Room for Improvement

After years of reluctance, Harvard is more receptive than ever to demands for a women’s center. But what the deans have in mind isn’t necessarily what students want.

Jake C. Levine

RUS has been lobbying for a women's center for 30 years.

An unusual sense of optimism filled the Loker Commons Coffeehouse at 5 p.m. one Wednesday last month.

Twenty or 30 students had flocked to the dimly lit basement for an open meeting organized by the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS). They were eager to discuss what appeared to be an epochal moment in the College’s 370-year history: after many stubborn years as the only school in the Ivy League without a women’s center, Harvard had signaled that it might finally be ready to establish one on campus.

The ethnically diverse group of undergraduate men and women, many of whom were not RUS regulars, began chatting about gender issues as they settled into their seats. Two ambassadors from University Hall—Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd and Assistant Dean of the College Julia G. Fox­­—joined the circle, smiling supportively.

The mood was high. A vigorous dialogue among students was being opened, and the College administration was sitting by attentively. The details could be hammered out later.

At 6 p.m. sharp, the student group that had reserved Loker for the next hour filed in and courteously gave RUS the boot.

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Though they are thrilled to have administrators listening, current and former members of RUS and the Undergraduate Council (UC) are wary of what they see as a decades-long history of miscommunication and broken promises from Harvard.

Despite recent gains, some worry that a dismissive attitude towards women’s issues still lingers. One student, who asked that her name not be used in this story, recalls approaching University President Lawrence H. Summers at a Dunster House Master’s Open House last fall and asking for his thoughts on a women’s center. It was a brief, one-on-one exchange, so there is no record of Summers’ response. But the student says she remembers his emphatic, unambiguous reply as: “A women’s center is one of the last things I want to see on campus.” A spokesman for Summers declined to comment on the anecdote.

In this charged context, nobody doubts that it will take more than a successful hour in Loker to give Harvard’s feminists full confidence in the administration.

COMMITMENT ISSUES

Every prefrosh weekend for the last three years, RUS has pitched a tent outside the Science Center to represent the women’s space that they say Harvard lacks. In spring 2004, after the College announced that several floors of Hilles Library would be converted into student space of an undetermined nature, several RUS members submitted a proposal for a two-room women’s center there; the proposal was endorsed by 11 other student groups and Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR). In May 2004, the UC passed a resolution backing the call for a center in Hilles.

Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 will have the final say on whether and how these demands are met.

This month, Gross took the most concrete step yet, forming a 14-person Undergraduate Women’s Center Director Search Committee. Tomorrow, the six student group representatives and eight faculty, staff, and alums on the committee will meet for the first time. Gross says a women’s center director might be hired as soon as January or February­­­—though as the committee seeks to find someone to fill the position, it will also be trying to settle the thorny question of what, exactly, that person will direct.

“It is very clear to me that our women students want a women’s center, and therefore I want one,” says Kidd, who is the highest-ranking College administrator on the search committee.

Several students who spoke to FM wonder if the College administration’s renewed focus on creating a women’s center has anything to do with combating the PR nightmare caused by Summers’ infamous Jan. 14 remarks on the “intrinsic aptitude” of women in science.

College administrators, however, insist that their interest in a women’s center long predates Summers’ media mess. “I’ve been hearing about this since I became Dean [in 2003],” Gross says. “This has been cooking for a while.”

Whether or not the timing of this women-friendly initiative is pure coincidence, it’s hard to doubt that last statement. The push for a women’s center at Harvard has been cooking, in fact, since shortly after Gross walked through the Yard as an undergraduate.

SLOW BOIL

Back then, in the late 1960s, Harvard College had no female students. The women who attended Harvard classes alongside Gross walked back to all-female dorms in what is now the Quad, where they were formally enrolled at Radcliffe College, a separate college within the University.

The Radcliffe era was hardly a model of gender equality, but RUS’s 2004 proposal describes the period in markedly positive terms.

“For over a century,” the proposal reads, “women at Harvard enjoyed a huge amount of physical space designated as theirs as well as structural support on an administrative level. While their male counterparts governed and populated (in practice, if not always in name) the Administration, the Yard, and all of the Houses, Radcliffe students could use the facilities up Garden Street. This area was, and largely remains, the only part of the University whose buildings are named for prominent women, and whose walls proudly display their portraits.”

In 1971, when Gross earned his A.B., the divisions between Harvard and Radcliffe were already fading. That year, Harvard took responsibility for the residential life of Radcliffe’s students—where they worked, ate, and slept. Soon, women were living in fully co-ed House communities. As female students went on to gain complete access to Harvard’s undergraduate world, the Radcliffe resources which had once been solely dedicated to their needs were slowly dismantled or forgotten.

