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.

SIT UP AND PAY ATTENTION

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.