Making Spaces

Stephen M. Shelton

There are very few women found amongst the ghosts of Tercentenary Theatre. In her introduction to the anthology  “Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History,” 300th Anniversary University Professor of History Laurel Thatcher Ulrich writes, any Radcliffe student attending service at Memorial Church had to sit behind a screen because she was considered “a temptation,” until the rule was changed in 1955.

From that decade on, the presence of women grew stronger, steadily filling in this historic void. In 1970, graduating Radcliffe seniors were allowed, for the first time, to march in the commencement ceremony that famously ends at the foot of the church. A year later, 1971 marked the earliest instance in which a woman was allowed to preach from the Memorial Church pulpit.

Other parts of the College’s geography underwent a similar transition. The libraries of Harvard Yard remained exclusively male until the mid-20th-century. When Lamont was founded in 1949, Widener, open since 1915, extended access to Radcliffe students. Ulrich explains that for women, “There were certain rules about where they could walk in Widener, because the idea was they would distract the males.” Lamont remained accessible only to men until 1967.

Interestingly enough, males were always allowed in the Radcliffe College Library, where, 1956 Radcliffe alum Paula J. Omansky observes, they did not come to only look at books. When Hilles opened in 1966 as the new Radcliffe library, it was open to both Radcliffe and Harvard students. The old Radcliffe College Library is now the Schlesinger Library, which features women’s rights collections, among other items.

Accompanying these changes was a shift in the primary landscape through which women engaged with their education on campus. Before World War Two, Radcliffe Yard was central to an undergraduate woman’s experience at the university as the location of all classes and activities. Thereafter, the changes began. Says Ulrich, “In the 1940’s, during the war, when there were so many men away, they started co-ed classes for the first time.” She notes however, “It was a very long process of integrating.”

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Women's Spaces and The Harvard College Women's Center

Women's Spaces and The Harvard College Women's Center

By the time Omansky began her freshman year at Radcliffe in 1952 the gender divide had faded. “The education was identical, we went to Harvard classes,” she says. Even student organizations she was a part of, like the Democratic Club, were co-ed. Gym classes, dining halls and housing were the significant exceptions, with gym classes held at separate facilities for men and women.

Freshman Dean Thomas A. Dingman ’67 recalls that Radcliffe women were not allowed to eat in House dining halls on the River. “There was a separate world up there, and then you came here for your education,” says Ulrich. Women could only fully occupy the space in the Quad, but even there, the dynamics were different.

Men were housed in suites on the River, which had common rooms and bedrooms. Radcliffe housing consisted of singles, in the Quad, with smoking lounges, or “smokers,” on each floor. Even in the mid-20th-century, men’s control over their own social space started close to home as an extension of their dorm rooms.

For most of Harvard’s history, the Yard was a restricted space for Radcliffe women, and even life in the Quad was subject to administrative rules. Omansky relates how Radcliffe women were under the jurisdiction of parietal hours and had to sign in and out. They were required to be in their dorm by 10 p.m. on weeknights and 1 a.m. on Saturdays. There were also restrictions about how late a Radcliffe student could remain visiting someone at Harvard.

Dingman explains, “If they were visiting, you had to sign them in, and they were allowed to be here between 4 [p.m.]and 7 [p.m.].” Omansky notes however, “A lot of stuff went on notwithstanding these parietal rules, I assure you.”

Despite the integration of freshman dorms in 1972, the actual point at which women became part of the main campus is an ambiguous one. “There’s no possible way of fixing a date when women entered Harvard because it happened so gradually,” Ulrich says. She emphasizes that even after this integration, “Women still got their diplomas counter-signed by Radcliffe.” This didn’t change until 1999.

While Radcliffe was not formally transformed from a college into an Institute for Advanced Study until that same year, it began as the Harvard Annex, an add-on to the main institution, created with the intention of ultimately incorporating women into the Harvard community, says Marilyn Dunn, Executive Director of the Schlesinger Library. In the past, “Radcliffe had been this kind of stepchild,” says Ulrich.

Today, a remaining legacy of the once all-male Harvard College is still seen in the freshman dorms, where male students often occupy the first floors.

William Cooper ’94, Resident Dean of Freshman, writes in an email to The Crimson, “It’s generally true that vertical entries have men on the first floor while horizontal entries are a mix, but there’s a lot of variety in the Yard due to the architecture of each building. Also, since the gender balance of each class varies from year to year we make annual adjustments to the rooms.” Dingman comments that the first floor of Thayer Dorm remained all-male until about five years ago.

From living spaces to social ones, the search for a place at Harvard has been two-fold. Before the full integration of the two colleges, women had limited areas where they could wait around in the Yard between classes. Susan B. Marine, Assistant Dean for Student Life and Director of the Women’s Center, describes the Radcliffe students of the 50s and 60s as restricted: “They could really only go to the Memorial Church basement because that’s where the bathrooms were, and it was also like a lounge. They had couches and stuff down there, and that’s where the Radcliffe women hung out.”

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