The most visible sign of the commemoration of women at Yale, the Women’s Table was designed by Maya Lin (BA 1981, M.Arch 1986), best known as the creator of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. The ambiguity of the sculpture inspires contemplation—and sometimes even interaction. As Lin has said of her work: “I consider the monuments to be true hybrids, existing between art and architecture. They have a specific need or function, yet their function is purely symbolic.
Although the Women’s Table was commissioned in 1989 by President Benno Schmidt (BA 1963, JD 1966) for the 20th anniversary of the coeducation of Yale College, Lin chose to mark the presence—and absence—of registered female students since the inception of Yale in 1701. The spiraling numbers have prompted the proliferation of some misconceptions about women at Yale. For example, many people believe that 1873, the earliest date without a zero, marks the founding of the Yale School of Nursing—which actually opened fifty years later. When the initial research was done for the sculpture, 1873 was thought to mark the date of the first women students at the School of the Fine Arts. We now know, however, that the Silliman sisters registered for that school when it opened in 1869. And, although many people believe the numbers end when women finally outnumbered men, a simpler explanation is correct: the numbers end in 1993 when the sculpture was completed. Indeed, as of 1999, the total number of women enrolled at Yale had never exceeded the total number of men.
What would the numbers look like if Lin had chosen to represent all women in any capacity at Yale? Would the zeros even exist if we considered the faculty wives or the women who served the meal and sang in the next room at the first commencement on the New Haven Green—or the unregistered female “listeners” who attended nineteenth century lectures? Would the spike in 1969, the first year of coeducation, be so drastic if we included the growing numbers of female staff, custodial, and dining hall workers in the twentieth century as well as the thousands of clerical workers who kept their departments running? And what would happen to the numbers if we included the growing number of women since coeducation on the faculty and administration—such as Maya Lin herself, who became the first Asian American on the Corporation in 2002?
When Lin decided to place her sculpture on the Rose Walk, a pedestrian walkway, she envisioned it as a nurturing space in the heart of Yale’s busy urban campus. The name—Women’s—Table—evokes a sense of community and family gathering. That community, however, can be as ambiguous as the sculpture itself.