Rebeccah Watson, Ilana Sichel and Jessica Rosenberg of RUS
Rebeccah Watson, Ilana Sichel and Jessica Rosenberg of RUS

This Is Not Your Mother's Feminism

As their meeting winds down, women hover around the Adams dining hall, nursing cups of tea and chatting, some even
By Sarah M. Seltzer

As their meeting winds down, women hover around the Adams dining hall, nursing cups of tea and chatting, some even flirting. They are first-years and seniors, gay and straight. Some balance on spiky heels and others are nestled in Birkenstocks. They are mostly white. A couple of men comfortably chime in.

“Like your mother used to have in the 70s,” proclaimed the e-mail. The students from Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS) are attending feminist consciousness-raising in lieu of their regular dinner meeting. In small groups, they answer questions like “How does gender affect your daily life?” and “What categories of identity are most important to you?” They talk about their sexuality (“what’s the difference between ‘Queer’ and ‘gay’?), their Women’s Studies reading (“Well, I agree with Judith Butler in that…”), their relationships with each other and men (“do you feel comfortable dating someone who is smaller than you are?”).

They get thoughtful, really thoughtful, but they don’t get angry.

If consciousness has been raised, it doesn’t translate into immediate action. Several people sign up to escort for an abortion clinic at the end of the meeting. But the group plans no demonstration, circulates no petitions, makes no plans to sabotage final clubs and burns no bras.

Harvard women have to be careful about raising their voices too loudly. Anger is out, no matter how much feminist activists on campus feel it. It’s not socially acceptable at Harvard, and it risks alienating both the administrative powers—and Jane and John Harvard.

Those who do identify as feminist struggle to define the word and use it to their advantage. Some choose not to use it at all.

“It’s sad that it’s lost its meaning,” says Alexandra Neuhaus-Follini ’04-’06, a member of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV) and RUS, who is on leave this year. “I  still use it all the time.”


It’s been a big year for women at Harvard. Last spring, they rallied for better sexual assault policy and the first all-female ticket was elected to head the Undergraduate Council. This fall, women joined all-female social groups more than ever. And this winter, a feminist destroyed a snow penis for political reasons, prompting the largest outpouring of media interest in campus feminism in a long time. Suddenly, the F-word was back in the discourse.

And during all of this hubbub, RUS quietly changed its slogan from “RUS: For Women at Harvard,” to “RUS: For Feminism at Harvard.”

Reclaiming the word feminist, RUS leaders say, was mainly about expanding the constituency to more than just women. There’s a man on the RUS board now, Oussama Zahr ’04, and they have begun addressing transgender issues.

But the change is also political.

“It’s alerting people to inequalities that are still here,” says RUS Co-President Ilana J. Sichel ’04. “Because it’s tempting to lose sight of trouble.”

These inequalities, students say—from lack of social space, to the sexual assault policy, to a dearth of tenured females—are as urgent as ever, and call for some sort of feminism. But these days, everyone wants to define the word for him or herself. Feminists can be activist, intellectual, angry, content, gender-rejecting or skirt-wearing.

When asked whether they are feminist, many Harvard woman leaders typically qualify it with the inevitable, “Yes. By my own definition of the word, I am a feminist.”

These semantic acrobatics arise partly from fears of being labeled a man-hater, or being associated with a legacy of middle-class, white baby boomer feminists, the so-called Second Wave.

“I think that many men on campus have the incorrect view of feminism as a radical, anti-male system of beliefs,” says Jared M. Slade ’03, a member of Sigma Chi who has spearheaded effort to get the fraternity involved with Take Back The Night (TBTN) “However, I think that you would find an equal number of females hold the same false stereotypes of what feminism actually is.”

RUS, CASV and the newly-formed Students for Choice have to walk a line. Their goals and ideas largely are inspired by decades of feminist activism, but in a climate of competing concerns, they want to reach out beyond the convinced.

The movement to end sexual assault avoids public use of the F-word. Women’s social clubs, formed to level the social playing field for women, assiduously avoid it. And RUS has just begun in recent years to officially reclaim the word.

“There was a lot of hedging around it,” says RUS Co-President Jessica Rosenberg ’04 about changing the slogan. “It was this post-feminist shame associated with the whole ‘feminazi’ idea.”


This image problem for feminists is not endemic to Harvard.

The climate faced by feminists today is a product of the fact that so many changes have already been made—the second-wave feminists of the 1970s opened the doors of elite institutions, and put gender equality on the books, literally.

For some daughters of feminists, their attendance at Harvard on equal footing with men would seem to be the end of the story. Arguing that one is disadvantaged, let alone protesting oppression, is a hard sell here, where little seems to have impeded women’s ambitions.

“We can go to Harvard. Because of that, we have a distinct advantage. We don’t have to be so militant, and we shouldn’t want to be,” says Alison J. Niemi ’03, an RUS member who occasionally goes to meetings.

