Radcliffe's announcement yesterday that it will drop its designation as a college fulfills a promise its founders made 120 years ago.
In 1879, Harvard officials adamantly refused to integrate female students into the University, but eventually agreed upon a compromise that allowed young women to take classes offered by Harvard professors.
The "Harvard Annex," as the women's institution was called when it enrolled its first students that year, was founded with a dual purpose: "to furnish instruction and the opportunities of collegiate life to women, and to promote their higher education."
Both a greater acceptance of educated women in society and the unusual circumstances of history required Radcliffe to continuously redefine its role. Radcliffe students gained full access to Harvard's opportunities, and the college they left behind added research institutes to give itself new aims.
This evolution has forced the two administrations to remain in intermittent talks about their proper relationship.
Yesterday's announcement amounts to more than a new twist in that relationship. The final, formal incorporation of women into Harvard College marks the end of a century-long dance between two institutions that have found it hard not to step on each other's toes.
Separate and Unequal
When the college that would become Radcliffe made its debut in the fall of 1879, it was the first full-scale attempt ever made to give women a Harvard education. President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, said he would consider opening lectures to "mature women" upon taking office in 1869, but despite some attempts in the early 1870s, nothing came of the proposal.
By the end of the decade, a group of Cambridge residents approached Eliot to ask for an institution of higher education comparable to Harvard where they could send their daughters. They proposed a separate women's "annex" that would employ Harvard professors to teach its classes.
Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, widow of Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz, was named the first president of the Annex. Under Agassiz's tenure, Radcliffe expanded from a tiny institution on Appian Way with 27 students and one small building to a fully chartered college located in a converted mansion, Fay House.
Though the Annex was considered a tentative experiment when it was first founded, in the 1880s Agassiz pushed for a formal relationship with Harvard.
Although some women's rights advocates of the time insisted that Harvard do away with the Annex and grant degrees directly to women, in 1894 Eliot agreed to co-sign diplomas issued by the Annex, which became a separate women's college. It was named after Ann Radcliffe, the first female donor to the University.
The Road to Coeducation
Many Harvard affiliates feared the introduction of women into the University community. Professor Barrett Wendell decried "the unobserved encroachment of women that sapped the pure virility of the Harvard tradition and undermined Harvard as a school for manly character" in 1899.
Relations between Harvard and Radcliffe deteriorated further under President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, who headed Harvard in the 1910s and '20s. According to Radcliffe lore, Lowell hoped to "drown three kittens" before his term ended: Harvard's Botanic Garden, the Harvard School of Education--and Radcliffe College.