Is This Mission Impossible?

Three years after its merger with Harvard, Radcliffe still struggles to find a place for gender.

Courtesy OF Tony rinaldo

The 2002-2003 class of Radcliffe Fellows gather in Radcliffe Yard for a group photo earlier this year. The class contains 11 men--the largest number since Radcliffe merged with Harvard in 1999.

Last fall, 11 men studying topics from stars to stereotypes moved into their new offices at 34 Concord Ave., where the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study houses an intellectual haven for the members of its longstanding fellowship program.

As the largest group of men ever invited to participate in the program, their arrival marked a turning point.

After several years in flux after its 1999 merger with Harvard—years spent revamping its image and redefining its structure—the Institute now centers its academic work around the fellowship program.

The program represents everything Radcliffe is and everything it will become—and it has drawn fierce opposition from those who once knew Radcliffe as the place where groups of scholars referred to each other as “sister fellows” and where the occasional male visiting scholar studying gender-related issues had to “give notice” before using the women’s bathroom.

Last spring, when Barbara R. Berman Bergmann first looked at a list of this year’s fellows, she noted that things had changed drastically from her years as a doctoral student at Radcliffe in the 1950s.

“It’s hard to tell what the Institute is all about, except that it isn’t about gender,” Bergmann says.

Along with a long-time Radcliffe acquaintance, she drafted a letter criticizing the Institute for drifting away from its focus on gender studies and public policy. Signed by more than 20 alums and professors across the country with an interest in gender studies, the letter made it to the pages of this winter’s Radcliffe Quarterly—where Institute Dean Drew Gilpin Faust fired back.

In her response, Faust pointed to a continuing “special commitment to women, gender, and society” and denied that the Institute’s broader scope means Radcliffe has lost its legacy.

“By supporting women in fields in which they are seriously underrepresented, we are sustaining Radcliffe’s heritage of intellectual excellence and commitment to women,” she wrote.

As the Institute becomes coeducational in compliance with federal gender-equity laws and a new mission statement, unanswered questions remain three years after the merger: Can Radcliffe exist with men in its midst? And can its spirit survive without gender studies at its core?

As a two-time participant in the fellowship program—who saw its smaller, more gender-centered incarnation in 1976 and returned last year to find a “quite different” environment—Alice Kessler-Harris says she has raised these questions.

“There’s tension between trying to construct Radcliffe as an institute which has both intellectual distinction and is tied in some way to Harvard’s strengths, and trying to maintain an institute which focuses on gender,” she says. “That may be a healthy tension, but I think it may also be a tension that shifts the identity of the Institute.”

FEMALE FOCUS

The last few years have been tumultuous for Radcliffe, with massive administrative restructuring and a critical reframing of its mission statement. As the dust settles and the new Institute for Advanced Study takes shape, everyone at Radcliffe can agree on one thing: its new mission is a mouthful.

Unlike most other fellowship programs, Radcliffe operates under a two-tiered mission statement: to create “an academic community where individuals can pursue advanced work in any of the academic disciplines, professions, or creative arts” and to sustain “a continuing commitment to the study of women, gender, and society.”

Gender and feminism are deeply rooted in the culture of Radcliffe, which was founded in 1879 as a bastion of female undergraduate education.

Its Schlesinger Library boasts a large collection of pins, pennants and posters from various women’s rights movements. And the papers of many prominent feminist thinkers, including Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin, can also be found in the library’s archival collections.

According to its director, Trumbull Professor of American History Nancy F. Cott, the library remains “the one place within the Institute that really is focused on women.”

Radcliffe administrators, alumnae and fellows alike agree that the study of women, gender and society should have a home beyond the Schlesinger’s stacks.

“This is a place where path-breaking advances are going to be made” in gender studies, Faust says. “We have a critical intellectual role to play, and critical resources to share.”

But as the Institute’s new administrative and programmatic structures come into focus, just where that home will be remains unclear. And for the many observers—from alums to former fellows—who still feel invested in Radcliffe’s future, the location remains a topic worth debating.

