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Women Hold Up Half the Sky


This past Tuesday went unnoticed by most of Harvard, no break in classes, nothing unusual. Had it been Columbus Day, or Saint Patrick's Day, or the fourth of July, Harvard would have taken notice. So why was this day different from all other days? It was International Working Women's Day, a holiday forgotten or unheard of by most people at Harvard. Did anyone know? Did anyone care? Who understands what it stands for? Every child in America learns what Columbus Day stands for...

International Women's Day originated in the United States on March 8, 1908, when thousands of women garment and textile workers participated in a march in New York City, organized by a group of socialist women to demand an end to sweatshop conditions, child labor, and for the right to vote. The action of these women was an inspiration to people all over the world, demonstrating the power of women joined in struggle for their rights. Around 1910, at the International Conference of Women Socialists, Clara Zetkin, German socialist leader, introduced a resolution to set aside March 8 as International Working Women's Day. The day was founded to commemorate the past struggles of working women for their rights, to rally women throughout the world in a fight for the right of women to work in tolerable conditions, and to mobilize women and men to fight for the special demands of women.

The spirit of International Women's Day 1977 directs men and women to look at some of the historic struggles of women who fought to secure basic rights:

In 1828, 300 to 400 women and girl cotton-mill operatives staged a walkout in Dover, New Hampshire, to protest wage reductions. This was one of the first instances of organized labor activity in America, representing the growing militancy of women workers.

Sarah Bagley organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844. The association, 600 members strong within the first year, fought for a ten-hour day and forced the first governmental investigation into labor conditions in American history.

On November 22, 1909, Clara Lemlich called for a resolution to strike at a mass meeting of garment workers in New York City. Thirty-thousand unorganized workers answered the call. The uprising of the women shirtwaist makers led to the successful signing of full union contracts for 312 shops in New York. The strike lasted 13 weeks despite police beatings and mass arrests.

In 1937, despite the over 50 per cent unemployment rate among black workers during the Depression, 400 black women in the Richmond tobacco industry went on strike against their $3-a-week wages and miserable working conditions. Within 48 hours the strikers obtained wage increases, a 40-hour week and union recognition. The women had been considered unorganizable before they walked out.

The California Homemakers Association is the first union to win collective bargaining right for domestic workers. In 1973, the union of primarily black women organized over 2500 workers in Sacramento County.

The Chicana women workers at the Farah pants factory in Texas won a two-year strike in 1974, to get recognition of the right to organize. While the women strikers had aid from support committees and a national boycott, it was again the tenacity and determination of these women workers which made victory possible.

Leafing through the hefty tomes of history, one finds few references to these women and their struggles. Traditional scholarship has chosen not to document the occurrences of female activism throughout history. Most discussions of women's history equate women's struggles for equality with the suffrage movement which lasted from the Seneca Falls Conference of 1848 until the ratification of the 1920 constitutional amendment giving women the vote. This movement of predominantly white, middle and upper class reformers in the only movement of women given any credence in history books. But what of the effect of the suffragette movement on black women, who could not vote, not only because they were women, but because they were black? What of the Chinese women working as cheap imported labor (under the whip) at railroad sites at that time? How many working class women could exercise the new right of women to vote? These questions are never brought out in history books. As Dolores Barranco Schmidt and Earl Robert Schmidt point out in their essay on "The Invisible Women":

[Historians] manage to discuss the reform of insane asylums in the first half of the 19th century without mentioning Dorothea Dix, muckraking without mentioning Ida Tarbell, and the Montgomery bus boycott without mentioning Rosa Parks.

Historians have indeed written women out of history.

The only women recognized, with few exceptions, are those who have left written records of their lives. These women are atypical, as they have achieved a high level of literacy, possessed leisure time, believed that their lives were worth recording, and grew up in families that valued their writings enough to preserve them. This handful of women, almost exclusively white and middle or upper class, were acknowledged for achieving male-defined successes; these women achieved status as political leaders, doctors, and queens.

At best, these women faced only sexual oppression. There are women, however, who are confronted not only with sexual oppression but also with national and class oppression. The thoughts and life histories of these women--Third World and working class women--have rarely been recorded. First of all, these women, who have been denied education, are often not literate enough to write. Secondly, it is these women who do and have provided a major part of the wage and slave labor upon which the American economy is based. Leisure time is unknown to those who labor all day and then come home to take care of their husband and children. Thirdly, attitudes of sexual, national and class superiority on the part of many scholars have prevented them from seeing the study of these women as a worthwhile area of scholarship.

Women act upon their social, political and economic environment according to specific conditions such as class and national origin. Thus, to treat women as a monolithic entity without differentiating the experiences of women as to their specific histories, economic and national conditions, is untenable. Yet this is exactly what many scholars who have bothered to include women in their plan of study have done. They have only used existing records of the thought and lives of women, and have not bothered to research other aspects of womanhood. Therefore, Women's Studies--the study of history, culture and society from a perspective that recognizes the contributions and perceptions of women as the starting point of studies of such topics as the family and labor--is virtually an unexplored field. Little has been done to uncover the invisible lives of women, their role in the family, economy and state, the impact of different historical changes on women, and the impact of women on social movements.

Harvard, a leader in academic exploration, does not see the need to pioneer in the field of Women's Studies. A glance through the course catalogue quickly shows that there are only five courses offered specifically on women: Social Sciences 14 a and b, "Women and the American Experience" Currier 109, "Biology and Women's Issues"; Anthropology 246, "Asian Women: Traditional and Changing Roles," and Psychology and Social Relations 2450, "The Feminine Personality." Though Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library is one of the finest resources on Women's Studies in the country, few students take advantage of it or even know about it, as there is little possibility of exploring these resources through the standard courses offered by the University.

