Elga Ruth Wasserman (née Steinherz) was one of Yale University’s most important champions of co-education. Yale women owe a lot to Wasserman, who was one of the chief implementers of Yale’s plan to admit women.
Wasserman was born to Deszoe and Louisa Steinherz in Berlin in 1924. While her immediate family fled Germany in 1936, Wasserman lost several members of her extended family to the Nazis. The Steinherz family moved to Great Neck, NY, where Deszoe founded a legal practice and Louisa worked as a real estate broker.
Wasserman graduated at the top of her class in 1941 at the age of sixteen. She attended Smith College and organized civil rights protests on campus as a student. Wasserman’s deep-seated passion for issues concerning marginalized groups would define the rest of her life.
In 1945, Wasserman accepted a graduate fellowship to study organic chemistry at Harvard University. She was one of only two women in the department. After she married Harry Wasserman in 1947, her adviser promptly lost interest in her career plans. In 1948, the couple moved to New Haven, Connecticut in 1948, for Harry’s faculty position at Yale. Wasserman continued her studies and received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1949.
From 1950 to 1962, Wasserman held part-time teaching positions at several universities while raising her three children. At that time, female professors in science academia were scarce, and those who were married with children were even rarer. Inspired by her struggles, Wasserman wrote The Door in the Dream: Conversations with Eminent Women in Science (2000), focusing on gender parity and balancing work and family in a tenure-driven environment.
In 1962, Wasserman was appointed Assistant Dean of the Yale Graduate School, responsible for overseeing the physical and biological sciences. Six years later, when she spoke to the Dean about her professional advancement, he refused to assist or support her.
Nonetheless, Wasserman was soon appointed as Chairman of the Committee on Coeducation and was chosen by Yale President Kingman Brewster to fill the newly minted position of Special Assistant to the President on the Education of Women. Wasserman spent the next four years preparing for and guiding Yale College’s transition to a co-educational student body. This involved considering housing logistics and establishing admissions criteria.
In 1969, Yale College’s first co-educational year, the student body was comprised of over 4,000 men and 588 women. Wasserman quickly recognized the educational and social barriers women faced in this environment and wrote, “Women students need an unusual sense of self to persevere in a predominantly male setting.” Henry Chauncey, Jr., who oversaw the administrative aspects of this transition, remarked that, “Both in terms of the academic realm and the extracurricular world, she wanted the new women to have the best. She was sensible and knew when an idea was too expensive, but she could make the very best out of what was available. No single person did more to assure that co-education went well than Elga, and today’s Yale women owe her a great debt of gratitude.”
Wasserman left her position in 1972, only to return to Yale as a law student, graduating in 1976. She then clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Afterward, Wasserman opened a private family law practice, where she worked until retiring from the law in 1995.
While American women are still struggling for equal pay and good family leave policies, Wasserman’s contributions have helped move us towards a more equal future. As she said, “Because women are now teaching at Yale, men can see that women can hold positions of power even at the most elite institutions. If they were taught only by men, they did not think of women as equals. Yale still needs more senior women in the sciences.”