A Perpetual Misfit, History Professor Embraces Homosexuality

Courtesy OF 1953 radcliffe yearbook

Renee Watkins '53

When Renée Watkins ’53 first arrived at Radcliffe, she says she found a campus populated with thin, blonde-haired women born and bred in sophisticated circles.

“Honestly, I just couldn’t tell who was who,” she says. “They all looked sort of waspy.”

For Watkins, whose family fled from the Nazis in her native Germany and made several stops in other European countries en route to the U.S., the homogeneity of Radcliffe students was oppressive.

She felt alienated throughout her Radcliffe years as she struggled to accept the rigid rules of the college—and to live in a social sphere that did not approve of homosexuality. Watkins had realized she was gay during her first year at Radcliffe when she fell in love with a fellow classmate, but concealed her sexual identity throughout college.

In her senior year, Watkins succumbed to the pressure around her and decided to lead a heterosexual life. Soon after her graduation she married and had a baby.

But five years later, Watkins and her husband divorced and she began to live openly as a lesbian.

Academically, Watkins says she found “honesty” in the study of history as an undergraduate and embarked on a career as a professor, specializing in the Reformation and the Renaissance.

She had found her professional calling, but hopped from university to university without ever feeling at home in academia.

From the stuffy Radcliffe social atmosphere to conservative history departments, the native German who grew up amongst liberal European refugees would remain a wanderer and a misfit.

Eventually, she settled at University of Massachusetts, Boston, for 23 years and now lives a retired life tending to her garden in Berkeley, Calif.

Watkins has found a routine, quiet existence in retirement, after living her life as the perpetual outsider—both professionally and personally.

A Free Spirit Confined

Born in Berlin in 1932, Watkins and her family of German refugees moved around pre-World War II Europe, evading the growing Nazi presence.

They moved to Portugal in 1940, only weeks before the Germans invaded their then-home of the Netherlands.

In Portugal, Watkins found herself immersed in a free-spirited, international community of refugees.

“I ran around on the beach for years,” Watkins says.