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The Last Dance

RADCLIFFE 1943

By Elizabeth J. Riemer

For members of the Radcliffe Class of 1943, the Real World arrived much sooner than expected.

As spectators and participants, Radcliffe women of the time watched as the Great Depression of their childhood gave way to the horrors of World War II, as both male and female friends joined the services and as the work force, at least temporarily, offered women new opportunities and new expectations.

From the time of their arrival in September 1939, as Hitler rolled over Poland, to Radcliffe President Ada L. Comstock's 1943 Commencement announcement that Radcliffe students would thereafter attend Harvard classes, the world--and Radcliffe--changed dramatically.

"We were the last of the dinosaurs," says Eleanor Doermann Larrabee. "It was really sort of nineteenth-century there--its attitude about how one should behave in public, how one should be shepherded, and many Harvard professors didn't want to teach at Radcliffe. I wished the place would enter the twentieth century."

But as Harvard men left for overseas duty, as Radcliffe women joined the services and as the standard maid service began to disappear, it became clear that even the Ivory Tower was not immune to the turbulence of the times.

Lillian Kasparian Derderian still clearly remembers the fear she felt when news of Pearl Harbor broke.

"It was just pandemonium," she says. "We were in the biology labs. The men came running into where we were, and we were all wondering what to do, whether we should leave college. It was very traumatic."

Like many of her classmates, Derderian chose to "accelerate" and graduate in three years by studying straight through summer, in order to pursue marriage, national service, or wartime careers. By graduating a year early, however, Derderian left behind the friends from her entering class.

"Whatever joy was going to be was kind of taken away," she says. "Some of us were '43, some were '44. It was important to have the umbrella called Radcliffe."

Class Reunion Committee Chair Ruth Bocholtz Helman recalls the words of President Comstock urging students to continue their education despite the bombing.

"Pearl Harbor was sort of a watershed in our experience, because things changed in our junior year. People accelerated out of our class, and people married boyfriends who were going overseas," Helman says. "It was an uncertain time."

Ella Jane Van Horn Hagenbuch still wonders about the choices she faced during the war. While at Radcliffe, she participated in a secret government program for coding and de-coding messages. But when she asked to leave Radcliffe with her best friend and join the Red Cross in Europe, her father refused to let her go.

Hagenbuch's friend went alone and died in Paris, asphyxiated by fumes from her stove. "I wonder if I had gone, if I would have remembered to open the window," Hagenbuch says.

But even Hagenbuch looks back to Radcliffe as "the best time of all."

"I think the best part of Radcliffe was really the professors and the stimulation they gave you for learning more," she says. "We'd get talking, and we all had different ideas. It was exhausting, but it was fun."

When Hagenbuch moved from the exclusively female arena to Harvard's Economics Department, however, her perceptions changed. In her classes at Harvard, Hagenbuch perceived the sharp division between Harvard and Radcliffe. "I felt uncomfortable talking in class, because I felt they were better than I was," she says.

While Radcliffe students in general depended on Harvard professors to cross the Cambridge Common and deliver lectures, Hagenbuch and her classmates often registered in specific Harvard classes relevant to their concentrations.

But not all felt intimidated in co-ed classes. "There certainly was no such thing as militant feminism," says Mary Douglas Dirks. "But we felt equal if not superior intellectually to the men that we knew. We were very proud of being chosen to go to Radcliffe. I suppose you could say we were very snotty."

Derderian sees the move to co-ed classes for Harvard and Radcliffe as a step backward in some ways. "Mixing up the sexes got in the way of women's learning to be their own person and training their leadership," she says. "The men diverted their attention from their studies."

To Helman as well, single-sex education presented as many opportunities as obstacles.

"As a small women's college, we enjoyed close contact with professors," Helman says. "There were opportunities for leadership which, at least at the beginning, was harder" with co-ed arrangements.

Still, Helman does remember the limitations of being a woman at Rad-

Pearl Harbor made it clear that even the Ivory Tower was not immune to international turbulence.

To some Radcliffe alumnae, the move to co-ed classes was a step backward, in many ways. cliffe, even in terms of library access. "We had one room not much larger than a telephone booth in Widener, and they brought books to us," she says. "We couldn't just wander around."

In science classes, men and women used separate labs for the same projects. "There was no mingling of the sexes," says Derderian. "I was surprised that in the sciences we had our own labs for chemistry and physics," she says. "Educationally, we were pretty much equal, except for the segregation."

Outside class, however, the situation remained even less equal for Radcliffe women. From signing in and out of the dormitories to getting permission for road trips, Radcliffe students faced a far more stringent set of expectations, laid out in the "Red Book" issued to incoming students.