WRITING UP A STORM

The dispute has recently played out in the form of subtle sparring over the fellowship program on the pages of the Radcliffe Quarterly.

Ever since the merger, the Institute has taken heat from its alumnae. The initial complaints focused on feelings of disenfranchisement from their disappearing alma mater, and many alums responded by closing their checkbooks. But now, some alums have decided to support the new Institute while turning their focus to its intellectual identity.

In fact, Regina Gittes Greenspun ’55, who co-authored the letter with Bergmann, says she continues to give money to Radcliffe and helps fundraising efforts on the Institute’s behalf.

The pair circulated their letter on e-mail lists for the Radcliffe Class of 1955 and for the American Association of University Professors, criticizing the majority of this year’s class of fellows for having “no connection to gender issues whatever.”

Bergmann says Faust’s approach seems to be nothing more than “let’s get a lot of smart people together.”

The letter pushes for an alternate approach: the increased study of public policy to “serve women’s needs and aspirations.”

“Because there is no institute in the world supporting fellowships focusing on women and gender,” the letter states, “a Radcliffe Institute which did so—by choosing top scholars who would benefit from being together—would make a huge contribution and would best serve the heritage of Radcliffe.”

In her response, Faust challenged their entire concept of the Institute’s nature.

“The writers misunderstand the terms of the Radcliffe-Harvard merger and the identity of the new Radcliffe Institute,” she wrote. “Radcliffe is not a women’s public policy institute.”

While a “substantial portion” of academic activity goes to gender studies, she added that, through the fellowship program, the Institute supports a broad range of fields, “from poetry to sculpture to history to string physics.”

According to Judith Vichniac, who heads the fellowship program, 13 of this year’s 51 fellows include gender in their projects. She says gender studies remain a “major intellectual concern” when Radcliffe picks its fellows.

The letter-writers cast doubt on Radcliffe’s commitment to this part of its mission, specifically questioning the way the Institute recruited a group of astrophysicists—male and female—for this year’s class of fellows.

Radcliffe Dean of Science Barbara J. Grosz, who worked to assemble the group, echoes Faust’s defense of including science among the Institute’s priorities. She also says inviting male astrophysicists is crucial to the program’s success.

“My goal is to the get the world’s best scientists here. We would not have a first-rate science program if we didn’t have men,” she says. “And we would not have the best women here because the best women want to be around the best scientists.”

But the letter’s authors say they are skeptical of this claim and hope other alumnae will join in their objections.

“Rather than serving the heritage of Radcliffe, it’s becoming just a generalized intellectual institute,” Greenspun says. “If there are a lot of women watching and paying a little more attention, maybe we’ll get a better or more representative group next year.”

This letter marks the second time in as many years that the fellowship program has come under fire in the Radcliffe Quarterly for its changing focus.

In fall 2001, more than half of the 2000-01 class of fellows, along with one of the program’s former directors, suggested that Radcliffe may be neglecting its commitment to gender issues.

At the time, former fellow Kathleen M. Sands, who helped write the letter, expressed concern that women and gender do not play a “clearly central role” in the fellowship program’s latest incarnation.

“So far as we can see, there are no specific procedures in place to actually make that happen,” said Sands, an associate professor of religious studies at UMass Boston. “We wonder therefore how deep the commitment of the new Radcliffe Institute is to structuring that.”

When she defended the program, Faust said that year’s class of fellows was “heavily focused on gender issues” and she pointed to the recent appointment of four prominent women scholars as Radcliffe faculty as reflections of a “strong Institute interest in gender studies.”

'ONE REGRET'

Though many of the fellows who wrote the 2001 letter were drawing on just their one-year experience at Radcliffe, scholars who have participated in the program more than once raise similar questions.

Since making sure well-known senior faculty join junior scholars is a major part of the Institute’s revamped program, many women who held fellowships in the program’s earlier days have returned.

Kessler-Harris, a history professor at Columbia University affiliated with its Institute for Research on Women and Gender, remembers her first time as a fellow in the 1970s.

Then, the program was known as the Bunting Fellowship and provided a nurturing refuge for young female scholars.

