Class of 1943: Fighting WWII at Home

"Every fifty years or so I think it's important to look back on one's life and assess some of the major landmarks that have had more than transitory effects."

So wrote one member of the class of 1943. This advice was followed in spades. The 1943 oral histories and questionnaires were answered by most of the class, and this mass of information was summarized by Harriet Belin, Ruth Helman, and Rita Shea. It forms a good picture of the young women who came to Cambridge to go to college 50 years ago.

We came to Radcliffe fresh out of the Great Depression and heading into World War II. Both these phenomena had a profound effect on our philosophy, outlook and politics.

Only half of our class was able to board at Radcliffe, though the fee for board and room in those days was only $550--an incredible bargain by today's standards. The rest worked their way through college.

Elizabeth C. Winship has written the Boston Globe's nationally syndicated "Ask Beth" column for teenagers for more than 25 years.

Radcliffe helped find part-time employment for needy students, even providing black uniforms with white caps and aprons for those who had waitressing jobs--at 50 cents an hour. The work ethic was a fact of life in those times. Circumstances, and our parents, taught us the value of money, but that seldom added up to greed. There wasn't that much money around.


On the contrary, giving to those who had less became ingrained in most of us during that era. Our parents subscribed to the old saying, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." We saved string, and probably still do. We balled up tin foil. We expected to work hard, and we did.

Students today are astounded to hear about the rules we (mostly) obeyed. Getting permission to stay out after 10 p.m. Limits to boys' visits to our rooms. We took it for granted, and are more astounded at dorm life today. One member of this class wrote that after visiting a grand-daughter in college, and observing life in a co-ed dorm, she found it an "innovation which I am sure I would not like."

There were few minority students at Radcliffe in those days. Prejudice was a fact of life we didn't much question. The loss was ours.

Students who run into trouble today can find much more help than we did. In the '30s and '40s, there was assistance for severe problems, especially academic ones, but little for personal difficulties or conflicts with other students. Harassment was not a common event, or not recognized as such. People didn't think of getting aid from a counselor. Probably few were available.

Classes were still held at Radcliffe, with Harvard professors walking over from the Yard to teach the women. So Harvard-Radcliffe contacts, in the undergraduate world, were almost entirely on a social basis. But there were plenty of those.

Those were the Roosevelt years. Classmates were divided on the issues. On the one hand, Lend Lease and Bundles for Britain, on the other America First. Then, a few months into our junior year, came December 7, "the day that shall live in infamy," and everything changed.

Friends, fellow students, brothers, fathers, went to war. We read what was happening in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald. Soon we received V-mail from family and boyfriends. There was no TV. Now it's hard to imagine that there could even be a war without television.

Some students "accelerated," and graduated in 1942. By senior year, Radcliffe began having classes in the Yard with the Harvard students. This was an epoch event, bound to change the college as we knew it. It didn't seem so strange to me, as I had gone to co-ed schools all my life.

Some classmates felt that Harvard students didn't do the reading as thoroughly as we Radcliffe students had, and relied on a ready lip to get through the class discussion. I was accustomed to boys relying on their imagination more and their memories less. In any case, it livened up our classes to no end.

The war also enlivened our social life. Romance blossomed, as more and more Harvard students were drafted or enlisted and went off overseas to fight. Many Radcliffe students, including me, got married, and Radcliffe now allowed married students to remain in college. One Radcliffe dorm housed WAVES, women naval officers attending the U.S. Naval Service Supply School at the Harvard Business School, bringing war very close to home. On graduation, almost 10 percent of our class went into the services.