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In 1971, a group of women students took over and occupied Harvard’s Architectural Technology Workshop for nearly a week. Their chief demand: that Harvard provide space and money for a women’s center on campus. Since, Harvard’s women’s groups have taken up the call, but with an inconsistent vision of how the center should look: social space, office space, “drop-in space,” and “safe space.”
Nevertheless, last semester, 35 years after the first demand, Harvard announced plans to fund such a women’s center. The center is slated to take over several rooms in Thayer Hall’s basement—displacing offices of existing student groups. Aside from announcing a search for a director, the College has yet to give any other concrete details of the plan.
But, as we have argued in the past, it would be a mistake to see this is as the final victory in a hard-fought war for women. In the past, spaces that have served women and been referred to as a “Center for Women”—notably the 1990 Lyman Common Room—have done little to placate women’s groups and had minimal effect on actual inequality. Unfortunately, while the admittedly well-intentioned women’s center may make for an impressive stop on a campus tour, its impact all too likely will be limited to small, trifling public relations pitches.
We believe the considerable amount of resources being put towards the center would be better allocated addressing the social environment for all Harvard students, including spending more money on Harvard-endorsed parties and programming for the planned campus pub. Harvard’s women would be better served by democratizing a social scene dominated by all-male institutions than by meeting rooms. Only when women do not have to stand outside a final club mansion in a short skirt and heels, hoping to be judged “hot” enough to have a social life, will substantial progress be made towards mitigating gender inequalities amongst Harvard students.
To this end, Harvard should also be prepared to collaborate with existing women’s social organizations on campus—such as the Seneca, the Bee, Isis, and the three sororities—that have already proved successful women’s communities. These groups, for the most part hamstrung by a lack of space and resources, should be encouraged to work with the women’s center and help plan social programming that might stem from it. Well-backed male institutions do not need Harvard’s help to exist and exert influence. Meanwhile, their female counterparts struggle to compete even with co-ed student groups, which do have the College’s endorsement. While the principles behind the College’s policy of not recognizing single-sex organizations is sound, in effect, it sets women students back.
Women should not be demanding special treatment in Harvard or outside its gates. Achieving equality should be the goal of any feminist movements, but that will not be achieved by a roomful of brochures in a Yard basement. We hope that in the midst of a charade to please public eyes through the establishment of a women’s center, Harvard also dedicates resources towards the more pressing challenges of student social programming.
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