What's Wrong With Me?

Women At Harvard

Before I came to Radcliffe, the thing that scared me most about the place was the legend of the Radcliffe bitch--sharp, aggressive, cool, domineering. I'd heard it all. For years I'd been reading everything I could find on the subject of Harvard, including such reliable publications as The Insider's Guide to the Colleges, which informed me that the Radcliffe woman "took everything seriously" and would, on returning home from a date, invariably "leave your ego in a little puddle by the door." (The guide was, of course, written for a male audience.) Another guide mentioned in an offhand way that "Radcliffe is, naturally, not a place for wallflowers."

Since it was obvious to me that I did not fit the description of the Radcliffe bitch--it seemed that my ego was the one which would most likely be left in a puddle by the door--and since, in fact, my own self-image was much closer to a wallflower, I could see what was in store for me--four years of unrelieved misery. I made feeble attempts to take matters into my own hands. On New Year's Eve, I can remember writing in my diary that although I didn't believe in New Year's resolutions and that sort of thing, this did seem like an appropriate time to pledge myself to a complete overhaul of my personality--always with Radcliffe in mind, of course--and I would now become confident, self-assured, and above all, in control. I even set to work assembling a new wardrobe that would correspond to my new image. A suede skirt, I remember thinking, was for some reason essential, and I scoured the city looking for one.

All to no avail. Even with my suede skirt, I was scared to death. I knew that all those Radcliffe bitches would discern in an instant that I was not one of them. So after I got here, it took me a while to realize that not all Radcliffe women were bitches. In fact, it seemed to me that very few of them were, and my roommate was even more self-effacing than I was. Once this realization sank in, I became indignant. How dare people go around saying these horrible things about us?

In the fall of my freshman year, on my first real date with a Harvard man, I found myself launching a vigorous defense of Radcliffe women, one I've launched countless times since then. The guy insisted that it was true, there were a lot of bitches at the 'Cliffe. He'd been going out with one the year before and, well, it hadn't really worked out and anyway, she was a real bitch. I insisted that, if that were true, she must have been an exceptional case.

A few weeks later I decided that I really didn't want to go out with him any more, and, being inept at these things, I backed out extremely ungracefully. And then suddenly, it struck me. I could see myself transformed into a Radcliffe bitch before my very eyes. I went out with this 'Cliffie last year, I could see the guy saying next year, and it didn't work out, and anyway, she was a real bitch. It left me with a deep sense of injustice.

The Radcliffe bitch myth dies hard, and the fact that it is still going strong at Harvard--being handed down, as it were, from class to class like a family heirloom--should tell you something about what it's like to be a woman here. For many women, including myself, going to Radcliffe is an experience in consciousness-raising. It hadn't occurred to me before I got here that there was anything sexist about all this Radcliffe bitch talk; I just assumed that they must all be bitches. But I have since come to see the bitch myth as one of the more overt manifestations of Harvard's anti-female bias. It seems to me that many Harvard men feel threatened by Radcliffe women, and having this "bitch" category to slip them into gives the men a form of self-defense--or, more often, provides them with an excuse for not getting involved with women at all.

An important thing to realize about sexism at Harvard is that it is very subtle. And in its subtlety lies its strength--some women deny that it exists at all. But it does, and it exists on two fairly distinct levels, the academic and the social. Academic sexism is less noticeable, less important in an everyday context--unless you're in a heavily male field such as the sciences, where the professors still tend to look on women as members of an inferior species. There are of course a fair number of horror stories floating around--usually concerning persistent section men who, when spurned, retaliate with near-failing grades--but unless you're unusually beautiful or unusually lucky, you probably won't experience such things yourself.

The kind of sexism you are likely to experience is not nearly so easy to point a finger at. There probably won't be any real enemy. You may not find yourself up against a lascivious section man, but you may encounter a male tutor who assumes that because you are a woman, you are, ipso facto, more interested in women's studies than in anything else. Or you may have a nice, sympathetic section man who really means well but just doesn't understand that spending the first five minutes of every class discussing football scores with the 20 men in the section is not the kind of thing that makes the lone woman feel at home.

