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Before Otis A. Gates ’56 entered Harvard College, he had never been to a party with beer and had never attended a school with girls. By the end of his freshman year, Gates had partied at his first beer blast, yet he still attended a college that banned women.
“The whole atmosphere at Harvard about drinking and socializing with women was different,” Gates recalls. “The first beer party that I ever attended was as a 17-year-old and was at Harvard, at Memorial Hall. They even hired a strip tease artist to perform for us.”
While Harvard provided strippers to entertain their male undergraduates in the 1950s, Harvard House Masters strictly regulated how men entertained women in the dormitories. For the Class of 1956, parietals—the hours when women were allowed in male dormitories—restricted how they interacted with the opposite sex. According to the rules, women could be in male dormitories until 11 p.m. on Saturdays and from 4 to 7 p.m. on weekdays for upperclassmen.
Parietal rules at Harvard date back to the 1770s, a 1955 Crimson article reported.
“Restrictions were a definite necessity by 1770,” wrote The Crimson in November 1955. “It was reported that ‘2 women of ill fame’ had ‘spent the night in a certain College chamber.’”
Although many members of the Class of 1956 accepted these restrictions as a sign of the times, the alleviation of these rules still elicited the attention of the Student Council, house masters, and deans.
‘WAR’ FOR FREEDOM
For the Class of 1956, most members had come to accept parietals as a way of life, marking a shift from the post-World War II period.
War veterans who returned to Harvard as undergraduates, hardened from years of fighting, were much older and less likely to accept the parietal rules, according to Morton Keller, co-author of “Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America’s University.”
But the matriculation of the Class of 1956 saw a more compliant student body.
“The tone of the school was not as frivolous as it had been before the war,” says Keller.
And because admissions had become significantly more competitive in the 1950s, undergraduates were more taken with books than with women, Keller adds.
“We were a pretty serious group of students and not that much of socializers,” recalls Charles S. “Chuck” LaMonte ’56.
As restrictive as students may have found the rules, they were often too busy to complain, according to graduates of the College. Students simply accepted parietals as rules that permeated all college campuses, David Royce ’56 says.
“They were a huge pain in the butt, but I can’t say there was a controversy because we lived in those near-dead days when we didn’t think [parietals] would ever end,” adds Royce, who is a former Crimson editor.
PURITANS IN THE DORMS
Throughout the mid-1950s, petitions requesting the extension of parietal hours circulated. Specifically, students lobbied for longer hours during the football season and for freshmen to have the same visitation rights as upperclassmen.
As members of the Class of 1956 completed their freshman year, they lost the opportunity to entertain women from 1 to 4 p.m., in return for a three-hour extension on Saturday evenings until 11 p.m. Despite the gain on Saturday nights, undergraduates had a net loss of 15 hours per week of parietal hours.
But Radcliffe took the cutback in hours the hardest.
“There is no other place to sit quietly in the afternoon,” complained one ’Cliffie to The Crimson in November 1955. “People used this opportunity to study together,” said another female.
A 1956 Crimson opinion piece labeled the changes in parietals as a “curfew conspiracy.” House masters eventually revoked the 11 p.m. parietals extension during the football season, saying that the change would prevent drunkenness and vice. The same Crimson opinion piece alleged that “the Master’s real motive was to drive students to the dances and thereby make them more profitable rather than encouraging virtue.”
But House Masters cited the need for “keeping this a man’s college” as their reason for cutting down visitation hours, a 1955 Crimson article reported.
But several graduates say that parietals were implemented to preserve purity on campus rather than maintain the masculinity of the college.
“I think [administrators] were more interested in the Puritan ideology than in gender,” says LaMonte.
“[The deans] probably enjoyed the times when women could visit because it kind of gave a party atmosphere,” says Royce. “It was very pleasant to look at, so it wasn’t a thing of ‘keep it masculine,’ but I’m sure it was a thing of ‘keep it pure.’”
Gates explains that people were less tolerant of male-female interactions because it was unusual for men and women to be friends before entering college.
“This is not to say that one’s interest with the other sex is any different than it is now, but there was a different way that people were expected to interact,” Gates says.
Even with rules in place and the possibility of punishment looming, undergraduates still found ways to bypass the restrictions and entertain their female guests late into the night.
Stephen R. Barnett ’57, then-president of The Crimson, was sneaking his girlfriend through a tunnel from his dormitory 15 minutes past the 8 p.m. deadline when he was caught by a guard, Royce recounts. To keep the women out of the dormitories, the College locked all of the entrances to the dorms, Royce adds.
Because of the incident, the College forced Barnett to resign from his presidency two-months into his term.
Barnett says he simply accepted his punishment for disobeying the parietal hours.
“I had not done that before in the past,” Barnett says of the incident.
Royce also found ways to work around the restrictions, even if he “wasn’t especially popular with the girls.”
Royce says that he hatched the perfect plan while staring at the Indoor Athletic Building—now the Malkin Athletic Center—across from Lowell House.
“I thought it would be really cool, and possibly even productive from a sexual standpoint...to have a pool party late at night,” Royce recalls.
Royce snuck in his girlfriend, along with two other couples, under the veil of the night, without being caught.
Other graduates say that students tended to obey the rules.
“It really wasn’t worth the hassle, but I’m sure people did [violate the restrictions],” Gates says.
“I hated those parietals, but I always obeyed them because I didn’t think of ways to work around them,” Royce says.
—Staff writer Madeline W. Lissner can be reached at email@example.com.
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