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THE SETTING was Cambridge, Mass., the year 1970. With student protest calming down after the violent '69 takeover of University Hall, the establishment made a radical move of its own: It decided that the boys could live with the girls at the Radcliffe Quad and the girls could join the boys down by the River.
Most Likely to Succeed: Six Women form Harvard and What Became of Them
By Fran Schumer '74
Random House; 297 pp.; $17.95.
They called it cohabitation, and it began just before the Class of '74 converged on the nation's oldest and most staid institution of higher learning. It was, as Fran Schumer '74 illustrates in Most Likely to Succeed, to have a profound impact on the female members of the class, who found themselves grappling with the strange and tumultuous era of the Vietnam War and women's liberation, while at the same time trying to cope with traditional pressures to be slim and pretty, leaving the old boys' network to the boys.
Schumer, a high-intensity newspaper reporter in college, organizes her version of The Harvard Experience in Retrospect into 10 chapters. The first four chronicle the undergraduate years of the author and her friends, the last six reveal the successes, failures and ambivalent musings of six female members of the Class of '74 nearly a decade later. (The six are composites, drawn from interviews with 50 classmates conducted in the early 1980s.)
In the first section Schumer covers in rich detail the interpersonal relationships which seem to dominate intellectual learning and personal growth here. While much of the material will be familiar to the initiated, she effectively puts the interaction between female students and the institution into context by citing studies of college-aged women of the time, bolstering and lending historical credence to her developing psychodrama.
AS THE EARLY 1970s recede, they become foreign to today's Radcliffe woman. Yet it was a period, as Schumer tells us, characterized by a particular neurotic confusion. It was a time when women--or at least those Schumer describes--lived for weekly pshchoanalysis sessions, fell in droves to the anorexia-bolemia plague--as did Schumer herself--and suffered chronic depression.
But, like almost all college experiences, the angst had its redeeming qualities: "True we were jealous maniacs and looked at each other's accomplishments as part of a zero-sum game: You win, I lose," Schumer writes. "But it was because of the turmoil we were in that our friendships during that period were so rich and intense."
The rules for women were changing at lightning speed. They had begun thinking about career before family. But finding themselves post-hippy pioneers thrust onto an unfamiliar and uncomfortable fast track, they often faltered. Radcliffe President Matina Horner's theories about women's fear of success were hitting the front pages, and post-combat-era feminists were uneasily trying to negotiate between the gender and generation gaps.
The traditional elements that to some extent still typify the college experience--throwing off the values of one's parents and defining one's own, trying to outdo one another in radical political jargon, experimental binges of drugs, sex and sleep--assumed and added dimension for women in the early 1970s. "Five years earlier," Schumer writes, "men had been required to wear jackets and ties in the dining halls, and women weren't allowed in the undergraduate library in Harvard Yard. Now mattresses were pushed together on the floors and even the toilets were co-ed....What an anachronism the Radcliffe dorms now seemed, with their genteel 'sitting rooms' and satin settees."
The strength of the book, though, lies in the second section, in Schumer's chapters on each of six women, the "most likely to succeed" from her class. Most "succeeded" by Harvard's definition, yet all struggled with the conflicting expectations of marriage, career, family and personal fulfillment.
Two of the six women profiled seemed to handle the exhaustion of balancing their roles as doctors, wives and mothers by not thinking about the trade-offs they had to make. One followed her husband to Montana, only to flounder with a law degree she could not find a satisfying way to put to use. Another became a prize-winning photographer, before succumbing to a series of heart-breaks, withdrew into an empty life of loneliness.
The author herself floated in and out of relationships and jobs until deciding to become a writer, throughout the book struggling to reconcile what Radcliffe taught her and what it did not. And the last character, the neurotic, rich, tennis star-femme fatale, ran a rubber hose from her car's exhaust pipe to its interior and left the engine running.
THE QUESTION that Schumer leaves underdeveloped is how the women's college experiences influenced, for good or bad, their choices and priorities later in life. Each left college believing she could balance marriage, family and a high-powered career. But the shattering of the Supermom ideal hardly is a new or exclusively Radcliffe phenomenon.
Schumer impressively chronicles the post-graduate live of her characters, and their psyches and adventures make the second half of the book a pageturner. But there is a disjunction between the book's first half--the crazy, angst-ridden college years--and the second half, in which the women seem to have come into their own. How did the first half of the book inform the second? Given Schumer's format, this should be a central question, yet the links are rarely more than implied.
The book is not a novel and is best read as a semi-fictionalized case study--though one made all the more intriguing by the author's self-conscious narration. Schumer's language is brisk and informative, and she successfully avoids turning sentiment into a soppy trip down memory lane. And a decade later, the reader gets the impression that the characters are ready to put it all behind them. "I never wanted to see [them] again....[a]ll those goblins of growing up--fear, envy, insecurity and sloth," Schumer writes after a return to her freshman room. "And all that I saw in that room, in which I began my most difficult years, were two opened windows and the loop of a shade fluttering in the breeze."
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