Even the WAVES, women training for military service, had to appear proper when drilling in the Quad--to the point of executing maneuvers in high heels.

"They tried very hard to be very crisp and dedicated," says Larrabee. "I remember when they were wearing galoshes and high heels, and when they did a quick about-face they slipped in the mud."

Helen Russell Allegrone served in the WAVES as an officer in communications and cryptography from 1943-46, despite her plans to study public health at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"My father said, 'My God, if anyone wants you to do something, do it,' so I went into the WAVES," says Allegrone. "At the time, I thought I was giving up the thing I wanted to do, but I enjoyed the WAVES."

In a time of strict expectations for proper female behavior, many Radcliffe students saw the war as an opportunity to defy the standard female role society offered.

Whether joining the service or entering a labor force suddenly in need of qualified female workers, Radcliffe women found themselves playing new roles. "The war gave us great opportunity to make career choices which probably weren't there in the '50s," says Class President Bette Dickson Finegan.

Still, the war did impair social activity on campus, as Harvard men joined the services, Finegan says. "'42 and the first half of '43 were a little sparse in social activity," which left only "classes, studying, and the occasional bridge game," Finegan says.

Hagenbuch too found the pace of life markedly different after Pearl Harbor. "We used to have dates where I'd meet someone outside the library and go for a Coke, then go back to study for a while and go out with someone else later on," she says. "You could go out with two or three people in one day. When the war started, it wasn't so leisurely."

For Dirks, Pearl Harbor's import didn't hit until the men started disappearing. "I was pretty stupid about the war," says Dirks. "Pearl Harbor didn't register for a while. I was going to a Law School dance that night. And then suddenly it registered, because the place was devoid of men, and some of them were dying."

Even then, Dirks says, the full import of the war didn't hit her. "It was still a bit of an ivory tower. You're there, and you're protected, and war is just one of those terrible things that happened thousands of miles away," she says. "We picked apples for the farmers and thought we were doing a lot for the war. Some of us knitted--not me, certainly."

Until a junior-year tutor "taught [her] to think," Dirks relegated studying to a second-priority activity. "We were probably less serious than [Radcliffe students] today," says Dirks, co-chair of entertainment for the reunion. "We danced a lot, and we got in trouble a lot with housemistresses, and we played bridge a lot and we smoked."

"A typical weekend you waited for the phone to ring," Dirks says. "If you were unlucky and unfortunate enough not to have a date--believe me, if you didn't get asked for a date, you were miserable--we stayed up and played bridge and smoked."

When not listening to the Big Bands at Norumbega Park or taking picnics to Walden Pond, football provided the primary activity, Dirks says.

"There was football, which I hated, because it was wet and cold, but it was what your boyfriend invited you to," she says. "I really loathed it, but I think I was at every football and baseball game. It was a silly time, but I think you have to mix the silly and the serious."

Helman also looks back on football games as prime social events. "Football games were much more exciting in those days. Harvard was a football power then," she says. "If you had a boyfriend, he bought you a big, yellow chrysanthemum and a banner and you marched down in high heels."

For the many commuters in the class of '43, Agassiz House in Radcliffe Yard provided the center of activity, with a cafeteria, mail boxes, and club meetings. "Radcliffe Yard was abuzz with activity," says Helman. "It wasn't like it is now."

But Rochelle Mirsky Cohen says commuters missed many of the privileges residents enjoyed. "If you didn't live in the dormitories, you really had very little association with most of the student body," says Cohen, who commuted every day from home to Radcliffe and to the Boston Hebrew College.

Cohen speaks also of prominent social class separations within the student population, beyond those of commuters and residents.

"There were all our classmates who were coming out and living in posh households, but they didn't associate with people who weren't society families. We were really edged out," Cohen says.

Though the class was extremely homogeneous in terms of race, Cohen recalls cases of anti-Semitism. "It wasn't an easy time to get into Ivy League schools in those years. There was some sort of a limit [on Jewish students admitted]," says Cohen.

Still, many alumnae insist that Radcliffe provided substantial opportunities--both during and after college.

"It opens doors," says Helman. "On the personal level, it gave me a sense of what excellence meant and the value of a broad, humanistic education."

Derderian agrees. "Those were the times," she muses.Courtesy Radcliffe College ArchivesThe 1942-43 Radcliffe Press Board.

In science classes, men and women used separate labs for the same projects. "There was no mingling of the sexes," says Derderian. "I was surprised that in the sciences we had our own labs for chemistry and physics," she says. "Educationally, we were pretty much equal, except for the segregation."

