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.

Before the end of World War II, her family moved again, this time to New York City, where just two weeks after arriving, Watkins was placed in boarding school. She says the transition, so early in her childhood, became a source of alienation. “I was completey in this American peer situation with almost no one to talk to in my language,” she says.

After attending a succession of boarding schools, Watkins arrived at her fourth and final school, New York City’s Hunter College High School, where she rose to the top of her class and eventually became the editor of the school’s magazine.

In matriculating to Radcliffe, Watkins found her new restrictive environment literally worlds apart from her unstructured, colorful upbringing.

Those challenges and freedom that became so innate during her first two decades contrasted much with the sedate, repressive restrictions Radcliffe expected from its women.

When Watkins attended Radcliffe in the early 1950s, she says Harvard was a school dominated by men and pervaded by veterans who had just returned from World War II.

The ladies of Radcliffe College were subject to a host of restrictions on this mostly male campus, including mandatory check-ins and lunches in the Quad, limitations on wearing pants and an absolute a ban on studying in Lamont library.

“We were in a minority of 1:4 and we were not allowed to do many things we would have liked to do, like try out for The Crimson,” writes Jean Berko Gleason ’53, Watkins’ first-year roommate, in an e-mail.

This Harvard was a place where women—who could attend, but could not teach—often had to take a back seat to their male classmates.

Watkins says she never liked the strict adherance to authority that Radcliffe required.

And Gleason says that Watkins rebelled.

“She...couldn’t put up with the foolish rules imposed on us, and had a number of scrapes and near-scrapes with Radcliffe, over such things as staying out too late, or failing to wear a hair net when waiting on table,” Gleason remembers. “I guess that ‘Question authority’ was in her mind long before the radical ’70s.”

But Watkins says it was the socially conservative atmosphere at Radcliffe that she found most anathema to her character.

There, students and professors were not openly gay and Watkins felt she had no choice but to conceal her lesbianism.

“It was just my nature. In college I fell in love with a woman,” Watkins says. “It was like a source of unbelievable alienation. Nobody knew except my partner.”

Watkins says she was friends with a gay Harvard man during her Radcliffe years who was also confined to the closet.

The two spent many hours talking about homosexuality, but never revealed their sexual orientations to other students.

Watkins also spent much of her time at Radcliffe extremely depressed.

“I was barely keeping my stomach above the floor,” Watkins says.

Being forced to hide this internal struggle for four years prevented Watkins from enjoying her Radcliffe education, she says.

“I found Radcliffe completely incomphrehensive and Harvard not very stimulating,” Watkins says.

While Watkins hopelessly struggled to feel comfortable in social situations at Radcliffe, she had no trouble excelling in class.

Gleason says she was immediately struck by Watkins’ intelligence, even as they were just moving into their double in Cabot House and figuring out who would have what bunk bed.

“My first impression was that she was a very sophisticated person from New York, and far more intellectual in every way than I was,” Gleason says.

Watkins says she always sat in the front row of the classroom and would sometimes take over teaching other students herself.

Despite her disdain for Radcliffe’s social environment, Watkins says she benefited intellectually from the academics.

“Even though I had those [negative] opinions, I think I was learning a lot from the professors,” she says. “I loved having all those very intelligent students around me.”

But what worked for Watkins in the classroom made her awkward in the social sphere of her peers.

“In social situations, I would just tell people all the things they didn’t know,” she says.

After graduating from Radcliffe, she began to pursue a doctorate in history at Harvard—and married a Harvard senior during her first year.

“I felt it as almost a religious duty trying to stop being gay,” she says. “Not that I thought it was wrong in itself. But I thought it was wrong to choose to be ostracized and to bring someone else into a situation of ostracization.”

The couple had a daughter a year later, but five years after marrying they divorced.

And yet Watkins says her marriage was “happy some of the time” and does not regret it.

She says she views it as a good life experience and is thankful to have a daughter she is still close to.

The Misfit

Despite her marriage and new degree, Watkins never really fit in at Radcliffe and would continue to be an outsider throughout her life.

Just as during her childhood her family had shuffled from country to country, she began to move from professorship to professorship at universites in the East. Watkins says she chose to become a history professor because in her study of history and literature at Radcliffe, she found history more “honest.”

She taught and studied Russian history, the history of the Renaissance and the Reformation at Simmons College, Ithaca College, Smith College and eventually settled at UMass Boston.

In addition to writing about the Renaissance and Reformation, Watkins has also focused on historical figures who were considered outsiders. Among her scholarly works are a 1969 article on Virginia Woolf’s suicide and a 1971 article entitled “Observer New Haven: The Outsiders,” about Yale students protesting the New Haven police’s targetting of Black Panther Bobby Seal.

With the women’s and gay liberation movement in the 1970s, Watkins says she found a new group of friends that she finally felt comfortable with.

She says other women finally began to seek out careers for themselves—something she had prioritized since college.

Watkins stayed at UMass for 23 years until she retired, but even there she did not find the professional or social environment comfortable.

“My department was very conservative politically and I was definitely very not conservative,” she says. “It was hard for me to get along with the powers that be in the history department.”

While her inability to fit in with her colleagues was a liability for her as a professor, she says the intellectual divide between her and her students was an advantage to her as a teacher.

“[Radcliffe] made me a much better teacher because in some ways I seemed to come from Mars,” Watkins says. “I know a lot of things they didn’t know. So we communicated from two different countries and that’s actually not bad for teachers and students.”

But looking back Watkins also says she found teaching “arduous work” and even “painful.”

“I guess because you are trying to communicate across a gap, I’ve always found it quite a rollercoaster ride and pretty damn tiring,” she says.

Watkins says she was happy to retire at the age of 58.

She moved to Berkeley, Calif., and embarked on a six-year internship as a psychotherapist. She now informally counsels students at the local junior high school, gardening and woodworking in her spare time.

She lost contact with her partner from Radcliffe some thirty years ago, but says she heard that she married and had several children.

Watkins has chosen a less traditional path—and maybe a lonely one—but says she has ended up happy and free.

“I consider myself incredibly lucky,” she says. “I may have problems and questions, but Berkeley is a lovely place to live...and I could retire at 58, so I’ve had 13 years of total freedom.”

—Staff writer Jasmine J. Mahmoud can be reached at mahmoud@fas.harvard.edu.