At a behemoth like Harvard, change happens slowly, and tradition—in this case, a 300-odd year history of male power—has a strong pull.

“There’s something really sexy about Harvard’s traditions, whether that means all-male final clubs, or the pictures on the wall being all men. It’s something we really gravitate toward,” said Rebeccah G. Watson ’04, former president and current vice-president of RUS. “If only we could confront that within ourselves.”

It’s this subtle reliance on old-fashioned mores, what Sichel and Rosenberg call “chivalry,” that permeates social interactions between men and women. This is a hold-the-door-open kind of place that clings stubbornly to the romance of traditional gender roles.

Amy E. Keel ’04, who gained notoriety on campus as the woman who proudly destroyed the crew team’s snow penis, says that this atmosphere discourages women from signing on to activities that might challenge that status quo.

“I tabled for RUS and CASV at the freshman activities fair, and I saw girls walking by with boys look at the table, and then look away quickly,” Keel says. “From day one, it’s a man’s university.”

Harvard’s sexual assault policy is currently drawing the most fire as an example of what many feel is the university’s entrenched misogyny.

Student activists say that the policy of requiring “corroboration” to hear sexual assault complaints sets Harvard back to the pre-feminist era, when a woman’s word was not enough. They also say that the incidence of sexual assault on campus, combined with this administrative protocol, creates a hostile environment for women.

Attached to the sexual assault question is the question of social space, which in its physical reality, is undeniably male “It’s a basic inequality,” says Abigail L. Fee ’05, who recently re-launched the dormant Students For Choice. “I live in Claverly, and I wake up, look out of my picture window and see the Fly, the Spee, the Phoenix.”

Each of the eight final clubs has a house, a graduate board and ample funding from dues and a long line of alumni. While a host of women’s clubs have sprung up, calling themselves final clubs, social organizations and sororities, none commands a space as prominent as their male counterparts.

Meanwhile, in academia, women see a lack of representation; less than 15 percent of tenured professors are women, a number that worsens in the sciences. Other institutional issues—for example, Harvard is the only Ivy League university without a women’s center—cry out for feminist attention.

Agreeing on what the problems are is easy. How to best approach them is another story.


RUS, as the de facto feminist group, stands at the center of the balancing act. Originally the student government of Radcliffe, it faced an identity crisis as Radcliffe became less relevant to undergraduate life, eventually ceasing to exist as an undergraduate institution in 1999. RUS has been finding its voice ever since, struggling to be all things to all people.

Some say it’s merely a discussion group for the feminists on campus: the tones of the meetings are often light and chatty, often marked by laughter, and this year, the group started RUS-Discuss, an e-mail lists for discussions of feminist topics.

Unlike most organization e-mail lists, RUS-Discuss tackles substantive issues, including a recent discussion of the purpose of RUS itself. This February, the group’s e-mail listserv exploded, albeit briefly, to debate whether the group was living up to its mission of advocating for women on campus. On the other end, there are students who say that the political, overtly feminist nature of RUS meetings alienates men and more timid women.

“It would be good if RUS were more mainstream and attracted women speakers who are mentors rather than being up in arms all the time,” says Whitney E. Harrington ’04, a sometime-member of the group. “I don’t go to RUS meetings because I have a problem with women victimizing themselves.”

The idea of victimization has historically tripped up feminist groups, which struggle with both recognizing oppression and conceding the advances made in the last few decades.

“Most people would rather be living their lives or accomplishing things instead of whining about it,” says Niemi. “The political protest is not where the action is right now.”

Niemi says she wishes RUS would address more personal issues, such as balancing work and family, being a female boss, or “what it’s like to be the Harvard girl who guys from Northeastern can’t handle.”

Sichel, Rosenberg and Watson say that like their feminist foremothers, they want to integrate their political zeal with personal lives; hence the consciousness raising.

“There’s a changing conception of what RUS was and its constituency, so it was a good time to do it,” says Zahr, the political action chair of RUS.

Still, they are wary of the stigma surrounding the liberal model of Second Wave feminism, a model which alienates more than just the apolitical. “Ethnic groups see feminism as a white, middle class movement with goals that are different from theirs,” says Alisha C. Johnson ’04, a CASV board member.

This year, RUS has hosted or will host a variety of events this year collaborating with groups including the Association of Black Harvard Women (ABHW), the Catholic Students Association and Girlspot, the women’s group that focuses on issues of sexuality.

“We want to put a face on feminism that’s not exclusive in that way,” says Rosenberg.

But they admit that although their constituency is more conscious of these issues than it might have been, say in 1972 at Radcliffe, it’s not as diverse as it might be.

At meetings, says Sichel, “it’s hard to bring up [race] when most of the students are in the majority.”

