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'Fair Harvard' Ever More Fair

Commentary

By Susannah B. Tobin

They are only three words, but they make a huge difference. At Saturday's Celebration of Women at Harvard, commemorating the 25th anniversary of women moving into the Yard, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 announced a technically minor, but symbolically major change in the text of our school song, "Fair Harvard." The first line, which used to read, "Fair Harvard! thy sons to thy jubilee throng," now is as follows, "Fair Harvard! we join in thy jubilee throng." The use of the inclusive, non gender-specific pronoun in the song which is sung at almost every major Harvard event is, of course, long overdue, but that's what the Celebration of Women at Harvard was about: symbolic change and the major change in the text of our school song, "Fair Harvard." The first line, which used to read, "Fair Harvard! thy sons thy jubilee throng," now is as follows, "Fair Harvard! we join in thy jubilee throng." The use of the inclusive, non gender-specific pronoun in the song which is sung at almost every major Harvard event is, of course, long overdue, but that's what the Celebration of Women at Harvard was about: symbolic change and the promise of future progress.

Sometimes, it's all about symbolism (with a little tangibility thrown in). In the midst of more complex problems not so easily solved, Harvard did it up right this weekend, honoring the principle of gender inclusivity and specifically the women who entered the Yard 25 years ago by dedicating a gate opposite the Science Center and devoting the afternoon to a celebration of Harvard's alumnae, faculty and students. The cynics among us might argue that the Celebration was Harvard's way of deflecting attention from the need for more tenured women faculty and from the recent tensions with Radcliffe. But I don't agree.

Harvard needed this celebration. We needed the opportunity to create a concrete (or, in this case, brick, stone and iron) memorial to the trailblazers of the Class of 1976, a memorial which also anticipates a renewed effort on the part of the College to strengthen the role of women. The gate dedicated Saturday now boasts two plaques, one recognizing the anniversary 25 years ago, when women first moved into the Yard, and the other quoting the seventeenth-century poet, Anne Dudley Bradstreet: "I came into this country, where I found a new world and new manners at which my heart rose."

The ghost of Bradstreet (who once lived in the building which now houses the Tasty) might well have been smiling down on Saturday's proceedings. Led by Lewis, President Neil L. Rudenstine, former President of the Board of Overseers Renee M. Landers '77, Undergraduate Council President Lamelle D.Rawlins '99 and Porter University Professor Helen Vendler took turns sharing their thoughts on the day and the dedication. Rudenstine clearly placed the significance of the event in Harvard's history. Rawlins highlighted the difference in the position of women at Harvard in 1976 and now in 1997: "We're breaking glass ceilings. They confronted brick walls." Brick walls indeed: The libraries were closed to female students until the late '60s-and even then there were no bath-M. Landers 77, Undergraduate Council President Lamelle D. Rawlins '99 and Porter University Professor Helen Vendler took turns sharing their thoughts on the day and the dedication. Rudenstine clearly placed the significance of the event in Harvard's history. Rawlins highlighted the difference in the position of women at Harvard in 1976 and now in 1997: "We're breaking glass ceilings. They confronted brick walls." Brick walls indeed: The libraries were closed to female students until the late '60s-and even then, there were no bathroom facilities for women. When women moved into the Yard in 1972, they faced a male/female ratio of 8/1 in the dormitories.

The audience at the dedication, seated and standing on the lawn between the Science Center and the gate, coped good-naturedly with the rain which fell briefly during the ceremony and joined in a fairly tuneless but certainly enthusiastic rendition of the revised "Fair Harvard." The panels which followed (if all were as enlightening as the Journalism and Media panel moderated by Jill Abramson '76) accomplished in small what Harvard needs more of in large: female role models sharing their career and life experiences with undergraduates, providing resources, reassurance and inspiration. For further inspiration, the College published a commemorative booklet for the celebration, a photographic extravaganza profiling 25 Harvard women (including six current students), full of such hopeful quotations as "I've felt at home at Harvard" (Suzanne Goh '97) and "I love to see women playing for their dream" (Allison S. Feaster '98). Though the booklet reads like what it is: a self-congratulatory Harvard showcase, it is both moving and realistic. Profilee Vendler hits home most clearly in her quotation, "When I first came here, the only woman teaching me was a visiting professor. Now, we have over 50 senior faculty, a good maternity-leave policy, and tenure-track delay for childbearing. We're moving in the right direction." The idea of movement is crucial to the reason I believe this Celebration was both necessary and successful. Universities, often to our great dismay, do not move in leaps and bounds. They move in small increments, some of which are slightly bigger than others. By devoting a day (and a great deal of time, money and energy) to the specific celebration of women at Harvard, Lewis and the College are on the right track to the necessary (but more complex and slow-in-coming) steps to follow. The celebration direction." The idea of movement is crucial to the reason I believe this Celebration was both necessary and successful. Universities, often to our great dismay, do not move in leaps and bounds. They move in small increments, some of which are slightly bigger than others. By devoting a day (and a great deal of time, money and energy) to the specific celebration of women at Harvard, Lewis and the College are on the right track to the necessary (but more complex and slow-in-coming) steps to follow. The celebration was full of symbolism but left us with two concrete reminders of the ever-growing and evolving role of women at Harvard: the gate through which most of us will pass every day and the booklet which all of us should read and enjoy as a sign of what was and is, and as a portent of things to come.

Anne Bradstreet, though of course unable to attend Harvard-even talented as she was, is an ideal choice to represent the ground-breaking women of the class of 1976. She struggled against a maledominated society which frowned on her writing. Professor Vendler quoted from Bradstreet's poem "The Prologue," in her remarks on Saturday: "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits." The carping tongues were blissfully silent this weekend, and Bradstreet now ushers us into the Yard, a constant reminder of the achievements past and still to come. We can all sing "Fair Harvard" with a little more pride the next time around.

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