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Students and Faculty Fight for Women’s Studies

By Laura G. Mirviss, Crimson Staff Writer

Rabbi Toba E. Spitzer ’85-’86 said while she was undergraduate, she wasn’t sure she would even live to see the creation of women’s studies as an academic field at Harvard.

In 1985, Harvard was the sole Ivy League school without a Women’s Studies major. University officials appeared unconcerned about playing academic catch up, and the standing committee that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences had formed in 1982 to examine the issue of women’s studies had to start its work from scratch.

“Harvard was a bastion of patriarchy,” said Spitzer, who later became the first openly gay person to head a rabbinical assembly.

In 1985, the Committee—chaired by current Comparative Literature Professor Susan R. Suleiman—began to flesh out a new concentration proposal that required faculty approval.

“When I became chair, the Committee on Women’s Studies had existed for a number of years, but it didn’t have a lot of resources—let’s put it that way,” Suleiman said.

Her first action as Chair was to secure a listed phone number for the committee; an office and an administrative assistant followed.

Elizabeth Young ’85-’86, then president of the Radcliffe Union of Students who served on the Committee on Women’s Studies while the new concentration proposal was being crafted, said she had been concerned about the general status of women on campus: there was a “very low” number of women faculty, several episodes of sexual harassment, and lingering safety worries.

“It was clear that there was no institutional place for Women’s Studies,” said Young, now a professor of English and Gender Studies at Mt. Holyoke College. “We knew there was extremely exciting intellectual work out there that we really wanted to bring to Harvard.”

“It seemed strange that Harvard was behind,” she added.


The Committee began monthly meetings to hammer out the particulars of the concentration proposal, but Suleiman said she still wanted assurance that Harvard administrators would support the Committee when the issue came up for a faculty vote.

She sat down for lunch with then-Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence to ask point blank whether he would welcome a proposal from the Committee. Spence said he would.

“Then we really got going,” Suleiman said.

The Committee was also adamant that Women’s Studies be a concentration, not a minor, modeling it after other interdisciplinary concentrations such as History and Literature or Social Studies.

In the spring of 1986, the Faculty Council approved the proposal, and in November, the proposal for a women’s studies concentration went up for a full faculty vote. The Committee on Women’s Studies began to steel themselves for the decisive faculty meeting.

“Some of the members of the committee were politically minded and had worked on many campaigns,” Suleiman said. “They knew that what really mattered in the end was the vote.”

At the packed November 1986 Faculty Meeting, Government Professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 stood to make a now infamous speech about the direction of academics at Harvard, questioning whether Women’s Studies should be a part of it.

“Harvey Mansfield gave this unbelievably embarrassing talk,” Spitzer said. “His judgment against it was so Neanderthal and so egregious that people didn’t want to be a part of that.”


Suleiman said that part of the energy of her committee’s work was that Women’s Studies in the 1980s was because it was a new and vibrant intellectual field.

“There was the excitement of discovery and being pioneers,” she said. “You know, striking out in ways that seemed revolutionary at the time.”

Suleiman said her work with the Committee remains “the most communal experience” she’s had in her Harvard tenure.

“It was a real community effort, it was a real common effort—and that was extremely exciting and gratifying,” she said.

Still, the efforts to improve the new department’s standing did not end. Young recalled being disillusioned when very few departments actually put someone up for the newly created tenured position that allowed for a joint professorship in Women’s Studies and another department.

“It was shocking to me that there were departments that didn’t care, even with the opportunity for a free senior faculty position,” Young said.

It took advocates like Professor Marjorie Garber—already recognized as a serious Shakespeare scholar—to use their credentials to help legitimize the cause, according to Spitzer. Spitzer said that RUS formed a study group to read feminist books, put out a guide to courses that had Women’s Studies content, and worked with professors to incorporate more women’s studies content into their courses.

“We just wanted to be recognized,” Spitzer said.

—Staff writer Laura G. Mirviss can be reached at

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Commencement 2010Class of 1985