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.”


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.