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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Radcliffe Survives Years of Sneers

Annex Maidens Today Win Crimson Men

By Stephen O. Saxe

"We Radcliffe girls are a long suffering group, but under the kind of persecution we have received at Harvard's hands, even a Griselda would revolt. It seems to me that the time has come to show that we have feelings and that they have been seriously injured."

So wrote Sophie Reagan, Radcliffe '41, in a letter to the CRIMSON back in 1940. She was troubled not only by Harvard's traditional scorn for Radcliffe, but also by a specific and undeniably inflammatory incident. A few days before a CRIMSON editor had escorted Miss Toni Sorel, contender for the title of "Number One Ommph Girl of the Nation," into the Harvard Yard. Later, over a daiquiri, Miss Sorel had this to say to the press:

"Here I stood in the Harvard Yard, lousy with Ivy and tradition, when the whole picture was ruined--a couple of strange creatures came waddling along. Radcliffe girls are horrible. They have hairy legs and fat fannies and shouldn't be allowed in the Yard."

Harvard then Agreed

Perhaps her words were true; perhaps they were not. At any rate, the Harvard of 1940 agreed wholeheartedly. Harvard likes Radcliffe now. Harvard holds hands with Radcliffe, marries Radcliffe, and has babies by Radcliffe. The reason is the remarkably retarded adolescence of the two institutions--otherwise known as Joint Education.

From the very start, Radcliffe was entirely dependent on Harvard. It had Harvard professors, Harvard standards, and Harvard assignments. It wasn't long before some Yardster of the 80's called the Society "The Harvard Annex." The girls on Garden Street could not very well object, since their institution was exactly that.

For a long, long time after its formal chartering of Radcliffe in 1894, Harvard was generally cordial but distant. The attitude of most men was not so much one of scorn, but of (and we blush to use the word) indifference. In 1908 The Harvard Illustrated News (which was edited by H.V. Kaltenborn '09) ran an article entitled "Radcliffe on Harvard" which indicates attitudes then prevalent on both sides of the Common. The article, by an anonymous Radcliffe undergraduate, said in part:

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

"...once in the library (the Radcliffe girl) gets her books and sits penned off from the Harvard occupants of the history reading-room, her back discreetly turned toward them; a.l of this is done with an amused consciousness that, while such behavior satisfies, her own sense of proprieties, it is quite unnecessary: Harvard is unconscious of her existence."

During the first World War relations between the two institutions began to change--for the worse. A stereotype grew in the Harvard mind, and assumed gigantic proportions. It was a picture of "the typical Radcliffe girl"--sloppily dressed, bespectacled, ugly as sin and not nearly so tempting. The trouble was that Harvard was going collegiate, and the collegiate attitude toward college women was above all else, uncomplimentary.

Yield to Figures

Leaving the realm of fancy for a moment let us take a look at the facts. In October, 1928, some obscure statistician, hard at work under a green eye-shade in a dusty room, came up with a monumental discovery. Fifty-three per cent of all marrying Radcliffe girls had Harvard men for husbands! The CRIMSON could do nothing but make a grimace that would pass for a smile, and the day after the discovery, it stated CRIMSON policy on Radcliffe in an editorial, called "The Mating Call."

"The legend surrounding Radcliffe's ivory towers and its bespectacled inmates must yield to the pressure of figures, cold, exact figures... If Radcliffe has overwhelmed the sneers of a decade, and emerged from a chrysalis of contempt as the most alluring fata Morgana for several thousand potential bachelors. what use caution?"

The editorial continued:

"Fifty-three per cent of marrying Alumnae attract Harvard husbands. But five per cent of them reach out after M.I.T. men. This fact must be considered significant. Why should Harvard men be favored in such preponderance? The obvious answer is to be found in the superiority of the Coop and the Widener Library as trysting places over the barren laboratories of the Technological Institute."

The result of Sophie Reagan's rebuttal to Miss Sorel was the formation of an organization of militant Radcliffe girls. It was called "The Committee to Take Radcliffe Seriously." Nobody took the Committee seriously, much less Radcliffe.

The big change, when it came, was not the result of internal but external events. In 1942 the pressure of war and mobilization made financial troubles at Radcliffe bad. In 1943 Jerome D. Greene '96, secretary to the Harvard Corporation, wrote in a report that "possible revision of the arrangements by which the instruction of members of the Harvard faculty is made available at Radcliffe College," in other words, "Joint Instruction," was contemplated.

And it came to pass. During the war years Harvard men gradually got used to seeing girls in their classes; their minds were elsewhere. They were annoyed by what they believed the girls' academic methods to be, and still are slightly. They believed Radcliffe girls learned everything by rote, spewed it forth at exams, and got A's Or, rote learning failing, they would slide up to an instructor, display a little leg, and get an A.

The CRIMSON reporter who covered the Phillips Brooks House tea in '47 brought back a different report from the ones by his predecessors. His story was headlined "No Lemons At Brooks House Tea." Apparently the rest of the College got the same idea. On February 11 Dean Mildred P. Sherman of Radcliffe announced dramatically that "the process of saying goodnight has degenerated."

Shocked, Radcliffe girls banded together and approved plans to keep men out of the dorms after 10 p.m. on weekdays. The Harvard reaction to that can be illustrated by reprinting a poem that was sent to the CRIMSON by three Harvard men, in spiritual collaboration with Andrew Marvell:

On Learning That Radcliffe Votes Chaste Farewells

Had we but world enough and time,

This coyness, Radcliffe, were no crime.

We would sit down and think-of ways

To spread our love o'er many-days.

Thou should by sluggish Charles' side,

With New Directions as your guide,

The fate of men and books decide

And damn the old with comments snide.

But college days are all too short

And not too long may we cavort:

The dorm's a fine and private place,

But none henceforth shall there embrace,

Since at our back we always fear

The curfew hour drawing near.

For parting passions--time compressed--

Are crudely felt and ill-expressed;

And chilly as the good Dean's breast

Is Boston's winter at its best.

The cold stone steps outside the houses

Have not the atmosphere which rouses

The feeling waked by well-filled blouses,

(Line censored -- Ed.)

If we can't make the clock stand still,

We'll go to Wheaton -- Damn -- we will!!

But they didn't mean it for a minute. Once more we must turn to fact over fancy; 6 out of 10 Radcliffe girls, marry Harvard men. Perhaps the Harvard attitude was no more than a cry of protest; now that cry is no more than a gasp. Harvard has almost completely succumbed to the charms of Radcliffe.

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