Over the next decade, peer schools like Princeton, Stanford, and Cornell set up women’s centers, giving their students spaces where they could coordinate feminist events, hold meetings for a wide variety of groups, and share information about women’s resources on campus.

In October 1971, Harvard women followed suit, establishing a women’s center in the basement of what is now Pforzheimer House. Three weeks later, The Crimson wrote that “space was provided by cleaning out an old mattress storage area next to the maids’ room...The Women’s Center, staffed on a volunteer basis, is a place where women can drop in for discussion of subjects of common interest. The library is to be a source of information for undergraduate papers and theses on women’s issues.”

Within a few years, according to last year’s RUS proposal, Harvard’s first women’s center had failed “due to lack of consistent funds.” It was an inauspicious beginning, and subsequent attempts met similarly dismal fates.

A Crimson article from 1974 concluded that the “tiny room on the second floor of Phillips Brooks House” which served as a women’s center that year was damned by a lack of publicity. A few years later, a new center was set up in the southwest corner of Harvard Yard, in the basement of Lehman Hall, but it lacked the finances to capitalize on this prime location. An op-ed published in The Crimson in 1982 accused the College of reneging on an agreement to provide just $1,350 annually to support this center’s activities. After moving to a room in Apley Court, The Crimson later reported, the center was plagued by “a series of break-ins and security problems.”

As the 1980s drew to a close, attention turned back to what remained of Radcliffe. Though Harvard had subsumed nearly all its administrative roles, the one-time women’s college still retained control over several buildings’ worth of space. In 1990, under renewed pressure from campus activists, Radcliffe administrators set up the gender-neutral Lyman Common Room (LCR)—one more try at something resembling a women’s center.

Almost immediately, students protested that the LCR was inadequate. A single room in Agassiz House, near Cambridge Common, it was seen as both too small and too distant.

In April 1991, Melissa R. Hart ’91 published a scathing op-ed in The Crimson about her experience staffing the LCR. Hart accused Radcliffe President Linda S. Wilson of micromanaging everything from the books on the room’s shelves to the posters on its walls.

“[Wilson] can call at a moment’s notice and announce that she intends to use the room for a reception or some other event—a privilege no other member of the Harvard-Radcliffe community can claim,” Hart wrote. “And when students ask for increased involvement in the LCR, the Radcliffe administration responds that all student groups should feel absolutely free to use the room whenever they like. The issue of student input in actual decision making is side-stepped completely.”

Before long, the LCR joined the ranks of Harvard’s abandoned women’s centers.

In October 1999, Radcliffe College took the final steps toward nonexistence, its vestiges swept into the student-free Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The LCR was dismantled that fall; according to a 2001 report by the Women’s Initiative Network, it “disappeared without warning, practically overnight.”

Harvard College was left as the only administrative body responsible for the University’s female undergraduates.

Campus activists feared that it would not address those students’ gender-specific needs.

“When the merger became final, we were furious,” recalls Shauna L. Shames ’01, a former UC representative from Currier House who was active in groups like the Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV) and Students for Choice. “We felt like we’d been bought and sold and traded in.”

ALL EARS?

Though the reasons for their demises have been varied, each of these short-lived women’s centers was undermined from the start by communication problems between students and administrators.

Shames recalls a series of frustrating meetings with College administrators four years ago. “We felt like every single promise she made was hollow,” she says of one former administrator. “She was a politician, essentially, who was very good at her job of representing the administration and not helping the female students.”

Kidd and Gross, by contrast, repeatedly stress how important it is to them to have an open dialogue with students.

“The whole attitude of the College is now one of meeting with students and seeing how can we make this happen,” Kidd says. “Dean Gross has set that tone, and he brings in people who feel that way.”

Gross freely acknowledges Harvard’s history of sexism, noting that female undergraduates were barred from Lamont Library until 1967. He has a genial, genuine air, and there’s no pretense in his desire to hear what students have to say.

“I think that we just haven’t succeeded in getting the right balance of student and administrative input,” he says of previous attempts to establish a center.

This time, Gross is making sure to listen. But he doesn’t always like what he hears. For one thing, he objects to the phrase “women’s center.”

“I don’t like the terminology so much because that indicates a building or a space,” he says.

Though Kidd says that she hopes to address student concerns as fully as possible, she, too, trips on the semantics of space.

“Although many, including me occasionally, have been referring to it as a women’s center, many of us feel that this could be a misleading or too confining name,” Kidd writes in an e-mail.

Things only get murkier when Gross clarifies his conception of what he’s working toward. “It’s really not a place, it’s an organization,” he says.