When there's no villain, it gets very easy to blame yourself. I sat through an entire year of Ec 10, usually the only woman in the section on any given day, and I never opened my mouth unless I was forced to. Every day I would promise myself I would raise my hand; at night I would lie awake trying to think of questions that wouldn't sound embarrassingly stupid; and after every section, I would leave despondent, furious at myself, my muteness unbroken. I can't help wondering now how different things might have been if there had been a few more women in the class, or if the teacher had been a woman.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of academic sexism at Harvard is the staggeringly low number of women on the faculty. Despite all the affirmative-action-induced paraphernalia, the goals and timetables and the government threats (usually rather hollow-sounding), Harvard has a reputation of unusual recalcitrance when it comes to hiring women. It's very easy to go through four years here without ever seeing a woman standing at the podium in a lecture hall, although you may encounter a female graduate student somewhere along the line.

Here, it would seem, is one area where it's possible to point a finger, to find a villain. If there are practically no women on the faculty, there must be someone who is making the decisions not to hire them. But talk to President Bok, and he will tell you that it's not his fault; you should talk to Dean Rosovsky. Talk to Dean Rosovsky and he will tell you there's nothing he can do about it; it's the individual departments. But it even goes beyond the individual department level--the root of the problem is the individuals within the departments, the ones who are really making the decisions. Few of them are rabid sexists, almost all of them will go through the motions of complying with the affirmative action regulations, and some of them may even say that in principle, affirmative action is a good thing. But somehow the ideology behind affirmative action hasn't really sunk in. Situations like this crop up: There was an opening in the History department and they were looking all over for a black woman to fill it. At every college, every university in the country, they looked for a black woman, but they just couldn't seem to find one that met their specifications. Sure they were looking for a black woman; the problem was, the black woman they were looking for had blond hair and a penis.

So it isn't really fair to say that the dearth of women professors here is the result of a conscious act of villainy. Still, it's relatively easy to pin blame when you're talking about the academic level of sexism. It's when you get to the social level that things really begin to get sticky. Virtually everyone at Harvard is "conscious" about sexism or, if they aren't when they get here, they soon learn. A woman from a small Southern town who gets here freshman year and tells everyone she wants to be a housewife and mother soon discovers what kind of a reaction that kind of talk produces, and next thing she knows, she's pre-med. And it's not only women at Harvard who are so ardently opposed to sexual stereotyping--you may meet some men here who are so "liberated" they make you feel sexist.

You'll also probably meet some men here who say they're sexist and proud of it. Some men during my freshman year countered a proposed women's table in the Union with a "Male Chauvinist Pig's Table." But most Harvard men seem to be going through a fairly painful period when they're aware of sexism, but they're not quite sure what's sexist and what isn't, and once they've identified it, they're not quite sure what to do about it. They may ask you for advice, or for an "expert" opinion, and they seem to have a touchingly naive faith that because you're a woman, you'll know all the answers. But if you tell a man who is confused about the subject that you do think his behavior is sexist, he may become huffy, or shrink like a wounded animal.

If the whole thing is painful for men, it's equally painful for women. You may know that some man means well, but he just can't seem to make that vital connection between theory and practice. A few months ago, one of the most sexist men I know turned to me and said that because of the Edelin abortion trial, his eyes had suddenly been opened to all the sexism around him--but apparently he remained blind to his own because as far as I could tell he didn't change a bit. I hadn't really expected him to, but a few weeks later another man told me that, although he had for a long time been aware of sexism on an intellectual level, he had only recently begun to feel it on an emotional level. Aha, I thought, now this is something different. But I'm still looking for some proof of his new awareness.

Of course, a lot of the problems that men and women have in dealing with each other here are common to many college campuses, and are largely attributable to the fact that this is 1975 and the people here are between 18 and 22 years old. But just about all of these problems are exaggerated by the fact that the ratio of men to women at Harvard is approximately 2.5 to 1. If you are living at Radcliffe, where the ratio is maintained at 1 to 1, you probably won't feel the impact of this all-important imbalance in your House, but it will be hard to avoid it in class or in almost any extracurricular activity. In a situation where there are, say, five men and two women, the group is almost inevitably male-dominated, even if no one actually wants it that way.

