She is the daughter of a shoemaker and so knows enough to wear a sturdy pair of loafers for the long trek from Brockton to Cambridge, Mass. She knows, too, that her request to study intensive Latin, Greek, and English at Harvard may be rejected. But it is 1878, and Abby Leach knows, above all, that she and other women now deserve to know more.
So she walks. And, upon arriving at a grand and stately door, she knocks.
The story of what comes next is contained in one of the largest women’s history archives in the world, in diary entries and correspondence worn and torn, soft and crisp.
The story goes something like this: Professors William W. Good- win, James B. Greenough, and Francis J. Child acknowledge, with initial reluctance, Abby’s courage, persistence, and precocious intellect. They give her private lessons. Had she been enrolled at Harvard, they say, she would graduate with highest honors. Elizabeth Agas- siz learns of this. As does Harvard President Charles W. Eliot. A year later, the “Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women”—known as the Harvard Annex and later named Radcliffe College—is formed.
Walking around the Schlesinger Library, I wonder whether Crimson clippings about the Spee’s decision to invite women to punch or the historic Hasty Pudding audition will join Abby’s story in bellowing that familiar and time-worn refrain. I am, I am, the fraying sheets may one day breathe. I am meant to be read.
But until then, there are other women—two lounging in the balcony outside Pfoho’s Comstock Hall; a group, clad in feminist-fist-adorned graduation gowns, surrounding the John Harvard statue—–with other stories immortalized in past Crimson clippings. Together, theirs is a narrative of exclusion in elite spaces followed by hard-won inclusion.
A Timeline of Women at Harvard
August 1943 — With hosts of men serving in Japan and Europe during World War II, Harvard's Committee on Educational Policy can no longer justify separation of the sexes in the classroom. Radcliffe president Ada Louise Comstock and Harvard’s president James Bryant Conant reach a formal agreement, allowing Radcliffe students to enroll in all courses at the College but five: Mathematics 1a. Astronomy 1a, Economics 1, Social Relations 1a, and Music 1.
March 17, 1949 — One of the first Radcliffe Correspondents, Georgianne Davis ’51, publishes a story in The Crimson, “Radio Radcliffe Staff Keeps Nightly Broadcasting Vigil.” “Radio Radcliffe announcers like to ad lib Spike Jones records,” the article’s last line reads. A little more than half a century later, Davis’s granddaughter, Alexandra Petri ’10, will write a humor column addressing campus politics. “Admittedly, I’ve never been upstairs at the Fox,” Petri will write, “but I just know that when I get there it’ll be a giant room filled with urinals and other manly things like two guys hugging it out or one guy standing there not talking about his feelings. ‘Good thing this is a male-only space!’ I will exclaim. ‘Please, take me back downstairs, where I belong.’”
January 13, 1967 — Adrienne Rich ’51, who will later admit that “Harvard’s message to women was an elite mystification” in which “the ‘great men’ talked of other ‘great men,’” becomes the first woman to have work appear in the pages of a publication she has always longed to join: The Advocate. Harvard’s revered literary magazine publishes her poem, “Face to Face.” "How people used to meet!” goes a latter stanza. “Starved, intense, the old/ Christmas gifts saved up till spring,/ and the old plain words."
February 6, 1967 — 9:20 a.m. An unidentified Radcliffe student in a pink sweater steps across the threshold of Lamont. Reference librarians present her with a Xeroxed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. The aforementioned Cliffie becomes the first woman to walk through Lamont’s main entrance since women have, for the past two years, only been granted permission to attend seminars on the sixth floor—as long as they arrive and exit via the West Door. "Perhaps the authorities took these steps to protect Lamont wonks from stray traces of perfume," one Radcliffe student wrote in a 1965 Crimson letter to the editor. Another four appealed to the Radcliffe Government Association, resulting in unanimous approval to issue a proposal so that “people can study for Harvard degrees in a heterosexual library."
January 1970 — The nation is slouching toward Bethlehem, and Harvard is as well. The result is a social experiment: 150 men from Adams, Lowell, and Winthrop Houses trade places with 150 women from South, East, and North Houses for the rest of the semester. At the end of the year, Thomas P. Southwick ’71 reflects in his Crimson column, “A Har- vard Boy's Life at Radcliffe: Finding What Girls Are All About,” which includes multiple paragraphs lamenting the Quad’s isolation from the Yard. “You could die in your room at Radcliffe,” he observes, “and, if the door were closed, no one would know about it until the stench from your decaying body became so unbearable that it offended people out in the hallway.” By 1972, the Harvard-Radcliffe Policy Committee will make co-residency an official option for students.
October 27, 1970 — Thanks to a petition signed by about 30 members, the Signet Society initiates eight female students. (Among the next class of its inductees will be Pakistan’s burgeoning Prime Minister, the late Benazir Bhutto ’73, known for hosting philosophical discussions about French writer Anaïs Nin in Eliot’s dining hall.) “Keeping women out of the Signet was about as sensible as an all-male Lamont," Signet Vice President Martin H. Kaplan '71 tells The Crimson after the literary group becomes the college’s first “club” to admit women.
December 10, 1971 — A semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization, which used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, opens its blue, red, and yellow castle doors to Elizabeth S. Stern ’72 and Patricia Marx ’75, ending its 95-year history as a male-only organization. When asked what changes he thinks the women will bring, the then- president James H. Siegelman ’73 responds that their presence alters the Lampoon’s image at Harvard more than it does the magazine’s humor or social character. When asked some 46 years later about her historic role by The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin, Marx confessed it was “sort of a snide college kids’ election” that resulted in her becoming “the mascot, the token girl.”
September 1976 — Two women are punched by the Delta Upsilon fraternity, a group that later merges with the Fly Club. They refuse membership. It is later discovered that many influential alum had threatened to withdraw their financial support of the D.U. if women were admitted. D.U. member Stephen A. Kowl ’79, one of two men who invited the female students, said the purpose of the atypical punch was to “lampoon the old, foolish ways. We wanted to have a good laugh, while still making a serious point.”
September 1978 — Eight women attend the D.U.’s punch dinner dressed in tuxedos and three-piece suits. The women’s presence is, to put it mildly, disconcerting. A club steward locks himself in a room (hoarding the food, too) because he “[is] so angry about the female intrusion.” According to a 2004 Crimson report, the D.U.’s president at the time, John A. “Kras” Krasznekewicz ’79, confronted his fellow club member R. Stewart Shofner ’79, who had punched the girls, declaring, “I thought you were my friend. How could you betray me like this?”