which hangs in the nave of Sterling Memorial Library. Appropriately, the Wasserman portrait hangs in Bass Library—the undergraduate center on campus—to acknowledge Wasserman’s important work on behalf of the students of Yale College.

Wasserman’s experience working for women’s coeducational rights inspired her to enroll in Yale Law School, at age 49. After graduating in 1976, she specialized in the practice of family law, advocating for policies friendly to women and minorities in the workplace until her retirement in 1995. That year and since, in her honor, the Yale Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies has presented the Elga Wasserman Award to a senior who has shown “extraordinary commitment to the advancement of social justice and gender equality at Yale College.”

In 2021, the Yale Women Faculty Forum initiated the Elga R. Wasserman Courage, Clarity, and Leadership Award, presented to a Yale woman on faculty or staff who has shown commitment to building equity, diversity, and inclusion within the Yale community.

As further tribute, several of the first women to graduate from Yale College created a Wikipedia page about Wasserman.

—Deborah Cannarella

Read more about Elga Wasserman’s portrait in YaleNews. Read Sam Chauncey’s tribute in Yale Daily News.