But a place of their own is precisely what students want most.

GOING UNDERGROUND

Echoing some critics of the women’s center movement, Gross notes that Harvard already has many of the organizations and resources which other schools house in their women’s centers. The Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality, the closest Harvard has to an academic women’s studies department, is located on Quincy Street, in Warren House. OSAPR, established in 2003 after a campaign by the students in CASV, has an office on the third floor of Holyoke Center.

Yet without dedicated meeting spaces, students say, female-centered student groups have been forced to operate from the margins of College life. As long as Harvard Square’s male-only final clubs continue to own their exclusive mansions, these students see a pressing need for a physical counterweight. On a campus where historic buildings serve as visible reminders of centuries of male power, they are asking for one space that is explicitly oriented towards the women of Harvard’s present and future.

This essential demand is the source of the hardest questions surrounding student proposals for a women’s center. How much space should a women’s center get? Where should it go? How should it be configured?

These are also the questions that got students most enthusiastic at the RUS town hall meeting in Loker. Naturally, they proposed, Harvard’s women’s center should have offices for its staff. Eager to foster campus dialogue on women’s issues, they envisioned ample meeting space for student groups as well. Many called for a place to socialize; two suggested a café to draw in more casual students and keep them there. And all of this, of course, would be prominently located in the middle of campus.

“I think that during the course of the conversation reality will set in,” Kidd says of the suggestions. “Better to take what we can get now than keep postponing.”

Gross says his hands are tied by Harvard’s chronic space crunch.

“If we had an infinite amount of space we’d think about [a full building], but we don’t have the space,” he says. “We’ll work with what we have...but a new Fly Club, no. I haven’t got it.”

Generous, centrally located space has allowed women’s centers at other schools to thrive without their own buildings. At Duke, for instance, a residence hall holds a 2,000-square-foot, seven-room women’s center, which offers a kitchen, a work area with computers, a reading room, two lounges, a copier and fax machine, and a TV, VCR, and DVD player. Duke’s center has five professional staff members, and its website boasts that “Our meeting spaces are HEAVILY used throughout the year.”

Tara Gadgil ’07, a Mather House representative who has helped lead recent efforts by the UC to lobby for a women’s center, had one firm, simple request when FM contacted her in August.

“We’re very, very clear that we do not want basement space,” Gadgil said. “That sends a very poor message about a women’s center—it needs to be above ground, and it needs to be in a place where you don’t need a special swipe card...It doesn’t make any sense to have a women’s center in a basement space, in space that’s not inviting.”

A basement space in Harvard Yard, as it happens, is one of two specific options Gross mentions (the other is the newly-vacated space in the Quad Library). He says he’d like to set up a women’s center along the lines of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, which operates out of a small office in the basement of Thayer Hall and coordinates dozens of student organizations, from Fuerza Latina to Hillel to the Black Students Association.

This, then, is what Gross pictures when he hears “women’s center”: a small space housing an umbrella organization for student groups and women’s resources located elsewhere on campus.

COMPROMISES

That’s not quite the cafe-and-office complex they want, but after so many years of frustration, Harvard’s women’s center advocates may be ready to settle.

Last week, shortly after being elected chair of the UC’s Student Affairs Committee, Gadgil said she “definitely stick[s] by” her earlier statements about the inadequacy of a basement space.

“I’m not willing to have a Yard basement the way it is now,” says RUS Co-Chair Dara F. Goodman ’07. But she’s open to compromise. “What we need is a whole Yard basement, or at least half.”

In talks with administrators, Gadgil has struck a similarly pragmatic tone. “We recently have been talking about available student space, and we understand it’s limited,” she says. “At the same time, we need to make sure that the premise of a women’s center, whatever that’s deemed to be, is fulfilled in the space that’s decided on.”

The quest for a women’s center has no single, sharply defined goal. No magic number of square feet could ever guarantee that women will not feel disenfranchised. These students are willing to compromise because what they desire most, more than any architectural specification, is a symbolic statement from Harvard’s administration that it recognizes the needs of women on campus.

In the months to come, the College administration will no doubt continue to listen to the students who care so much about this issue. It will just as surely continue to follow its own path regardless of what those students say, unable or unwilling to meet some of their biggest demands.

And as uncertain as this game of give-and-take is, women’s center advocates are hoping they get the chance to play it to its promised conclusion.

“The process has to be one that’s not drawn out over too many months or years,” Gadgil says. “Moving along the calendar at a pace that doesn’t obstruct the formation of this center on campus is something that’s really important.”

Goodman puts it more simply.

“We’re at that point where we have [available] space at Harvard,” she says. “My concern is just, it’s not going to happen.”

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