The Alums Fight For Equality

Over the course of one Saturday afternoon in Radcliffe Yard, eight graying women critiqued the College’s sexual assault policy, discussed results of an e-mail survey of female Harvard faculty members and outlined their concerns over the quality of Harvard’s social life.

The Committee for the Equality of Women at Harvard (CEWH), which gathered in Radcliffe’s Cronkhite Center on a cold Saturday this October outfitted with homemade sandwiches and a portable space heater, has spent the past 15 years hashing out plans to make sure female undergraduates do not experience the second-rate treatment they feel characterized their Radcliffe years.

The committee has had some public successes. They ran a 1998 national conference on women in academia held at Harvard. They raised enough money to endow a joint professorship between the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Most recently, they compiled and published a book of essays on women in American research universities.

But committee members admit they continue to struggle against the tides of Harvard: an administration that is sometimes unresponsive, a faculty unwilling to agitate and a body of busy undergraduates who don’t see gender inequities as significant problems.

The Radcliffe alums say they have come to accept that female professors do not often, or loudly, advocate for more women to receive tenure.

And they say four years is not enough time for undergraduates to effect change—or even to notice a problem.

Left are the unlikely agitators of CEWH—a group of mostly Class of 1953 and Class of 1958 Radcliffe alumni, all of whom have the time and freedom to keep a vigilant eye and continually press for improvements for women on campus.


The committee grew out of a conversation 15 years ago at a Radcliffe 35th reunion meeting, where many alums, remembering obstacles they faced as undergraduates, questioned whether Harvard’s female students and faculty members still face difficulties because of their gender.

A group volunteered to investigate the issue and, five years later, reported that their examination of tenure statistics had found little improvement since the ’50s—and a lack of well-publicized information—according to CEWH Co-Chair Alice “Acey” Welch ’53.

“The reason we are in this is we realized we were angry over the experience we had at Harvard over 35 years ago,” CEWH member Cornelia Dimmitt ’58 says. “Undergraduate women have no idea it hasn’t changed as much as they think it has.”

Members say they were particularly surprised to find a dearth of tenured female faculty members—there were 27 women out of around 400 faculty members in 1988, when the group formed—and what they viewed as insufficient initiative to change the tenure process on the part of Harvard’s administration.

A handful of members of the Radcliffe Class of 1958 joined the original group, and CEWH was born in 1993, with the broad mission to increase the number of women in the Faculty and achieve gender equality for students.

The women meet with administrators a few times per year, and e-mail with specific issues they want addressed.

Many of their efforts have met with only tepid success, however.

In 1995, they established an escrow account for alums who wanted to donate to Harvard but were unwilling to do so until Harvard changed how it recruits women faculty members.

Before they would turn over the money, the group demanded that the University establish specific timetables, use special hiring committees for departments with the fewest women and issue public annual reports on the state of women in the Faculty.

The hiring process did not change. In June 2000, however, CEWH decided to give the account’s $1.5 million to the Radcliffe Institute for a professorship which pays an assistant professor for five years, including two years of research.

At the end of the five years, the Faculty member is expected to become a full professor in that department and the money will go to fund another assistant professor’s salary.

The University had not implemented any of CEWH’s demands, but members say they hoped the appointment of Drew Gilpin Faust as dean of the Radcliffe Institute would bring with it an increased focus on women across campus.

While the escrow account did not meet its primary goal, the committee members say their fundraising potential forced the University to notice them.

“That made Harvard sit up and pay attention,” Welch says. For instance, she says, the group found they had an easier time scheduling meetings with administrators.

And whereas before CEWH could not get billing in the Radcliffe reunion schedule, Dimmitt says the group is now listed prominently in the publication.


Committee members acknowledge that their e-mails and meetings have not always brought immediate change—but they see themselves making headway nonetheless.

They had hoped to spearhead a study on the status of women at Harvard, modeled after a self-study conducted at MIT’s School of Science from 1995 to 1999. After two years of petitioning, they collected about 1,000 signatures backing their initiative.

But then-University President Neil L. Rudenstine turned down their request saying that a report like MIT’s wouldn’t work at Harvard because of the diversity of Harvard’s academic departments and professional schools, according to CEWH Co-Chair Gabriella P. Schlesinger ’58.

“Even though they were saying they wanted to improve the climate for women, they were putting the shade down in a very visible form,” Welch says.

Last year, the committee sent an informal e-mail survey to all female faculty members asking them to describe the three most pressing issues for women at Harvard.

Out of 340 female professors who received the survey, only 47 returned it.

Despite this low response rate, Welch says the endeavor was useful, and helped the committee get a sense of the biggest problems facing female faculty at the University: child care availability and inconvenient meeting schedules.

Dimmitt, who headed up the survey, says the group’s most surprising finding did not come from the female professors’ concerns, but the lack of response from female faculty members when the group asked if they could put the respondents in touch with each other.

She says this points to a more serious problem—a lack of initiative on the part of female professors themselves.

“The women faculty probably, one, they wish to be able to function in their academic environment without harassment and hassle and, two, they are very overworked,” says Welch. “You put the two together they’re going to try to follow a course that will not hinder their own position.”

Nancy Tobin ’49 says members have been similarly surprised by undergraduates.

For instance, a female undergraduate told the group that she was not bothered by the lack of female professors and did not believe in the need for affirmative action for women in academia.

“We were shocked to hear this,” Dimmitt says.

Welch says that even if undergraduates do not perceive problems now, they still exist. She did not feel discriminated against as an undergraduate either, she says, but can see the flaws in the system now.

“It takes many years before the blinders come off,” Tobin says.

The committee has met with undergraduates in the College’s feminist groups, such as the Radcliffe Union of Students and the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, but the Radcliffe alums say they realize that most students simply do not have time for five-hour meetings with lengthy agendas.

CEWH members say they are in a unique position that allows them to speak up when they see problems, with nothing to lose.

“The advantage is that we’re not connected officially so we can pretty much say what we want,” Tobin says.

Recently, members e-mailed Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby to complain when they noticed that there were no women chairing the committees formed last fall to review all aspects of the undergraduate curriculum.

And committee members make sure they stay up-to-date on the intricacies of the College’s controversial sexual assault policy.

Two CEWH members, Elisabeth “Betsy” R. Hatfield ’58 and Tobin, recently visited Women’s Studies 131, “Women, Violence and the Law” to listen in on the class.

With 2,000 members on its mailing list and active recruitment of new members at reunion events, CEWH members say they hope the group will continue long after the founding members are no longer involved.

Schlesinger says the group has no definite timeline and will keep going until it runs out of new topics relating to women at Harvard—which she says will never happen.

In early April, the CEWH women published a book of essays about women in academia titled Unequal Rites, Unequal Outcomes: Women in American Research Universities, a project that came out of their 1998 conference.

At their April book party, the women, all sporting pins with the image of a female and male graduate connected by an equal sign, buzzed about the book and the recent appointment of Elena Kagan as dean of Harvard Law School.

“One of the things we do is prick the conscious of people who hear about us. It’s in the air, it will happen,” Dimmitt says. “They don’t have to pay attention to us, but they have to pay attention to the issue of women.”