Calm Before the Feminist Storm


The Radcliffe Class of 1961 missed the revolutionary boat. Born during World War II, they arrived at college in the late 1950s still limited by prevailing stereotypes. But they graduated too early for the women's liberation movement to have an impact on their college experience.

"Lamont Library was closed to women and I was irate at that, but I made an individual response. I disguised myself up as a boy, got my friends to sneak me in, and studied there for a night," recalls Margit Johansson '61, a research associate in Womens Studies at the University of Colorado. "My feelings were there, but there was no women's movement to back me up."

Some former Radcliffe students say they felt vaguely dissatisfied, but "we weren't conscious of a national pattern," says Myra Lakoff Rich '61, now a history professor at Colorado.

But once the national women's movement gathered steam, the Radcliffe Class of 1961 joined the bandwagon. Fully 81 percent of the alumnae who responded to a recent 25th reunion poll said that the attempt to pass an Equal Rights Amendment and the women's movement had affected them personally.

Although many of the 241 women who graduated in the spring of 1961 now say they later realized that they had not had all of the opportunities as the male undergraduates, most of them took their status at Radcliffe for granted. "I didn't feel like a second-class citizen, but I think I was," says Mary Catherine Bateson '61. Virginia Rogers Patterson '61, who lives in Philadelphia and has raised five children, agrees: "We were used to being second string."

Bateson, the daughter of Margaret Mead and now a professor of anthropology at Amherst College, and other alumnae point to their living arrangements as a symbol of the disadvantages Radcliffe students confronted. "We had to live in the [Radcliffe] Quad, and there was no transportation. But we took it for granted and developed strong leg muscles. Now you can't get anyone to live there unless you provide transportation."

"The basic set-up was such that women were second-class citizens," says Maryland resident Shelley Pallay Levi '61. At that time, Radcliffe students lived in dormitories with house mothers while their tutors lived in the Harvard houses with the male undergraduates. "Not having the tutors around made a difference in the intellectual quality of our lives," says Levi, now a travel consultant in the Washington, D.C. area.

"Tutors would come up for dinner a few times a month, after having a little sherry to get their courage up," remembers Johansson, who earned her doctorate in sociology at Columbia in 1977.

While coeducational living with Harvard did not start until ten years after their graduation, Radcliffe students of 25 years ago lived under rules which, by today's standards, may seem archaic to returning alumnae. Dress codes, curfews, and signing in and out at the bell desk were regular features of daily living. "There certainly were a lot of irrelevant constraints on our behavior," says Cornelia DeNood Swayze '61, who today lives on a farm in Vermont. "We couldn't wear pants without a long coat over them."

All Radcliffe students had to be in their dorms at 11 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends, and the Quad at night frequently looked like a scene out of a bad romance novel. "All the couples would be kissing good night on the steps at the same time," says Levi, who married a member of the Harvard Class of 1960 a few days after graduation.

Some women chose to avoid the restrictions of Barnard, Eliot and Comstock by moving off-campus. "I liked living off-campus because it was a little less cloistered. On campus you were expected to follow schedules all of the time," says Beverly Helbling Wood '61, a radiologist.

Despite the restrictions Radcliffe students lived under, many alumnae praise the college for providing the best education possible given the times. "The school was very supportive of academic endeavors, unlike most schools at the time," says Wood, now a professor of radiology at the University of Rochester.

And some women students didn't even find the rules restrictive. "I rather liked the protective atmosphere of the dorm," says Helen Arnold Herron '61, a biology Ph.D. turned housewife and mother of two. "I didn't feel at all cramped by the hours because I certainly didn't want to be out after 10 or 11 anyway."

Single-sex housing did provide certain benefits. "We had the opportunity to be grubby, dirty and quiet at home without anyone knowing. It was a great relief to hide out and not bother for a while," says Sara McGuire Muspratt '61, while Peggy Gilkerson Heywood '61 adds that dorms were "very pleasant, small-scale homelike places.

"We used to joke about gracious living, but it was quite pleasant to sit down and have a good meal," says Heywood, now a psychiatric social worker. "Harvard had those wonderful dining halls which looked elegant, but it was very uncivilized."