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Struggling With the Dilemmas of Inequality and Feminism

Radcliffe 1960:

By Shari Rudavsky

"People were making a big russ in those days," says Caroline Greve Darst '60 of her college days, "because a dog was caught in Lamont Library--but a woman could not get in there."

When it first opened, Lamont was considered a Harvard College undergraduate library. Radcliffe women, who were not then Harvard students, were not allowed in the building.

"Radcliffe students were really second-class," says Katherine Bolster Russell '60, a Unitarian minister in New Hampshire.

Twenty-five years after graduating, that discontent at the way Radcliffe students were treated is a dominant theme in alumnae's recollections of their college experience. But just as strong is the fact that almost every woman accepted the way it was.

"It's almost like reading Victorian novels," says Judith Abrams Plotz '60, now a writer in Washington, D.C. "You say to yourself, 'How can people live so'--but yet these people were human."

"There's been much more than a generation's worth of change," says Joal Peters O'Connor '60. "We were so accepting and now people question.. The whole thing was part of the structure... We didn't know enough to be disgruntle; we didn't know enough to think it was different. It was the way things were."

"Radcliffe was a server of the times rather than a snapper of attitudes," says Plotz.

Indeed, Radcliffe women in the late '50s and early '60s were caught between two ears: they were raised to believe in the traditional female role of housewife, but entered the role world as the seeds of the feminist movement were planted.

"We were all expected by our parents to get married and have children," says Barbara Blanchard Hohenberg '60. "You figured you'd marry a Harvard man, and I don't think that particularly teaches you how to be part of the real world."

And Radcliffe certainly did not teach women how to live in the real world, which, as Darst points out, is coeducational. "The message was, 'You're still a little girl,"' says Jill Kneerim, now a writer in San Francisco.

It was a message that came through everywhere--from classes to dormitories.

Although most of the classes were coeducational by the mid-fifties, some classes such as a ROTC naval history class nickn med "Boats," with enrollment restricted to men Darst remembers that one of her friends sough permission to take Boats--and when she got the OK, the story ran on the front page of The Crimson.

In her own classes, Darst says, "some professors did not like the idea of teaching women and some of those in graduate schools did not keep their ideas to themselves."

And professors did not restrict their sexism to those women on the other side of the podium. "There was a pervasive sneering at the faculty wives. Wives of great intelligence were often mocked by men who had the world in front of them," Plotz says.

Nor was sexism restricted to lecturers. Liia Annus Vilms '60, now a software development engineer at Hewlett-Packard in Colorado, majored in math and had to take introductory physics. There were only a dozen women in her class of 300, and she was the only women in her lab section. After all the Harvard students teamed up," "my section leader made no effort to get me a partner and told me to work by myself," she recalls.

But if women remember many of their instructors as sexist, 1960 alumnae interviewed say that was not at all the case with their fellow Harvard students. The Radcliffe women presented fierce competition for grades--as can be seen in many quips about them in issues of The Lampoon and The Crimson. "Our class was smarter than the boys because only three of use out of 300 graduated without honors, and there was a much larger proportion, of then," Hohenberg say.

Russel agrees that Harvard men were not responstore for the sexual discrimination, but that instead, "there was a kind of institutional sexism in the air." Russell says she realized it when she recalled how she responded to the news that Mary I. Bunting had been appointed president of Radcliffe: "Wow, a woman is president. I never questioned that a man should be president of a woman's college.

Another example of that institutionalized discrimination came at the Baccalaureate Address of the Class of 1960, Charlene Horn Posner of Illinois remembers. "The speaker told us that when we were up to our elbows in diapers and dishes, it would enrich us to have read Anna Karenina," Posner says.

And another example was the lack of career counseling available to the Radcliffe student. "Someone who knew what she wanted to do could get a lot of help, but the average student didn't get any assistance," says Posner. "At the moment of graduation, I was left high and dry."

To compensate for the lack of guidance from Radcliffe, and be taken seriously, Kneerim says that during college she "had to take on masculine attributes." At the time, she remembers thinking that "getting a Harvard degree would qualify me as a person to be taken seriously."

Yet, for the Radcliffe women, says O'Connor, "There were certain things you didn't do, some stated, some not."

Among these things were: venturing to the Square in slacks or Bermuda shorts without wearing a concealing raincoat, entering the sacred masculine halls of Lamont, or holding office in any of the Harvard student organizations.

Still, Radcliffe women sometimes did not content themselves with participating in Radcliffe's extracurricular, which were roundly considered inferior and often frivolous. "If you were any good at all, then you didn't work for the Radcliffe News, you worked for the Crimson," Darst says.

Likewise, Darst preferred to work for The Advocate rather than--as the Fay House administrator asked her--resurrect a similar defunct Radcliffe publication. A member of the second Advocate editorial board that included women, Kneerim says, "We felt like pioneers."

Just attending Radcliffe made many women, they say, feel like pioneers. "We all knew we were pretty special to go to place like Radcliffe," says Hohenberg.

"Radcliffe opened my eyes to things I had never known. There were little seeds planted that gave me the feeling there were resources out there," says Russell.

Kneerim agrees: "I felt like I was entering a vast city of sophisticated women." And Kay says, upon reflection. "You will never find so man, educated women in one place... I learned at Radcliffe that it wasn't a penalty to have a good mind."

Talking to dormmates until all hours of the night was an essential part of the Radcliffe experience then. "We never realized what a sense of unity we drew from each other," says Kneerim. "Radcliffe was a very friendly cozy place that would go to bat for your if you needed it."

The third floor of Moors, Vilms's home 25 years ago, was the site of a nightly bridge game--but. Vilims's own floor often hosted four solitaire games at once. "We would like to come up with analogies of how solitaire was like life," she says, laughing.

Suzanne Hodes Linschitz '60, now an artist in the Boston area, also laughs when recalling some of the follies of her two years at Radcliffe. Soon captivated by painting through the classes of Agnus Magnon, Linschitz left Radcliffe after two years to attend a college where she could major in art.

While she was here, she left her mark on the school. "I started a life-drawing group," she says, "but when some people found out we were working with nude models, it was discontinued."

Life was restricted elsewhere, too. Says Hohenberg, "At the end of a date, we had to run back to the Quad. That was such a drag. We wanted more freedom."

And Kneerim found out what happened if you took liberties. One night, she recalls, a Harvard friend drove up to the Quad in his brand-new MG. Kneerim and her friends sat around drinking champagne to christen the car, while the dorm's housemother peered through the window at them.

Kneerim found herself put on social probation--meaning she had to be in the dorm each night by 8 p.m. for a week. Kneerim has few kind words for house mothers--"papery old ladies"--as compared to the "intellectual House system at Harvard.

"Retired women were our mentors," says Russell, while the men's mentors were tutors and professors. Harvard men lived in suites, while the women "were crammed into economy doubles," she says.

Yet there was some good in all these inequities, Darst says. "In a very rough way, Radcliffe prepared you for the real world because you learned how to fight," she says.

Kay argues, however, that the preparation did not affect everyone. "It strikes me that some of the brightest women in America have contented themselves with desultory activities, submerging themselves in children and husbands," she says, a fact she says she noticed especially in looking through her class's 25th reunion book. "There are too many compromises being made. What has happened to your intelligence, what has happened to your drive, when you're making cookies for the PTA?

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