An Archival History of Women’s Education at Harvard

In paper soft with age and still crisp from the printer, in cursive loops and cartridge-ink, they tell their stories.

In 1878, a woman named Abby Leach came to Harvard in search of an education.

In 1997, Gloria A. Bruce ’00, a freshman at Harvard College, took a seminar on women’s history, documenting her own experience along the way.

Separated by more than a century, these two voices inhabit the same space: the Radcliffe College Archives at Schlesinger Library. In paper soft with age and still crisp from the printer, in cursive loops and cartridge-ink, they tell their stories. These stories are bookends to the institution in which the library is housed, and that which they document: Radcliffe, first an annex, then a College, and now a center for advanced research. The century between them brought a radical rethinking of not only co-education at Harvard, but of a woman’s traditional place in the world.

Founded in 1943, Schlesinger Library holds one of the largest women’s history archives in the world. The archives paint portraits, sometimes literally, rich in historical knowledge and deeply personal, revealing the thoughts and desires of women who were passionate, conflicted, interested, and interesting. They are vital, and they are not quiet.


When Leach came to Cambridge searching for Harvard professors to instruct her in Latin, English, and Greek, Harvard offered no official women’s education outlet. Instead, several professors taught her individually—and she so impressed them with her intelligence that they grew more receptive to the idea of establishing an educational institution explicitly for women. The idea was partially achieved in 1879, with the founding of the Harvard Annex, a non-degree-granting educational institution for women that was fully realized in 1882 as Radcliffe College, with Elizabeth Cary Agassiz as President.

More than a century later, Bruce donated a folder of her letters to the Schlesinger Archives as part of a women’s history seminar. Two years before the official end of Radcliffe College and 25 years after the integration of Radcliffe women into Harvard College, Bruce’s contributions were a lived archive: first-hand documentation of a woman’s experience enshrined in and created at the explicit behest of an institution that had, for so long, denied female voices.


A similar self-awareness was surfacing in the early seventies. A turbulent time for all of the United States, Harvard was no exception—especially in the realm of gender relations. 1943 had marked the beginning of joint instruction, and in 1963 women started receiving Harvard diplomas, but it was not until 1972 that Harvard instituted full-fledged co-residence, with complete integration coming in 1977.

Yet the underlying values of “the ideal Radcliffe girl: wife, mother, career,” as women’s liberation activist Nancy Grey Osterud ’78 wrote during her time at Harvard, were also being contested by feminists and Women’s Liberation groups as well as by the cultural agitation elicited by protests of the Vietnam War.

The Radcliffe Archives reveal this tension. “We tried our best to be sexy and interesting, feminine and creative,” Osterud wrote. “Why, then, were the Harvard guys always the more creative musicians and writers, the more dynamic political leaders, while we had the obviously inferior merit of ‘getting better grades.’”

Sallie Bingham ’58 reflected on these warring roles in “Notes on a Freshman’s Diary,” an essay she submitted to a project called “Radcliffe Reminiscences,” a series of essays written by Radcliffe women collected for the Archives in 1968.

“Work was the backbone of my life,” she wrote, reflecting on academic pressure. “Work was what I had been doing ever since I saw the light and realized that no one would be pleased with me and that I would hate myself unless I was pretty regularly pulling down A’s. Work had not changed since I had changed into an adolescent, although everything else had…For me, growing up meant still more work: responsibility, sexual labor and wearing stockings to class.”

Bingham wrote her essay in the late sixties. By the time the seventies rolled around, women at Radcliffe were vocalizing these frustrations in hopes of inspiring change. Osterud concluded: “The happy matron-career woman notion promoted by Radcliffe is a dreadful illusion.”


By the time Bruce wrote her letters in 1997, much had changed. Yet much was still similar. Some uneasiness remained: the struggle for a women’s center, though one existed in 1997, would resume with its disbandment in 1999; in 1997, celebrations of the 25th anniversary of coeducation at Harvard caused concerns that the full scope of women’s participation in the University, especially pre-1972, was underrepresented in Harvard’s official histories.

Yet Bruce’s concerns are familiar to students of all genders today: work, stress, blocking. In winter 1997, she wrote, “I’m enjoying my classes even though I’m struggling with some of them. The research I’ve been doing for the women’s history seminar is really interesting.”

It was a history she was self-consciously becoming part of: on Oct. 1, 1999—roughly two years after Gloria Bruce donated her letters—Radcliffe College was fully absorbed into Harvard.


On a spring day, daffodils abound in Radcliffe Yard. You can see some from the window of Schlesinger Library. Yellow and prim as teacups, they bob their heads in the sun.

Open a Radcliffe student’s diary from a hundred years ago and a flower slips out. Tissue-thin, crinkled old, its translucent petals are pressed against the page, maybe picked with student’s hands in Radcliffe Yard.

The Archive itself is a lot like that. Women fold their thoughts and daffodils into papers and notebooks. These documents become bits of life from other times, perennial, both past and present. The voices and flowers are preserved, but constantly generating. Each year they grow in the Yard.