Sexuality is a less touchy subject, with a large self-identifying queer constituency in RUS and a number of crossover members from the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Supporter’s Alliance (BGLTSA).

RUS’s new leadership wants to keep all these competing concerns in mind and turn them into a viable course of political action.

“Our reputation is that we don’t have an edge,” says Sichel. “We’re trying to be more activist.”

RUS is throwing its weight and its membership behind CASV and SFC, and working on Boston area reproductive health and safety issues.

“RUS has been totally supportive,” says Fee of her efforts to bring back pro-choice activism. “I feel like [supporting other groups] is part of what they do, and I know they wanted to be more politically active.”

Any leftward movement seems destined to be more of a shift than a stride.

“No one wants to do radical stuff because they don’t want to get pinned. We don’t want to totally give up our power of meeting with administrators,” says Watson.


There are women marching around waving banners and giving out pins on campus—but they shy away from calling their cause an exclusively feminist one.

Some individual CASV members have no problem claiming the F-word.

“Women are made to feel like they shouldn’t talk about sexual assault,” says Johnson. “So feeling that women and men need to fight it is definitely feminist.”

Shirts flapping in Tercentenary Theater and “Rape Happens at Harvard” signs raised aloft in the yard are unavoidable conversation starters. CASV and Take Back the Night (TBTN) week use these to confront students and administrators, making the issue of sexual violence impossible to disregard.

“It may well be perceived negatively by some segments of the population,” says Madeleine S. Elfenbein ’04, a CASV member, about the group’s publicity. “But most students on campus support the cause.”

Harvard’s TBTN, a week-long campaign to raise awareness about rape and offer support to students affected by sexual assault, is increasingly becoming a campus-wide event, as opposed to a women’s one.

The coalition was wide enough this year for Sigma Chi to get in on the action, co-sponsoring a talk on men and masculinity by sociologist Michael Kimmel, and manning tables at the Science Center.

The anomaly of seeing frat brothers earnestly handing out buttons with the words “Another Man Against Sexual Violence” highlighted the larger community’s absorption of the rape issue as its own.

The black community has also taken up the cause. “ABHW participated a lot more in Take Back The Night in the last two years,” said Allana N. Jackson ’03, the organization’s president. “I was glad to see more black people at the events, and that the events were publicized in our community as well.”

Identifying sexual assault as a human issue rather than a feminist one has been the key to garnering across-the-board support. The word “feminist” does not appear on any TBTN literature.

“A major issue is not to make it political,” says Sarah E. Tavel ’04, a RUS member and co-chair of last year’s TBTN. “Because there’s such a  big umbrella of organizations, that does de-politicize it.”

If TBTN avoids politics, CASV is overtly political. The group regularly prints op-eds, lobbies and has even drafted a legal document or two. They are aggressive and media-savvy, with an explicit agenda and no plans to go away.

But like TBTN, the group doesn’t officially label itself as feminist or unfeminist—they are a coalition with a specific goal, and they remain focused on it.

“We almost never talk about final clubs, as RUS often does, or voting or working women, or anything that I would characterize as feminist,” says Ellenor J. Honig ’04, a member of CASV and co-chair of TBTN. “Mostly, we are concerned about issues of basic human decency, all the while recognizing that many men are also victims of sexual violence.”


At the nexus of frat-party boozing and gentleman’s club cigar-smoking lie the finals clubs, a perennial challenge for feminists.

“They’re the albatross in our midst,” says Marcel A. Q. LaFlamme ’04, another male member of RUS. “These organizations are in no danger of disappearing, and that entrenched privilege is something that I think is very difficult to butt heads with.”

During pre-frosh weekend last spring, RUS and Perspective distributed a small yellow pamphlet detailing the history of finals clubs at Harvard and trying to establish a broader link between male social groups and sexual assault. To many women in CASV and RUS, the pamphlet addresses a safety issue, not necessarily a political one, nudging its pre-frosh readers away from partying in the clubs during that weekend. “The emphasis is that you have other options,” says Tavel.

They point out that pre-frosh men are less likely to gain access to the clubs, while their female counterparts might find more open doors. But they emphasize that the issue does not begin and end with final clubs.

“I think people perceive final clubs as the enemy, whereas sexual assault can happen anywhere and not just final clubs,” says Honig.

Squeamish or not, a Harvard student, without 21-plus identification or money for partying has limited options for the post-2 a.m. slot. This makes it difficult to stridently oppose finals clubs.

“Final clubs are weird and perverse, but they fulfill a need not fulfilled by anything else,” says Harrington.

Some members of RUS say that fear of social repercussions muted the tone of their actions against final clubs. “RUS never wanted to take a stand because everyone would say ‘oh the feminists are trying to shut down the clubs,’” says Watson of RUS. The group plans to revise and redistribute the pamphlet at this year’s pre-frosh weekend.

