When Susan E. Milmoe began living with her Radcliffe graduate school roommate—a woman whom everyone called “Peggy” back then—Milmoe was unaware that she wrote poetry.
Peggy wrote “behind closed doors,” Milmoe said, despite having already published a few poems in Canadian literary journals back home.
Little did Milmoe and her other roommate know that the “Peggy” who read their Tarot cards and cooked them meals would become literary legend Margaret E. Atwood.
“If I had realized she was going to be famous, I certainly would’ve paid more attention,” Milmoe joked.
During their time as roommates, Milmoe considered Atwood and her soon-to-be husband, Jim Polk, to be “house parents” and remembered Atwood as a “wonderful cook” who would often listen to her roommates’ quandaries, both academic and romantic.
Today, Atwood is considered one of contemporary literature’s most noteworthy figures, having published over fifty volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and nonfiction, and having received several notable accolades.
Though Atwood’s time at Radcliffe was littered with obstacles—from gender-based discrimination to cut-throat competition within the English department—she was, and has remained, an unfailingly positive and patient woman.
“You would get the impression, reading some of the novels, that she’s depressive, but that is not at all the case,” Milmoe said. “She’s very much, in my opinion, a ‘lemonade out of lemons’ sort of person.”
When Atwood arrived at Radcliffe in 1961, Harvard had only just begun to admit female graduate students. Women made up only about a quarter of the student body at Harvard, Milmoe recalled.
It was not until 1963—just one year after Atwood received her master’s degree in English—that Radcliffe women were granted Harvard diplomas.
Along with Milmoe and another roommate, Atwood lived in an apartment on Harvard Street while studying at Radcliffe. Though Atwood may not have been affected by the gender-based dormitory segregation of the time, attending Radcliffe still meant facing what Nathalie Cooke, author of “Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion,” called “a man’s world.”
At that time, women were not allowed to enter Lamont Library, making Harvard’s poetry collection inaccessible to Atwood—an obstacle that, Milmoe said, was “quite a deprivation for Peggy.”
In Atwood’s Victorian Humor course, women had to serve the class tea and cookies during break time.
“Radcliffe must have seemed very different indeed from that atmosphere of her childhood, or that of Victoria College...where she completed her undergraduate degree,” Cooke wrote in an email. “Both were worlds that empowered women.”
Atwood’s interest in gender issues—which would later manifest in her poetry, essays, and fiction—was evident during her graduate studies, according to Atwood’s former classmate Lloyd Schwartz.
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