Depression and War Left Their Marks

Radcliffe '28: Gracious Living

A Radcliffe education doesn't teach you how to do anything but it teaches you how to do anything but is teaches you how to be somebody. As 82 members of the Class of '28 and 21 of their husbands gather for a gala dinner at the Fogg Museum this Friday, they may well come to this conclusion, and ponder whether the past is a prologue to the future. Mary Bromage '28, who will address this question with her husband Arthur, is chiefly interested in the extent to which her years at Radcliffe, which ended 50 Junes ago, truly prepared her for both a profession and marriage.

"In a sense, the relative practical uselessness of what I learned at Radcliffe was what has kept me flexible and able to develop ever since college," she says. Hers is not the usual reunion-rosy picture of college life. "You don't really enjoy the four years. You are working so hard at deciding whether you can be someone on your own." Despite the conflicts of a search for identity, the inherent difficulties of attending a women's college that hired the professors of the men's college next to it, that was labelled and sometimes seemed like, an "Annex," Bromage feels Radcliffe gave her a good deal: "You get a sense of enthusiasm that many people later label naivete, but what is your definition of naivete to be? I think one derives from Cambridge an intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness, a lack of preconceptions, that appears to be naive." What the graduates of 1928 were to do with this intellectual curiosity, however, accorded ill with the egalitarian, humanist principles expounded in the classrooms. Most of the professors, Bromage and many of her classmates maintain, had the assumption that their women students would meet good husbands, Harvard men perhaps--and what better fate than that? "It was unthought of that we should go out and do something--we might be bright women to have around but we were never seriously considered as competitors," Bromage adds.

Bromage, however, views this absence of pre-professional pressure ambivalently. Her class didn't have ready-made plans, and that kept many avenues open to them. "In a sense knowing exactly what you want to do closes you off from so much, even though pre-professionalism may make things easier in the short run." Having a clear direction obviates a lot of self-searching, she concedes, but, carried too far, it encourages mental rigidity--and flexibility, she feels, was one of the greatest gifts she received from her education by the Charles.

Developing the intellect was clearly the highest priority at Radcliffe in those years, taking precedence over less academic pursuits such as community involvement, political work or social criticism. "The meeting of minds" was stressed more than the need to reform society. Here were elements of the retreat into individualism that followed the total disillusion of World War I. Still, the day-to-day events in the process of getting a college degree in those days were probably just as significant as the near-universal confusion over values in shaping the outlook of the Class of '28.

Susan Bolster '28 remembers that almost half the students at Radcliffe in her time were commuters. A former commuter from Brookline, she stresses that there seemed at times to be two almost completely separate social worlds. "The dorms had their parties, we had ours, though of course there were lots of invitations back and forth." In many ways, at least socially, her college experience did not seem that different from high school--whether this is due simply to the fact that Bolster was still living with her parents, or because she was beset by Victorian college rules that rendered Radcliffe something of a glorified girls' boarding school. At the Anne Radcliffe Buffet this week, the alumnae will sing a ditty composed of the myriad rules contained in the little red book with which every freshman was expected to become familiar--a world of structure reduced to song. Speaking with various members of the Class, it appears that their attitudes toward such petty restrictions as being required to wear a hat to the Square reflects in many ways their attitudes toward the larger oppression of growing up in a society where the rules dictating their opportunity to use their intellects were dictated by men. Although the women might laugh and say how silly some of the old college rules were, they basically abided by them because they were not that different from the general codes of behavior for women in society. Bolster's view is that "some of us were feminists but most of us were rather conventional. Beyond the achievement of votes for women, things tapered off."

One might not agree with her that the class was quite "conventional" by the standards of 50 years ago--a woman had to be pretty remarkable to wish to go to Radcliffe in those days. Despite the demanding intellectual program there was little competition for places in the college. Not that many women had the inclination to be labelled "bluestockings" as they pursued their academic interests in a female college almost completely over-shadowed by its male partner.

But it is the day-to-day concerns of life at Radcliffe between 1924 and 1928 that come out again and again in conversations with the women who graduated the year after Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, and the year before the stock market crashed. As a commuter, Bolster nevertheless participated a great deal in Radcliffe extracurricular activity. As she recalls, most of the '28 Class Marshals were commuters like her. All the commuters ate in Agassiz, and "in many ways were a more unified body than those living in the dorms. It was not that there were any hard feelings there, just a mechanical question of the divisions between the various different buildings they lived in."

One of Bolster's main interests was the Radcliffe News, a weekly news bulletin--usually a four-pager--featuring reviews of local plays or concerts. "Suddenly, someone thought we should have a daily. And for a while we had the only one of its kind in the country. However, it only lasted about a year. We couldn't get enough advertising to keep a daily going and it really wasn't a literary thing at all," she remembers.

In her first years at Radcliffe, Bolster could not live in a dorm because of overcrowding; by her senior year, however, when she had the opportunity to live on campus, she turned it down--largely because of the restrictions which, she felt, outweighed the advantages of being in the thick of things. Having already participated in college activities (even though her own social life revolved more around MIT than Harvard), what she most regrets having missed at Radcliffe is not the coziness of milk-and-cookies, but all that she could have done academically.

"One had to sign in and out of the halls of residence at specified times," she said. "Then there was a list of 30 or 40 places in Boston that you were forbidden to go to. One of them was a certain Hotel Brunswick, now torn down, which had an "Egyptian Room." It was really quite harmless, and had a band leader named Leo Reisman who led a good orchestra, but it was considered too sque for Radcliffe girls."

Prohibition stories do not figure nearly so largely in the memories of the Radcliffe as Harvard Classes, but at least one woman recalls with amusement "taking bottles under a white bunny coat to the Copley Plaza." Margaret Magie remembers how smoking was considered not only a serious fire hazard but generally unladvlike. "Girls would go over the Andersen bridge to Boston to get around the restrictions on smoking in Cambridge. There were periodic fusses about this. I4CrimsonDavid Beach