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It's not easy being a woman at Harvard. I heard those words more than four years ago, on a humid April afternoon, standing in one of the corridors of my high school with my acceptance letter from Harvard clutched in my hand. In front of me was a woman whom I particularly admired, one of the deans who had given me incredible amounts of encouragement and support over the years. Moments earlier, she had showered me with congratulations, telling me with a broad grin how proud she was and how confident she was that I would do well.
But now she was more somber, her smile replaced with a look of utmost seriousness as she told me that Harvard, while prestigious, had its own share of problems--especially where women were concerned. More than some of the other Ivies, she said, she had heard that there was still an Old Boys' Network and still a fair amount of entrenched sexism, at least at the faculty and administrative level. And although she'd had students there who had loved it, she'd also known students--particularly women--who'd had more than their fair share of criticisms.
"You'll be fine, really," she said in response to my stricken look, almost too quickly. "In fact, you'll be better than fine. But I wouldn't have felt right sending you off without warning you, that's all."
Four years later, I look back on my dean's words with a hint of amusement, especially when I remember the fear and uncertainty her words inspired. As someone who has spent much of her college career involved in women's issues, I am the first to admit Harvard's shortcomings where gender is concerned. After all, I've pointed them out clearly enough--most notably on this editorial page. There are issues such as the all-male final clubs, the dearth of women faculty and also the obstacles women have faced leading different organizations on campus. Yet while the University has seemed to move slowly and ponderously, the reality is that changes have been implemented; over the past several years, women have begun to be heard--and hopefully, will continue to be.
Perhaps for women at Harvard, one of the more compelling questions is the question of identity. For all intents and purposes, we are Harvard students, enjoying the privileges of a campus by which, two generations ago, Radcliffe women found themselves marginalized. Yet there is the strange existence of Radcliffe, a name which appears on our diplomas, and of which, theoretically, we are a part. But what truly is Radcliffe? The glossy brochures we get each year give us vague, even nebulous answers; they tell us that Radcliffe is "an independent corporation for the pursuit of women's higher education," "an advocate for women at Harvard and in society" and "a catalyst for constructive change in a period of rapid social transformation."
All three are noble goals; yet they seem, for many undergraduate women whom I've talked to, to be merely words on paper that haven't yet materialized into reality. And for many alumnae that I've spoken to, Radcliffe is nothing more than a painful reminder of a time when they were relegated to second-class status at Harvard.
My sophomore year, I attended a reading given by a Radcliffe alumna here at Harvard as part of a publicity package for her latest book. Sitting crowded together in the second floor of the women's studies department, we listened to her speak afterwards about her experiences at Radcliffe in the '50s. A mild-mannered woman during her reading, talking afterwards about her undergraduate years led her to raise her voice in moments of irritation and rage.
She had hated the school, she confided in us, hated the fact that as a Radcliffe woman, she was treated as what she termed a "second-class citizen," suffering snubs--and, at times, overt hostility--from male professors indignant at the female students who invaded their classes. She recounted one particular incident, drawing out the details with grim satisfaction--she had written a short story, and her professor had told her that, while her work was strong and she was obviously quite talented, she was wasting time better spent looking for a husband. The result was that she had cut off all ties with Radcliffe upon graduation, and, to this day, she declared, she would never give a penny to either Harvard or Radcliffe.
This woman's story perhaps most clearly illustrates the dilemma that Radcliffe seems to face today: the fact that for many alumnae, Radcliffe is a bitter remembrance of a time when they were not allowed equal treatment as students at Harvard. Yet that is not to say that when Harvard and Radcliffe merged in the '70s, equality swept into the river Houses and eradicated years of entrenched discrimination; women still found obstacles in the classroom, in their living environments and in their extracurricular activities. One editor at Newsweek recollected during a panel on women in the media at the 1994 Women's Leadership Conference a particularly disturbing story about The Harvard Crimson in the mid-'70s: a woman was denied the presidency of the campus' daily newspaper because its top executives had decided that The Crimson was simply not ready to have a woman take control.
Although Radcliffe has been accused by many of being silent in the past on issues of concern to women, it has made rapid strides over the past several years. Perhaps most heartening was their recent support of the Committee for the Equality of Women at Harvard, started by a group of Radcliffe alumnae from the Classes of '53 and '58 in an effort to achieve full equality for female faculty and undergraduates on campus. A fundraising drive spearheaded by Radcliffe led to the establishment this past fall of a new fellowship for junior faculty women at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute, in the hopes that the fellowship will place at least a few female scholars on the tenure track.
The Fellowship is a step in the right direction, if for nothing else than that it shows that Radcliffe is serious about eradicating issues of gender discrimination at Harvard. And as Peggy B. Schmertzler '53, one of the chairs of the alumnae committee, noted last fall in an interview, the "discrimination against women today is extremely subtle and elusive." In other words, women may not still be told to give up writing and have babies, but they may be subtly told not to go out and pursue a Ph.D. in Chemistry--especially if there are no female teaching fellows in Chemistry 10, as was the case when two of my roommates took the course their sophomore year.
The onus of gender equality should not just fall on Radcliffe, however. It is dangerous to assume that such issues can only be addressed by a group of administrators in Radcliffe Yard. While Radcliffe as an institution can work to eradicate gender discrimination through such channels as fundraising, publicity and education, ultimately it is only by joining forces with Harvard that they can truly solve them.
In 1988, a group of Radcliffe women returned for their 35th and 40th reunions and were so dismayed with what they saw that they started a committee to try to implement some changes. When I return for my 35th reunion, I hope that that won't be the case; I hope to return to find an equalizing of gender ratios in each of the academic departments, women equally represented in such groups as the Undergraduate Council and The Crimson and that out of the University's top administrators and Deans, a significant portion will be women.
And I'm optimistic about such changes, convinced that they will come, if not in the next decade, in the next two or three. For me, the key to female advancement at Harvard is change--change that will occur gradually over the years, as men and women begin to share leadership posts within the University community.
Hallie Z. Levine was Assistant Editorial Chair of The Crimson in 1994.
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