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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

The Not-So-Silent Generation

Radcliffe '56

By Paul M. Barrett

The problem, it seems, was that people just didn't take Radcliffe women seriously enough in the mid-Fifties. Oh sure, they attened lectures with the Harvard men, and it wasn't unusual for a young lady to demurely express a desire to go to a graduate school before settling down. But by and large, the "Cliffies" were fortunate even to be depicted as superficial socialites, rather than mindless "greasy grinds" who never left the Quad. Consider an entry in a widely read "Harvardians Partial Glossary": "R--is for Radcliffe, 60 per cent of whose members marry Harvard men.

Most members of the Class of '56 recall living by the standards they found upon arriving in Cambridge. They worked hard in classes but played the roles expected of them elsewhere. "We probably knew a lot of things were unfair." says one alum." Still, it just didn't occur to us to do anything about it."

In fact, every single woman responding to a 25th Anniversary questionnaire has married, but a few raised a family. Many have established a career which they plan to continue or even expand. They express a tremendous pride in fulfilling the domestic goals they set for themselves in 1956 while adding other achievements never conceived of a quarter century ago. However, an uneasiness exists over opportunities never considered and ambitions long stifled.

Radcliffe did its best to insulate its students from the complications of adulthood and the real world. Attention was focused instead on "jolly-ups"--the Fifties version of dorm mixers--and on the enforcement of strict parietals by nosy housemothers. Weekends revolved almost exclusively around the activities of the Harvard men. Dates for the big football games were planned weeks in advance in the fall of 1955, despite the team's dismal Ivy League performance. Few remember the details, but a right end named Ted Kennedy (back at school after a year's banishment for some confusion over a certain Spanish exam) scored the only Harvard touchdown against yale that year, as the Bulldogs and the snow combined to defeat the Crimson, 21-7 in New Haven.

Within the parameters of their male-dominated world, Radcliffe women took advantage of every edge they had. "There was a lot of mutual exploitation," admits Alison Morss, describing the strategic benefits of a four-to-one, male-female ratio. "We prided ourselves on how much we could get the poor devil to spend on us," she adds. Despite the stiff competition a young man might find at a Thursday afternoon tea or an early evening jolly-up, it was still he who had to initiate any private dates. Sex was naturally a topic of great fascination, but few were brazen enough to discuss it in public, let alone defy their guardians to spend the night in a Harvard room. "We were all just goggle-eyed at the thought of doing 'it'," recalls Morss.

Rules, as Carol Cohen Becker, remembers vividly, were on occasion broken. She spent a year out of the classroom as a result of a particular amorous encounter that did not go over well at Fay House. "It was ludicrous," Becker says, "We were seen as directionless people along for the ride, but we were still hemmed in at every opportunity."

Harvard also played a role in isolating the Class of '56 behind a wall of cliches and stereotypes. Relying on its inimitable wit, Cambridge's only breakfast table daily commented on the times with regular fashion features. A fall 1955 caption describes a photo of an attractive woman snoozing through a Sever Hall class: "If a girl intends to sleep during and after a lecture, she will look and feel more comfortable in this twin sweater with wool skirt... Contrast is recommended for government courses, harmony for social relations."

"We still felt the grown-ups were running the world and things were they way they were for a reason," says Nancy P. Levin. She and others will dispute the "silent generation" label, but not with much enthusiasm. "We were not morally dead; there just seemed to be fewer ways for us to have our voice heard," she adds.

In fact, the activities of the Eisenhower administration, the building of the Cold War, and the first public stirrings of the Black civil rights movement were for most Radcliffe students no more than faint impressions gained from an occasional radio news broadcast. Many alumnae remember being aware of the rise and fall of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, but mostly because of his direct attacks on Harvard, and an unusual foray into foreign policy undertaken by the Crimson. McCarthy had gone out of his way to portray the University as a den of Marxist saboteurs during his years at the helm of the Senate Committee on Investigations. In 1955, already censured for his extraordinary red-baiting campaign, he returned to the limelight temporarily as he testified against accused communists in a Boston trial. Levin attended the trial "just to see what was going on" but recalls that it created only a moderate stir among her Radcliffe friends.

