The Porch Light Was On

( This article originally ran in the CRIMSON of February 22, 1971. )

THERE is a story about Mary Bunting that goes something like this: one day early in her term as president she was trying to convince several wealthy alumnae to contribute large sums to their alma mater when she received a phone call from her housekeeper. The bees from her son's apiary had somehow escaped and were flying around the house and the housekeeper was distraught. Bunting, thinking of first things first, said, "Just tell them to be good and I'll be home as soon as I can," and returned to the alumnae.

The accuracy of the story, recounted here about fourth-hand, is dubious, but it shows a lot of things about Radcliffe's fifth president, due to retire in 1972. She has always thought of Radcliffe first; she has an endearing, common-sense approach to affairs which inspires the confidence of many-you know that when she gets home, the president and lecturer on Biology will take care of it. And the way she handles an immediate crisis is often exasperating-pity the poor housekeeper.

Almost everyone in the Radcliffe Administration says Bunting (whom they all refer to as "Polly") is a woman of vigor, creativity, intelligence and vision. She lists her major accomplishments as the Radcliffe Institute (a place of more individualized education for older women) and the remodelling of the Radcliffe Quad. (complete with Hilles, Currier and the House system). She is also Radcliffe's last president as the job now stands, since the "non-merger" proposal she worked out with Harvard has just been approved by both institutions' governing boards. During the next academic year, she will serve as Dean and President of Radcliffe, linking past and future administrations.

Bunting came to Cambridge in 1960 after four years as Dean of Douglass College at Rutgers. Within a few weeks of her inauguration she had proposed the Institute to Radcliffe's trustees and started working on ways to model the Quad's dorms after Harvard's house system.


Most of Bunting's problems were during a two or three year period stretching from 1967 to '69 when her usually good communication with students broke down. The hunger strike in May 1967 for permission to live "off-off," a black students' sit-in in December 1968 demanding the admission of more blacks, and a chaotic, vituperative sit-in in her office during the events of April 1969 were the low points of her career here.

ALTHOUGH a consciousness of women's problems in society is relatively recent to most people, Bunting has long been aware of prejudices and searching for answers. "I never felt any problems in my own education or going into graduate and career work because I was a woman," she said. "But right after Sputnik I became aware there was a problem with women's education.' She served on a National Science Foundation Committee on Scientific Education and Manpower-one of the many governmental committees she set up in the wake of the Russians' satellite. A study that committee did showed that 98 per cent of what they termed "bright" high school students who did not go to college were women. But the committee's final report mentioned nothing of this finding. "They suppressed it because they felt it would detract from the emphasis of getting more trained men. Nobody really expected women to use their education and minds for anything important," she said.

"I realized that there was a climate of un-expectation in the education of women. I started noticing how differently people talk to little girls and little boys about what they're going to be when they grow up." Bunting said that this climate was what led her to propose the Institute, "to show that we are aware what happens to women and their minds."

She blames this conditioning of women for much of their present situation in society. In her inaugural address in May 1960, Bunting spoke of not paying enough attention to women's education. "True, we all have theories but do we have valid findings? Or is it possible that we dodge this question too because its investigation demands decisions that we fear to face?

"No wonder that most of the highly talented youth in this country who fail to go to college are girls. No wonder that those who do go often drop out at the flick of a ring. They have never really been in. They have not aspired to scholarship or service. This is not the dream of democracy: this is Brave New World."

HER emphasis at Radcliffe in recent years has been one of trying to get the male administration and student body to change their attitudes towards women. She was instrumental in proposing merger two years ago because at that time it seemed the only way to achieve co-residential housing. "The most important thing in the housing change is the attitudes of men. Where they get to know girls, they learn and change," she said.

Some students have recently been calling for a closer to equal male-female ratio than the present four-to-one. Bunting has seen this demand as secondary and possibly detrimental to the primary goal of merger. The strong Harvard opposition to an equal ratio was one of the major reasons for the not-complete-merger plan just approved: legally, the two institutions are still separate. If ever an equal rights amendment is added to the state or federal constitution, it would not apply to an equal admissions policy because these functions will be kept separate under the new contract.

Bunting has favored merger also for the financial benefit it will bring badly impoverished Radcliffe.

Although she has always emphasized women's careers, Bunting has also paid attention to the role of women as mothers and educators of future generations. She herself did not work from 1940 to 1946 while she spent time raising her four children on a farm outside of New Haven, where her husband, who died in 1954, then worked. Had she lived in a city during that time. she said, she would have held a part-time job, but instead she worked in the community. She added that working on a local school board provided her with much useful administrative experience.

SHE HAS maintained a very personal involvement in her work at Radcliffe. Although she modestly says of her work days only, "You have to stick to your job pretty much," those around her say she is an indefatigable worker. She rises at 6 a.m. to write letters-many abig businessman has been happily startled by her handwritten notes of thanks for large gifts to the College.