Outside class, however, the situation remained even less equal for Radcliffe women. From signing in and out of the dormitories to getting permission for road trips, Radcliffe students faced a far more stringent set of expectations, laid out in the "Red Book" issued to incoming students.

Even the WAVES, women training for military service, had to appear proper when drilling in the Quad--to the point of executing maneuvers in high heels.

"They tried very hard to be very crisp and dedicated," says Larrabee. "I remember when they were wearing galoshes and high heels, and when they did a quick about-face they slipped in the mud."

Helen Russell Allegrone served in the WAVES as an officer in communications and cryptography from 1943-46, despite her plans to study public health at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"My father said, 'My God, if anyone wants you to do something, do it,' so I went into the WAVES," says Allegrone. "At the time, I thought I was giving up the thing I wanted to do, but I enjoyed the WAVES."

In a time of strict expectations for proper female behavior, many Radcliffe students saw the war as an opportunity to defy the standard female role society offered.

Whether joining the service or entering a labor force suddenly in need of qualified female workers, Radcliffe women found themselves playing new roles. "The war gave us great opportunity to make career choices which probably weren't there in the '50s," says Class President Bette Dickson Finegan.

Still, the war did impair social activity on campus, as Harvard men joined the services, Finegan says. "'42 and the first half of '43 were a little sparse in social activity," which left only "classes, studying, and the occasional bridge game," Finegan says.

Hagenbuch too found the pace of life markedly different after Pearl Harbor. "We used to have dates where I'd meet someone outside the library and go for a Coke, then go back to study for a while and go out with someone else later on," she says. "You could go out with two or three people in one day. When the war started, it wasn't so leisurely."

For Dirks, Pearl Harbor's import didn't hit until the men started disappearing. "I was pretty stupid about the war," says Dirks. "Pearl Harbor didn't register for a while. I was going to a Law School dance that night. And then suddenly it registered, because the place was devoid of men, and some of them were dying."

Even then, Dirks says, the full import of the war didn't hit her. "It was still a bit of an ivory tower. You're there, and you're protected, and war is just one of those terrible things that happened thousands of miles away," she says. "We picked apples for the farmers and thought we were doing a lot for the war. Some of us knitted--not me, certainly."

Until a junior-year tutor "taught [her] to think," Dirks relegated studying to a second-priority activity. "We were probably less serious than [Radcliffe students] today," says Dirks, co-chair of entertainment for the reunion. "We danced a lot, and we got in trouble a lot with housemistresses, and we played bridge a lot and we smoked."

"A typical weekend you waited for the phone to ring," Dirks says. "If you were unlucky and unfortunate enough not to have a date--believe me, if you didn't get asked for a date, you were miserable--we stayed up and played bridge and smoked."

When not listening to the Big Bands at Norumbega Park or taking picnics to Walden Pond, football provided the primary activity, Dirks says.

"There was football, which I hated, because it was wet and cold, but it was what your boyfriend invited you to," she says. "I really loathed it, but I think I was at every football and baseball game. It was a silly time, but I think you have to mix the silly and the serious."

Helman also looks back on football games as prime social events. "Football games were much more exciting in those days. Harvard was a football power then," she says. "If you had a boyfriend, he bought you a big, yellow chrysanthemum and a banner and you marched down in high heels."

For the many commuters in the class of '43, Agassiz House in Radcliffe Yard provided the center of activity, with a cafeteria, mail boxes, and club meetings. "Radcliffe Yard was abuzz with activity," says Helman. "It wasn't like it is now."

But Rochelle Mirsky Cohen says commuters missed many of the privileges residents enjoyed. "If you didn't live in the dormitories, you really had very little association with most of the student body," says Cohen, who commuted every day from home to Radcliffe and to the Boston Hebrew College.

Cohen speaks also of prominent social class separations within the student population, beyond those of commuters and residents.

"There were all our classmates who were coming out and living in posh households, but they didn't associate with people who weren't society families. We were really edged out," Cohen says.

Though the class was extremely homogeneous in terms of race, Cohen recalls cases of anti-Semitism. "It wasn't an easy time to get into Ivy League schools in those years. There was some sort of a limit [on Jewish students admitted]," says Cohen.

Still, many alumnae insist that Radcliffe provided substantial opportunities--both during and after college.

"It opens doors," says Helman. "On the personal level, it gave me a sense of what excellence meant and the value of a broad, humanistic education."

Derderian agrees. "Those were the times," she muses.Courtesy Radcliffe College ArchivesThe 1942-43 Radcliffe Press Board.

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