“The Bunting was a very nice, comfortable place to be,” she says. “The new Radcliffe Institute is probably more intellectually challenging and much more closely connected with Harvard.”

Currently, she says, gender is “much more peripheral than it used to be.” And though Kessler-Harris says men should be a part of the new Radcliffe, she says those men who do become fellows should be studying gender.

“There’s been no thread of gender running through people’s work,” she adds. “There was a time when if there was not that thread, at least everybody was female.”

Some maintain the program should exclude men altogether.

Florence Ladd, who was a fellow for two years in the early 1970s and came back to direct the program from 1989 to 1997, says she has happily watched it grow and become more integrated with the University at large.

The inclusion of men, she says, is her “one regret.”

As a result of combining with Harvard, the Institute was forced to open its doors to men in compliance with federal gender-equity laws.

As top administrators from Harvard and Radcliffe hashed out the tenuous merger agreement behind closed doors, the gender restrictions of the Bunting Fellowships became a stumbling block. Harvard administrators worried that the single-sex tradition could expose the Institute to lawsuits under federal gender-equity laws, while Radcliffe administrators thought the addition of men to the mix might disrupt the Bunting’s sense of community.

The issue was on the verge of stalling negotiations until Radcliffe gave in.

Ladd says a compromise could have kept the fellowships intact as a program for female scholars.

“In the ways that women’s colleges are protected and are allowed to remain single sex, I felt that single-sex status could have been accorded to the Institute with some legal intelligence,” she says. “I suppose it was just easier to comply with regulations than to be brave and challenge them.”

Judith Plaskow, a religion professor at Manhattan College who came to Radcliffe in 1986 and returned for a second stint last year, says many of the 2001-02 fellows were alarmed when they learned that their list of successors included 11 men.

“When we heard how many men had been chosen for this year, there was a lot of discussion over lunch. A lot of people were upset,” Plaskow says. “A lot of people were expressing relief that they had been fellows last year, feeling that last year was maybe the last year to be in a women’s community that was really special.”

But other fellows, especially the younger ones, welcome men and object to the idea of a single-sex Institute.

“Excluding men from Radcliffe doesn’t seem right. There’s something that’s not very egalitarian about forming an all-women’s club,” says Pamela M. Keel, an associate professor of psychology who spent her 2001-02 fellowship studying eating disorders. “There were men last year. I didn’t feel like their presence in any way undermined the experience for me.”

SITTING AT THE TABLE

But gender at Radcliffe is not merely an internal consideration.

As a result of the merger, Radcliffe is now defined as a separate entity within Harvard, on par with the Medical School or the Law School.

Faust thus has an influential role as a member of the President’s Academic Council, the group of deans that regularly meets to inform University-wide policy decisions.

When Faust spoke before a group of alumnae in her new role as dean in 2001, she touted Radcliffe’s new role within the University as a way that the Institute could advocate broadly on behalf of women at Harvard.

“Radcliffe at last has a formal seat at the Harvard table,” she said, “and can now begin to help change the menu and the guest list.”

Similarly, the report of an ad-hoc committee on defining the post-merger Radcliffe stressed the importance of “furthering opportunities for women at Harvard and in the academy generally.”

Now, as recruiting female faculty weighs on the minds of Harvard’s top administrators, Radcliffe is expected to play a leading role.

When University Provost Steven E. Hyman came to Harvard last year, he vowed to work closely with Faust to recruit and retain female faculty. Though he met with the Institute’s dean once last year to discuss the matter, no subsequent meetings have been held this academic year.

As Institute administrators hash out their final decisions on next year’s Radcliffe fellows, they maintain that their commitment to women, gender and society remains one of their guiding principles.

But with Radcliffe’s vocal alums looking on—not just graduates from the college but former participants in the fellowship program—administrators cling to the Institute’s new identity and say they will stand by their new approach.

“We cannot discriminate on the basis of gender,” Vichniac says. “It’s not legal, and we’re not interested in doing it.”

New groups of scientists and a special team of scholars studying immigration are likely to be on Radcliffe’s guest list, and some of them are likely to be men.