On another front, a bevy of women’s clubs have begun to assert their presence on the social scene, some presenting themselves as community-building alternatives to the male clubs, and others as their female counterparts. They stress the benefits of single-sex solidarity when it comes to navigating life at and post-Harvard. The Seneca, named for the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, says its mission for women’s life at Harvard extends beyond partying. The group’s website says that the money and support that final clubs have gives men an opportunity that women lack, one that their club is trying to provide.

But balancing its social mission and its socializing has its apparent contradictions. While prospective members this fall performed a day of community service and walked against breast cancer, the group recently held a mixer with the Fly Club.

This gives the Seneca a campus reputation of “feminism lite”—a group that exists “to make the Harvard experience more rewarding for undergraduate women”—without offending undergraduate men. The Seneca also steers clear of the word “feminist” in its official capacity. “The Seneca’s membership represents extremely diverse personalities and opinions,” writes new Seneca President Shilla Kim-Parker ’04 in an e-mail. “It would be unfair to portray only one opinion when each member interprets feminism differently.”

Despite these issues, the Seneca has been a gateway to more overtly feminist activity. For example, both Johnson and Tavel found their way into their RUS and CASV activism through Seneca events and speakers.

And the group’s two Boston club parties, including the hotly-anticipated Red Party in April, are quite possibly the most well-publicized, entirely open parties at Harvard—a significant step in making social life more equitable. These parties are key to the Seneca’s success on campus. Even those who might turn up their noses find themselves hard-pressed to turn down a party at the Roxy, particularly when invites are door dropped to the entire campus.

Other women’s social groups seem less intent on projecting on the image of inclusiveness, although many throw open parties as well. But the inherent exclusivity of all the female social clubs still rankles those who bemoan the final clubs. “By being exclusive and gendered the women’s clubs are reaffirming the place of final clubs,” says Keel. “Where’s the social life where everyone’s included?”


The same subtle legacy of male domination, say feminists, plagues other campus organizations, and provokes internal criticism. This fall, for example, Harvard Hillel held a number of internal discussions about the lack of female leadership—Hillel has never had a woman president—and about confronting a religious tradition whose treatment of gender troubles some women. “Sometimes people are dismissive: ‘Look at those women being all feminist and liberal,’” says Liora R. Halperin ’05, a member of Hillel’s women’s group. “But I would say there are men who are absolutely not dismissive.”

Religious or ethnic allegiances complicate the issue of gender in many student groups. “Sometimes black women or minority women in general feel like they are asked to make a choice between being a feminist and having group loyalty to their ethnicity or racial group,” says ABHW president Jackson. “The feminist movement has often been run or led by white women who aren’t sensitive to those issues, and some black nationalist movements have been very patriarchal. We’re starting to move past that.”

Jackson says ABWH does not officially identify as feminist because of a desire to address the intersection of race and gender, without putting either first.

But they do not hesitate to get involved in improving women’s lot at Harvard, this spring hosting a talk with RUS about the lack of tenured women professors—specifically black females—at Harvard.

Even in the most broadly-based student activities, however, some say that gender dynamics can discourage females.

On stage, for example, a scarcity of roles for women caused three undergraduates to form the Athena Theater Company, now in its third year. “Athena is definitely a feminist venture,” says co-founder Julia C. Reischel ’04. Reischel, Julia H. Fawcett ’04 and Heather J. Thomason ’04 were inspired by their first-year experience in a production of the Vagina Monologues. “It was a very supportive environment, and we wanted to recreate that. It’s more about the community than the craft.”

Some say that roles for women on Harvard’s political stage have been similarly limited. Last year, the Undergraduate Council elected its first all-female ticket, and former president Sujean S. Lee ’03 says she faced understated misogyny within the council. “It was really revealing to hold the position of president in a male-dominated organization,” she says. “There was nothing that was outright differentiation, but there was subtle second-guessing, and hesitation in giving support. We were just more easily questioned, I felt.”


Clearly, feminists at Harvard do not lack zeal. But choices between protest and negotiation, between outreach and internal unity, complicate the picture—not to mention having to convince their peers that they are relevant. These frustrations threaten to obscure the concrete achievements feminists have made at Harvard.

“The constant idea of [women’s advocacy groups] being marginalized: the more we believe it the more it becomes true. There’s a lot of progress being made,” says Elfenbein.

But what there is a shortage of is unabashed feminism. Bold, in-your-face tactics were successful for the Living Wage Campaign, but women risk being labelled whiny and uptight when they employ them. With every step, feminists feel compelled to consider their image, which can slow down their momentum.

“The feminist lobby’s just not confident enough,” says Watson. “Students here are only really affecting change when they’re being really obnoxious. It’s not that we’re not radical, but we need to mobilize.”

Amelia A. Showalter contributed to the reporting of this story.