Student curator Molly Smith ’25 honors champion of Yale College women

  • Young woman with short curly brown hair wearing pink sweater and white shirt stands with hand on hip next to display with photo of Elsa Wasserman and copies of documents
  • View of five tall narrow banners with texts and photographs leaning against columns in large nave with globe lights overhead each
  • Portrait of woman with curly brown hair and orange, yellow, and white swirl pattern blouse sitting in front of desk with six books
April 18, 2024

Elga Ruth Wasserman, JD ’76, was a passionate advocate for the first classes of women enrolled in Yale College in the 1960’s and ’70s. A portrait of Wasserman, installed last year, hangs on the north wall in Bass Library. This spring, American Studies major Molly Smith ’25 has created a banner exhibit about the life and legacy of Wasserman, will be on view in Bass Library.

“In addition to her work on behalf of coeducation at Yale, Wasserman was also a chemist, attorney, feminist, and scholar,” Smith explained. “She is not well known by many students, and my goal with this project is to get the message out there to Yale students about her impact on the spaces we live and work in at Yale.”

Origins of the exhibit

Smith’s interest in Wasserman and Yale history grew out of conversations with Sam Chauncey, BA ’57, who was secretary of the university from 1971 to 1981 and worked alongside Wasserman in championing for equity and diversity. In 2019, he published a tribute to Wasserman in Yale Daily News. Chauncey was Smith’s first-year advisor at Davenport College. “Our meeting completely transformed my interests and my time at Yale,” Smith said. “I conducted several interviews with him, and my fascination with Yale history grew from there.”

When Barbara Rockenbach, Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian, and Michael Lotstein, head of University Archives, offered Smith the opportunity to mount this exhibit, she was thrilled. “Previously, I had gone to the archives to look at materials about coeducation for fun,” she said. “Now I had a chance to make a tangible impact in helping tell Elga’s story.”

A lasting legacy

As Smith conveys in her five-panel banner exhibit, the benefits of Wasserman’s work on behalf of women at Yale are still felt in numerous ways on a daily basis. “She started the Yale shuttle for women walking home from libraries late at night,” Smith explained. “She pushed for more women professors and advocated to end the quota on the admission of women.”

“As a woman at Yale today, I am so thankful for her impact on this university,” she added. “‘Elga Wasserman’ should be a name every Yale student knows.”

—Deborah Cannarella

Read more about Elga Wasserman’s portrait in Bass Library on the Yale Library website and in YaleNews.

Read Sam Chauncey’s tribute to Wasserman in Yale Daily News.

Learn more about Wasserman on the Wikipedia page created by several of the first women to graduate from Yale College.

—Deborah Cannarella

Images: Molly Smith, photo by Grace O’Brien; the Elga Ruth Wasserman Banner exhibit in the nave of Sterling Memorial Library; the Bass Library portrait of Wasserman by Brenda Zlamany