Last year, Radcliffe's Office of Women's Education conducted a survey of other colleges and universities to ascertain the status of Women's Studies across the country. Compared to Harvard's few courses, the results appear to be remarkable: it seems that elsewhere, some schools are taking steps to develop serious women's studies programs. A brief look at a sampling of course titles from other schools may prove enlightening: Cornell, with one of the largest programs,offers courses in "Sex Roles and Linguistic Behavior," "Women, Race and Politics," "Working Women in Nine Countries," "Women Writers of Africa, Afro-America and the Carribean" and "Women's Role in Rural Development," and 24 other courses specifically about women. The University of Pennsylvania, another Ivy League institution with a Women's Studies major, offers courses such as "Twentieth Century Women Novelists," and "Discrimination: Sexual and Racial Conflict." Yale University, with its relatively short history of educating women, managed to incorporate 14 courses on women in its curriculum last year. Among these are: "Women at Turning Points of Western History: What has Progress Meant for Them?" and "Women, Men and Their Families in the American West." The survey is quite impressive. Other schools show classes on "Women Organizing Women: American Women in Movements for Social Change," "Women of La Raza," "Women and Work," "Black Women and the Development of the Black Community," "Biological Basis for Sex Roles," Evaluation of Health Care for Mothers and Children," "Women and the Welfare System," and "Sex and Pregnancy." And myriad courses on women in literature are not even mentioned here.

When Rosovsky came out with his core curriculum requirements for undergraduate education, most people failed to notice that the University does not deem any academic study of any aspect of women necessary to the well-rounded education of a Harvard student (one is tempted to say, "of a Harvard man"). A person could go through four years of a "liberal education" without ever taking a course that deals with women, though women are 52 per cent of the population. Because of the dearth of courses on women, most Harvard students will indeed pass through four years without thinking twice about the lopsided education they receive.

Some scholars hold that the study of women in different aspects of civilization is significant only insofar as it enhances an already established body of knowledge. Most Harvard scholars do not think it is significant for any reason.

Last year, when the Radcliffe Union of Students sent letters to 800 professors asking them to offer courses or at least add material about women to their courses, only four professors responded and even fewer than that acted upon the request.

Most professors with a knowledge and understanding of women's issues are women. Thus, as Harvard has only 14 tenured women faculty out of 372 full professors, it is not surprising that there are so few courses on women. In fact, the lack of women professors, courses in Women's Studies, and aggressive recruitment efforts aimed at equalizing the male/female ratio are exemplary of Harvard's general attitude toward women.

In 1943,Harvard took on responsibility for educating Radcliffe women. This action, however, was not based on any real commitment to serving the needs of women. Until 1943, Radcliffe has hired and paid for its own professors who taught women students in Radcliffe Yard. In 1943, financially compelled by depleted Harvard enrollment caused by World War II, Harvard agreed to educate women with Harvard money on the Harvard campus. In exchange, Radcliffe contributed its tuition revenue to Harvard.

Unfortunately, while Harvard took over responsibility for educating Radcliffe women, the University's traditional orientation towards wealthy, white males did not change. Roberta Benjamin, a member of the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women, summed up Harvard's attitude toward women when she stated that the 1960's was "a time when then-Harvard President Nathan Pusey could declare that Harvard could accept no additional women because Harvard's job was to train leaders, and guess who that didn't mean." F. Skiddy von Stade, dean of Freshmen, later said of women in the 1969 strike, "they were so insolent, the worst of the bunch. At least you have to respect the boys a little since they have something riding on this. The thing is Vietnam for many of them, and if they get chucked out for this their chances of being sent there are far greater. But if the girls get heaved, they'll just go off to secretarial school."

Attitudes like these surface consistently, even in 1977. They are apparent everywhere: in classes, departments, and issues of the Harvard Lampoon. The crux of the problem, though, is that women are expected to ignore the sexist attitudes which face them at every turn. It is no wonder that women experience alienation at Harvard. Their thoughts, feelings and ideas are rarely if ever dealt with.

Third World women are confronted not only with the sexual stereotypes which afflict all women at Harvard but with the racism that pervades the institution, overtly expressed by racists like Richard J. Hernnstein and Bernard D. Davis, and covertly by the Harvard Administration through its efforts to undermine the Afro-American Studies Department. This last example is of particular importance to the question of Women's Studies. The Afro-American Studies Department was established in 1969 in response to demands made by black students for a curriculum relevant to their lives, fulfilling their desire to understand the particularities of national oppression, and responsive to the need of all Harvard students to understand and appreciate Afro-American history.

One tactic of the ruling group in any society to maintain its dominance is to deny oppressed groups the opportunity to understand their own culture and to gain knowledge of their own worth. This rings true at Harvard as well as in the larger society; the dominant group consists of white, upper class males, and it was members of this group, the Harvard Administration, which tried to prevent the establishment of a department in Afro-American Studies, and is still trying to whittle that department down.

Women are an oppressed group at Harvard and in the larger society. This is why the overwhelming majority of women employed at Harvard are in the lowest ten salary grades. This is why there are few tenured women faculty at Harvard. This is why no real steps are being taken to equalize the male/female ratio of students at Harvard. This is why the demand for a concentration in Women's Studies is going to meet with much resistance. But this is also why the demand must be raised.

Each year on International Women's Day, people look back over an ever-growing history of women fighting for equality. Women at Harvard, too, should take pride in this long heritage of resistance and achievement, and unite to establish Women's Studies at Harvard. Women do hold up half the sky!

The Harvard-Radcliffe Committee for Women's Studies and the Task Force for Affirmative Action will sponsor a program for International Women's Day on Saturday between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. at Emerson 105.

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