Merger as a Gut Issue


WHY MUST WOMEN feel pretentious, deceitful, when they say they go to Harvard? They attend classes at Harvard, live at Harvard, graduate from Harvard, so why this farce about Radcliffe? Merger and the Harvard-Radcliffe relationship mean much more than grants and fellowships and equal scholarship money: Merger is a gut issue of exclusion, prejudice, inequality and the blatant unfairness that is Radcliffe. But the other side of merger is the sellout of feminine interests, institutional suicide, putting women under the control of the blatant sexism that is Harvard.

Although women may debate the practical results of merger, their passionate disagreement about the issue arises from different perceptions of the two institutions, a gut reaction over which one arouses greater distrust: Radcliffe, laden with 100 years of unrealized potential, or Harvard, with a record of 300 years of discrimination and indifference to women. Women agree that they have a long haul ahead before they'll be fully accepted into Harvard and into society as a whole; they disagree over whether they should rest their hopes with Harvard or with Radcliffe.

Matina Horner took on the presidency two years ago with a glittering vision of Radcliffe as it might be, the best of both worlds--a women's school that gives its students protection, strength and room to blossom in this sexist world, but also a co-ed school, with its obvious social, emotional and educational advantages. Opponents of merger feel that it is necessary to have the protection Radcliffe affords, to have an advocate for women's rights and a focus to keep them from being isolated within the male university. Harvard has shown so little concern for women in the past, that it seems foolish to imagine that it can be trusted in the future to deal with the problems we face trying to break into a male society.

Unfortunately, Radcliffe has shown no signs of fulfilling these needs in the all-but-impossible fight to influence this powerful, stubborn University. The separate-but-equal formula is a bit anachronistic, a concept we threw out two decades ago as leading inevitably to inequality. Radcliffe's heritage is not one of equality but of inferiority as a minor irritant in Harvard's side, requiring scant attention and making it easy for Harvard to ignore the modern era and remain all-male. Radcliffe simply does not have the power to bargain with Harvard and is not an effective force for women in the university.

This heritage of weakness makes it unlikely that Radcliffe will ever reach a position of strength in comparison to Harvard. On the contrary, its strength has declined over the years, as Harvard assumed greater and greater control over female students. The final blow came when Radcliffe handed over its income to Harvard, giving up the last vestiges of independence. Harvard rules us now, like it or not. The fight to resurrect Radcliffe goes against the tide of history and against the nature of both institutions. It was set up to be an adjunct to Harvard, and now--without money, faculty or degrees--it is foolish to think it can be built up into an independent force in the University.


THE DISPUTE over merger comes down to a dispute over the most practical way to defend women in the University and prepare them for the same battle for equality after graduation. This dispute, in the end, only serves to draw attention away from the basic issue of sexism and to create an artificial division between women here. The questions of tactics, of the style of the fight, are peripheral to the difficult problems of establishing lives as liberated men and women.

Women's strength in the University comes from their own voices and pressure, and their united work for common goals. This force alone will lead to improvement of their position, and it does not need the name "Radcliffe" to give it legitimacy or make it effective. They should concentrate their efforts on establishing a place within Harvard, not outside it, so that women can become an integral part of the institution.

As long as Radcliffe remains separate, its very existence will provoke controversy, will be seen by many as a burden around the necks of its students. Merger will be a slight psychological victory, as it implies at least a bureaucratic recognition of women's equality. But the battle against sexism in the University can only be won by a much longer struggle requiring the cooperation of all women, in all facets of their lives, including personal relationships. Radcliffe as an institution will never be able to convert the sexists; meanwhile, it gives them an excuse to ignore women and their rightful claims to Harvard's resources, its attention and its precious 300-year-old name.