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Radcliffe on the Ropes

By Dan S. Aibel

It's that time of year again. With a tea here and a soiree there, Radcliffe is inviting women of the class of 1998 to pretend that the "college" has played a key role in their undergraduate careers. And Harvard, needless to say, has also concocted a mechanism to get its graduating class in the philanthropic spirit: The Senior Gift Fund, marrying the structure of a pyramid scheme with old fashioned peer pressure, rivals anything the Scientologists could come up with.

Alas, there's something different in the air this fundraising season. It's no secret that the Harvard Radcliffe relationship has been a bit strained lately. And it's been clear for some time that this is no mere marital spat. Radcliffe alumnae opened (or reopened) the battle last year by taking Harvard to task for the low percentage of women in its tenured faculty. They implied that if Harvard women want to help Harvard women, they'd do better to donate to Radcliffe than to stuff the coffers of the old boys club.

But this year, the empire struck back. Specifically--and it doesn't take a media-savvy K-schooler to notice--Harvard has embarked on a spin campaign, an effort to insulate itself from gender-based threats to its prestige and fundraising power.

To put it plainly, Harvard has dressed itself up as a feminist. The school has had itself a media makeover.

There were those Women's Leadership Awards, doled out last month at the Charles Hotel. There was that Abercrombie & Fitch-type catalog lauding the achievements of Harvard women. There was that October celebration of 25 years of co-residency in the Yard--a relatively un-newsworthy achievement considering that the houses have been integrated for 28 years, but nonetheless an opportunity for President Neil L. Rudenstine to pose for the cameras with proud, prominent Harvard women. Thrown in for good measure, all year long there's been a speaker series featuring women leaders in industry and academia. And lest we forget, Harvard's new president of the Board of Overseers and graduation speaker are both women, as are Lowell House's incoming masters.

But is the quote-unquote "feminization" of Harvard working? Has the school established successfully the perception that it's doing just fine by women on its own, and implicitly, that Radcliffe is nothing more than a vestige of another time?

The best way to find out, it seems to me, is to take to people with more than a passing interest in Harvard, but without the insider status that would give them first-hand insight into the situation. And conveniently, an entire flock of pre-frosh have descended on Cambridge for the weekend.

So I make a trip over to The Crimson's event in the Loker commons at 10:45 on Saturday night, and soon I'm talking to a half-dozen prospective members of the class of 2002. Once I identify myself as a Crimson reporter, they crowd around me like some sort of deity--it gets to the point that another few people join our circle, drawn over by the size of the crowd. "What's going on here?" a late-arrival asks upon entering the group, as if worried that he's missed the beginning of some crucial, unlisted pre-frosh event.

I begin asking the kids for some impressions of Radcliffe, but right away they turn the question back on me.

"So what is it, you just apply there separately?" one woman asks. I feign ignorance, waiting to hear what the pre-frosh have to say for themselves, and immediately the conversation dissolves into a fog of misinformation. But eventually one woman voiced an opinion that the crowd accepts as authoritative: She's pretty sure that Radcliffe doesn't give any classes; the most important thing about it, from what she's heard, is that it's a good place to get set up for internships.

Delving into the heart of the matter, I ask for thoughts about the comfort level of women on the Harvard campus, and whether there is a fear of marginalization. But before any of the women have a chance to speak, a pre-frosh named Nick pipes up. He takes me through a theoretical demonstration of why he's certain that women bright and talented enough to get admitted to Harvard are going to be strong enough to hold their own here.

When he finally finishes, a young woman named Ali mentions that it did strike her as odd that at the clubs she visited, every presentation had been led by a man. I ask whether this is a source for concern for her. But she says that, at least for now, she's willing to shrug off the disparity as the product of random chance.

Dan S. Aibel '98 is a philosophy concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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