It's hard to estimate the actual meaning of the 2.5 to 1 ratio, simply because it's impossible to tell what things would be like if the ratio were equal. But it's a safe bet to attribute the dismal history of women's organizations at Harvard in large part to the fact that women have felt too isolated and scattered to develop much of a sense of solidarity. Women in the Yard and the River Houses have complained that it's hard for them to simply meet other women and make friends, and women's groups in the Houses have tended to fill more of a social purpose than a political one. The organizers of the Radcliffe/Harvard Women's Center, located in Phillips Brooks House, are promising to be more active this year, sponsoring consciousness-raising groups and speakers, but their effectiveness will be limited unless they can stir up more general interest and support than they did last year.

The ratio also seems to have reverberations that affect the quality of male-female relationships. From what I know about other colleges, most Harvard men are unusually reluctant to involve themselves in anything more than platonic relationships--with Radcliffe women, that is. It's hard to pin down the reasons for this, and of course they vary from case to case. One big factor is probably the fear that if you start something with a woman in your House, as opposed to a woman at Wellesley or Pine Manor, it will inevitably become something "intense." But another big factor is probably the mistaken impression that many men have that every Radcliffe woman has 2.5 men beating down her door. They just give up before they start. As a result, many of the women are developing all sorts of insecurities, asking themselves continually, "What's wrong with me?"

One advantage to the way things are now is that women have a group of administrators of their very own, much more kindly and sympathetic than the Harvard variety. Radcliffe's Office of Women's Education has as its sole purpose in life ministering to women's so-called "special needs," and it does things like putting out the Women's Guide to Harvard and organizing special "core groups" for freshwomen. But whether the office really does enough right now to justify its existence is unclear. Many women know little or nothing about it, and many--especially those in the River Houses--feel no ties to the Radcliffe administration whatsoever. And women who do know about the place and are constantly trying to steer it along a strong feminist path often get frustrated by the lady-like, coffe-klatch atmosphere that prevails. Again, they mean well, but...

If there is any villain in all this, it is probably the ratio. And the ratio has become a hot topic of late. Last spring, a committee chaired by Karl Strauch, professor of Physics, issued a much-ballyhooed list of recommendations about the Harvard-Radcliffe relationship, the most important of which was that the ratio be dropped in favor of an admissions policy of "equal access." Equal access sounds great on paper: every applicant will be judged solely on the basis of his or her qualifications, without regard to sex. No longer will there be any of those artificial quotas. The vast majority of students supported the policy. Matina Horner, in a not-too-surprising role as a defender of the Harvard administration, declared that equal access was really the best thing for women, since women admitted under a 1 to 1 ratio would always wonder whether or not they'd been admitted just because they were women. Being against equal access was roughly on a level with being against motherhood.

But any feminist who thinks equal access is the answer is overlooking a few things. First of all, any admissions policy, no matter how "equal," depends on the people who are doing the admitting, and if those people continue to apply male criteria of success--looking for football players, student council presidents, etc.--they will continue to choose men over women. And at the moment, Radcliffe's applicant pool is less than half the size of Harvard's. Another problem is that there is a large and powerful group of Harvard alumni who are adamantly opposed to lowering the number of men admitted. Nearly everyone is opposed to increasing the size of the college, and it remains to be explained how in the world Harvard plans to increase the number of women and maintain the same number of men without making the total number of students any larger. And one crucial point is that no one has ever predicted that equal access will lead to a 1 to 1 ratio in the forseeable future. The best that can be hoped for, apparently, is a 60-40 split of men to women over the next 5 years.

If the Harvard administration wanted to do any one thing to make things easier for women here, it would institute a 1 to 1 ratio. But now that the days of equal access are upon us, the likelihood of that happening is just about nil. Equal access, like the Radcliffe bitch myth, is an instance of Harvard's subtle sexism surfacing--and again, surfacing in a way that is ambiguous enough so that many women don't see anything sexist about it at all. As usual, there's no one specific to blame, and everyone means well and sincerely believes that they're doing the best they can.

So women at Harvard are in a pretty uncomfortable position. Something is wrong here, but it's not always clear what it is, or what to do about it. Women get angry, but when their anger has no specific object it often turns against itself or against a scapegoat. But one important thing to remember is not to be taken in by Harvard's pro-feminist veneer or rhetoric. Harvard is still a man's castle and at this point sexism, whether intentional or not, is one of its tallest turrets