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Witty Woman

Cara W. Robertson

By Susan D. Wojcicki

Books clutter the Cabot House room of Cara W. Robertson '90. There are texts on history, literature, women's studies. There are tomes both new and old, small and large, fat and thin.

"It is incredible how many books she has here, and she has even more at home," confides roommate Amanda J. Toole '90. "When she was writing her thesis, books were even piled high on the floor."

It is the varied selection, the multiplicity of subjects and titles, that presents a clearer picture of Robertson. Her academic world has combined a new Harvard discipline, women's studies, with the traditional fields of history and literature in a combined concentration. She has placed the Emersons and Whitmans alongside feminist theorists like Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir under the rubric of her field.

The world that Robertson has created for herself finds expression in the written and spoken word, in the continual application of analysis and, in many cases, re-analysis. As a member of Harvard's first graduating Women's Studies class, Robertson, fittingly, brings both a trademark skepticism and strong sense of intellectual independence to her studies.

Though an avid reader--Robertson says she enjoys the unabridged version of Clarissa, Samuel Richardson's 1500-page novel-her friends and professors note that she is far from conventionally bookish. Rather, she combines an academic bent with social activism and a piercing, ironic wit.

"I am convinced that everyone hates Clarissa because the abridged version cuts out the best parts, the sense that Clarissa is a witty person," Robertson says.

And wit is important to Robertson, who applies her own to all aspects of her world. It can be seen in her academic endeavors--her senior thesis on Lizzie Borden earned her a Hoopes prize, as well as the History and Literature award--as well as in her approach to personal, cultural and philosophical issues.

"She has the most dazzling sardonic wit. Shecan see the irony in almost anything," saysProfessor of History OIwen Hufton, chair of theCommittee on Degrees in Women's Studies andRobertson's thesis advisor.

Humor can also be a balm for disappointment, asRobertson's short story "The Rhodes Not Taken"illustrates. In this tale, Robertson satirizes herencounter with the Rhodes application process andthe interview committee.

Her story describes an "informal reception"where she meets her fellow Rhodescompetitors--whom she quickly and humorouslydivides into three categories: those aspiring toslickness, the slick, and the truly slick.

It is the actual interview, however, thatallows Robertson to parody the hostility that she,like most Women's Studies concentrators, hasencountered when forced to justify theconcentration.

When an interview in the tale asks Robertson,"What's the future of Women's Studies/WorldDomination?" she writes, "I began to explainfeminist film theory and the male gaze--perhapsbecause I felt I was under it. The return of therepressed from Women's Studies 10d: The Curse ofAlice Jardine. As you might imagine, this did notgo over as well as it would have in a blackleather-jacketed crowd."

Robertson's decision to spice her study oftraditional disciplines with a focus on women'sissues reflects her attitude not only toacademics, but the real world as well. Herextracurricular activities--she was co-presidentof both the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS) andResponse, a peer counseling group that handlesissues of sexual harassment--blend smoothly withher intellectual aims. In a sense, the classroomand the real world were destined to merge for thiswoman who has developed such a strong sense of theways in which the intellectual and the personalinteract.

"I was studying these issues in the classroomand that led me to translate my concerns to therealm of social activism," Robertson says abouther involvement with RUS and Response.

"The beauty of Women's Studies is once youstart to see it, you see it everywhere," she adds.

And Robertson's broad vision has kept her awareof the potential foibles of the academic andsocial system, even when that system awards herfor her own accomplishments. She does not receiveher accolades without noting the ironies in herown situation, ironies which are an omnipresentconcern in her work as well.

At the manual History and Literature party inmid-May, Robertson received a department award forexcellence in her thesis work. The presentation ofher honor, however, followed the announcement ofanother pair of departmental accolades.

First they honored the "best senior thesis by aman," then they honored the "best senior thesis bya woman."

Robertson's response to this bizarre divisionof awards--here was officially for "best thesiswork"--reflected both her ironic: "Do I recievethe androgynous award?" she asked.

But it is the Women's Studies program, nitHistory and Literature, that Robertson praises forproviding a means to pursue her interest withinone department.

Perhaps her prize-winning senior thesis bestillustrates the fusion of interests whichcharacterizes Robertson's Harvard career.

Titled "Representing 'Miss Lizzie': Class andGender in the Borden Case," Robertson's thesisexplored the cultural assumptions behind theLizzie Borden case, an 1892 true-life thriller setin Fall River, Mass., which became a mediasensation. When Borden was accused of murderingher father and stepmother--with an axe--she becamethe subject of endless speculation, most of which,Robertson notes, has hinged on the question of herguilt.

"Most of the debate concerning Lizzie Bordenrevolves around the question, 'Did the actuallycommit the murders?' I personally think she wasguilty, but the point is not 'did she do it ornot,' but that at that time it was culturallyunacceptable to assume she did," says Robertson,who adds that Borden's elevated social positionmay have influenced perceptions of her guilt.

The issue of women's role in society wascentral to Robertson's philosophies even beforeshe came to Harvard and chose her concentration.She did take a women's studies course in highschool, but she says she didn't have "theopportunity to experiment [with these issues] asmuch as she would have like to until she came toHarvard."

The Women's Studies program here, she says,gave her ample opportunity to pursue a myriad ofinterests.

"Women's Studies wants you to beinterdisciplinary. You are expected to beconversant in feminist theory and how it relatesto your own field," explains Robertson.

Though the department requires severalfundamental courses, it also allows students tochoose a specific field within the concentration.

"Women's Studies looks at how gender as acategory is constructed and how it is always underconstruction. You don't want to take man asnormative," Robertson says. "For example, thehistorian Joan Kelly asks, "Did women haverenaissance?' Women's Studies does not just fillin gaps but in a sense gives a fuller and moredynamic approach."

Like many students and professors in Women'sStudies, Robertson is enthusiastic about thesocial dimensions of the program as well as itsacademic offering.

"Because Women's Studies is such a smalldepartment, the head tutor advises you every year.They know what you are doing and that's nice," shesays.

"We offer a small, personalized service. Weactually care," Hufton says, suggesting that thispersonal approach may help explain the largepercentage of prize-winning theses--four of the 10concentrators won Hoopes prizes.

"You have to really think about theconcentration before you choose it. Your familymay ask what you are going to do with it. Women'sStudies tends to week out the nebulous orindifferent," Hufton says.

Robertson has found, in the Women's Studiesdepartment, a forum for women's issues at Harvard.She does not feel that Radcliffe has provided thesame.

"Before I came to Harvard," she says, "I likedthe idea of a history of women's education, buttoo often Radcliffe functions as an excuse not tomeet the needs of the undergraduates."

"The RUS approach is preventive, encouragingwomen to educate themselves, while Response dealswith issues after the fact, giving students achance to talk about sensitivity issues likeacquaintance rape."

Robertson cannot remember any formative eventthat sparked her interest in women's issues, butHufton attributes Robertson's interest to herability to cut through hypocrisy.

"She has a very powerful analytical mind,"Hufton asserts. "She sees much of theirrationality in what passes as rational."

Next year, Robertson plans to study 18thcentury English literature at Oxford University."I like reading 18th century novels that featurethe dilemma of women's choice of partner," sheexplains.

After receiving her masters in philosophy fromOxford, Robertson plans to study law at Stanford,perhaps focusing on legal history and feministjurisprudence.

Beyond that, she is uncertain of what type oflaw she will want to practice--though she knowsshe does not want to work in a large corporatefirm.

Her uncertainly, however, has left neither heracademic advisors nor her friends concerned.

"I never really worry about her," Toole says,"because I know she will come out on top.

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