25th Reunion Classes Return to Alma Maters

Role as Women Baffled '49 Grads

The women returning to Radcliffe this week from the Class of '49 have faced not only national and international turmoil but also deep conflict with their very roles as women. All have tried to find a niche in society which afforded the least amount of frustration. Some are satisfied; others are not.

The Radcliffe Class of '49 was brought up during the Great Depression, attended high school during World War II, faced the McCarthy "Red Scare" era right after graduation, and then confronted the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The women who attended Radcliffe in the late '40s had already faced great national anguish, but for most of the women, the frustrations of choosing a career and settling into a lifestyle which would satisfy themselves have been the real struggle.

Between the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique appeared, and women were suddenly left without comfortable roles in their lives. Radcliffe women had always been portrayed as high-achievers frustrated by society's restrictions, but few of the women were prepared for the revolutionary concepts that the '60s and '70s would produce in attitudes toward women. Most of the women are simply unsure about what they want to do and what they should do with their lives.


Four per cent of the class of '49 has never worked for pay, 10 per cent has worked full time for 20 years or more, and 2 per cent are earning over $50,000 a year, according to statistics compiled from questionnaires sent to the women by the 25th Reunion Committee. The survey showed that the class's mean income was $35,000 per year last year, and most women described themselves as in "reasonably comfortable financial circumstances. The typical Radcliffe Class of '49 graduate spent 16 years as a full-time housewife and found that role "fairly satisfying."

The statistics are interesting, but the women behind the statistics present a more puzzling, diverse picture. Perhaps it is necessary to reexamine the roots from which these women came. From 1945 through 1949, Radcliffe was a different place from what it is today. The Harvard men--classes were already co-educational--were older, in some cases as much as ten years older than the normal student body. Many students were at Harvard on the G.I. bill, and as several members of the Class of '49 noted, that made a vast difference in the student body.


As one woman said, "The student body was much more democratic then. There were many people here who wouldn't normally have come to Harvard, and that meant there was a change in the student life. Even the people who would have been traditional Harvard people had gone to the war and they had changed in innumerable ways."

Although many women of the class said they felt that the war had made them, and Harvard men, mature, they also said that they retained an idealism that people today don't have.

"The people in my class were starryeyed idealists. We simply assumed we would go out and do good," one class member said. "The women today are also idealists, but in a hard-headed, realistic way. Some are really going out and working with people. And unfortunately, others are simply dropping out of life."

Thus, several women have concluded that the Class of '49 was in many ways conservative. The Crimson--which had just elected its first "Radcliffe correspondent," Joan McPartin Mahoney--reported a series of stories on the Red Menace in the spring of '49. But several women said last week that though the concern with politics was there, it didn't have a significant influence on their lives until a few years after college.

"When I first came to college in 1945, people were very interested in Russia," Barbara Bishop Bartle said. "There was a great push to take Russian history and language courses. But when the Cold War began around 1947, people became very suspect of those who had shown interest in Russia."

Nevertheless, most women said their politics were liberal, although somewhat apolitical. 1948 had been the year Dewey, the Harvard-Radcliffe favorite, lost to Truman. It was a time when Harvard President James Bryant Conant and General Dwight D. Eisenhower were actively denouncing communists, saying they should not be permitted to teach.

Yet this was also the year when Harold L. Ickes, former Secretary of the Interior under Franklin D. Roosevelt, gave the Commencement address and warned Radcliffe women against "spy hunts."

The baccalaureate speech was more ambiguous, but Dean Willard L. Sperry of the Harvard Divinity School warned women against massive materialism and told them to avoid "the contagious seduction of the mass movements of our time. They invite you to unload the responsibilities of personal life upon society as a whole."

But politics, even in the late '40s, were not considered "feminine," particularly since men and women were not supposed to compete, according to old family traditions. A Crimson article written in the winter of '49 mirrored the Harvard views of Radcliffe women.

In one issue, next to stories about Dewey and Truman, was a picture of 23 Radcliffe women. The picture was headlined with the words "Non-partisan beauties." The caption read: "Politics didn't have the spotlight all to itself as the term went by. A pretty face and figure still carry a lot of appeal, and to prove, it, Mademoiselle (magazine) conducted a fashion show over at Radcliffe. The 23 lovelies shown above moved into the second round of the contest, which was held in October. Politics took a back seat, at least for the moment, while the contestants put themselves into shape for the final judging."