More characteristic of the attitude toward problems outside of Cambridge was a prank perpetrated by Crimson editors two years earlier. After stealing the sacred mascot of the Lampoon--a large metal stork--the Crimson gave the bird to the Soviet embassy in Washington, a gift from American students to Joseph Stalin. The Lampoon promptly contacted McCarthy's committee to report an incident of obvious Communist sympathizing.

Despite all of its contrived social standards and comic unreality, undergraduate life is a pleasant memory for most members of the Class of '56. Alumnae fondly remember what one calls "the last years of liberal education, merely for the sake of education." Another cherishes the long-term friendships discovered on leisurely walks around the small quadrangle up Garden St., even though she realized later that "Radcliffe had done little to prepare me for theworld." With marriage as the primary goal in 1956, most recall looking back on the previous four years with a feeling of satisfaction. Merle M. Bowser made a list right before Commencement of things to do for the rest of her life. First she wanted to buy a piano, then go to Europe. A graduate degree was a lower priority, about on a par with obtaining her own car. And, of course, she would find a husband along the way. "I was happy with my list, and all the things on it worked out," she says. "Only I forgot one thing: a job, something for myself."

Finding something for oneself is a recurring theme among the members of the Class of '56 as they reflect on the years since they left school and started families. Among their numbers are numerous success stories--women who never lost sight of their personal goals and achieved them while at the same time raising children, and others who spent 20 happy years as full-time mothers and wives and may have begun careers only recently.

With the successes have come bitter failures. A significant number of women report that they have had at least one divorce or are hanging onto marriages for the sake of children or convenience. Others describe years of unhappiness that have been left behind, only to be replaced by a feeling of disappointment that it now seems very late to begin carving out a new life. And not surprisingly, there are apologies for not having achieved what is commonly expected of women graduating from college today.

Margaret Means McIntosh, who serves as program director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, observes a "general edginess" among her classmates that has resulted from their exposure to feminism and their attempts to find fulfillment in a society that drastically changed its outlook toward women in the Sixties and Seventies. Women graduating from college 25 years ago were trapped, McIntosh says, because they were taught that the "public sphere" of professions, public service, and academics was a male realm, and thus Inappropriate for a young woman. This sphere, however, was considered inherently more important than the "private sphere" of home and family.

Some avoided the paradox, supported by progressive parents who dispelled the notion that a woman had to choose between a career and motherhood. Marina von Neumann Whitman, for example, credits her family's unspoken "assumption that anyone with talent could succeed" with her ability to persevere despite the "conflicting signals" at Radcliffe. Radcliffe gave a wonderful intellectual freedom as well as the expectation that we automatically had to be mothers. This we either didn't notice or took for granted." says Whitman, who was recently named vice president and chief economist of the General Motors Corporation after being a protessor of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh.

McIntosh insists that many women will not be satisfied with the lives they have led until they see the difference between true feminists, "who can define success in terms of a family," and women's libbers, who retain a traditional bias against the private sphere "and view success in the way men always have."

For the most part, the members of the Class of '54 are hopeful for the future. Some, like Morss, who edits a small newspaper in upstate New York, believe they have successfully weathered the transition from naive Radcliffe graduates to women comfortable with the changes that have taken place and those that lie ahead. She writes: "One fine morning, I realized that the two feet I was standing on were not my own. Rectifying this awkward situation has taken a number of years and a lot of quiet screaming, noiseless foot stamping and what some peolle like to call plain hard work." Others are determined to carry on their self-evaluation until they too reach a point where they understand why they made the choices they did in 1956 and which options they should choose now. Together, they will join both the women who have found fullfillment purely in the family, and those who have removed themselves from all traditional attachments, in returning to the imposing physical remains of the tiny, isolated world that didn't take them very seriously 25 years ago

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