Harvard's Throwback Thursdays

"Imagine." It was the best selling single of John Lennon's career. That was 1971. Apollo 14 landed on the moon. At the same time, we were up to our necks in the morass of Vietnam. Lennon wrote, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one." We needed then, as now, an expansive imagination.

The things we imagine and can't imagine change radically over the decades. For example, 45 years ago, in Lennon's time, no one at Harvard imagined women, let alone a gay couple, at the helm as Masters of Lowell House. Unimaginable. Not even in the realm of dreaming. There were no women Masters. Indeed, there was just an experimental sprinkling of women in the river houses.

As Dorothy Austin and I discuss the controversies of Harvard College with members of our Senior Common Room, especially the women, we hear of their experience of the unimaginable. Take Kitty Pechet, a renowned artist who is the widow of Maurice Pechet, one of the great Senior Tutors (now Resident Deans) of Lowell House. Kitty was the first woman to be allowed to sleep overnight (legally, she always adds) in Lowell House. That was in 1960. She and Maurice had eloped and after a few nights in a nearby hotel, she was invited by a reluctant House Master to live with her husband in his apartment in Lowell House. However, she was not allowed to eat with him in the Dining Hall, nor use the Library, nor walk around the courtyard, nor go in and out of the House unaccompanied except between 2 and 5 in the afternoon.

In 1963, Zeph Stewart, a Classics scholar, moved with his family into the Masters' residence of Lowell. His wife Diana was not allowed to eat in the Dining Hall, except on Friday evenings, Saturday lunch and dinner, and Sunday brunch. Of course, she did not accompany her husband to High Table, for there were no spouses at the High Table. Sometimes the wives of the Senior Common Room members had dinner with the wife of the Master in the Master's Residence, while their husbands dined in the Dining Hall, followed by cigars in the Senior Common Room.

When Kitty Pechet and Diana Stewart discuss these things today, students are astonished as if they were hearing the unimaginable tales of ancient times. They are equally astonished at the realization that women were not allowed to sit in Appleton Chapel in Memorial Church until 1955. And, of course, women were not allowed to study in Lamont Library; even Susan Sontag was excluded. This is the near past.


Going back a bit further, we recall that women's education began in what was called the "Annex" and, later, Radcliffe College, chartered in 1894 for women students, but with no faculty save the Harvard male faculty paid extra to teach women separately up the road. By 1970, there had been only five tenured women on the FAS faculty. After nearly a century, a merger of Harvard and Radcliffe began. In 1970, it was agreed there would be approximately 4 men admitted for every woman; then in 1972, 2.5 men for every woman, and finally in 1975 full parity.

Not until 1999 did they receive the same letter of admission and the same diploma.

Having assumed the previously unimaginable position of House Masters, now Faculty Deans, of Lowell House, we are next-door neighbors of two final clubs and a near neighbor two others. On weekends and other party evenings, I see the lines of young women standing outside the back gates of the clubs waiting to gain admission to these male bastions of parties and privilege. Who is on the list to get in? Are they dressed well enough, or scantily enough? Are they pretty enough? It's freezing outside. There's the gatekeeper with the clipboard and the list. The real estate is great, and it is thrilling to be admitted, crushing to be excluded. But I'm pretty sure the time will come when men and women alike will look back at how male clubs would regulate and monitor women’s entry and how they would let them into their paddocks through the back gate and say, “This is unimaginable.”

Harvard College has fundamentally changed during the past 50 years. It has changed with the deliberate and slow process of the merger of Harvard and Radcliffe. It has changed with the demographics of America as the sons and daughters of post-1965 immigration have come to college. It has changed as greater numbers of international students have enrolled. It has changed with ever-greater numbers of superb African American, Asian American and Latino students who qualify for admission. The Dining Hall at Lowell House is simply not the same place it was in 1960 or 1970. Students who live here today cannot imagine the all male and largely white world of the old Lowell, and do not yearn for it.

But despite all that has changed in the past decades, the final clubs have not fundamentally changed, even though they have attempted to be more racially and culturally inclusive. These clubs are the Throwback Thursdays of Harvard College, yet still holding the power and wealth to drive a significant part of the social scene. Change is a challenge, and it is not mandatory. For a private club, it is a choice. But change is powered by imagination.

It is unclear to me what changes will be imagined as a result of the policies and principles articulated by President Drew Faust and Dean Rakesh Khurana. We could see it coming, though. Drew Faust said it nearly 15 years ago in addressing the incoming class of 2001, only the second class to be admitted in which women and men received the same letter of admission. Summarizing, as a historian, the long struggle at Harvard for the commitment to equality for all members of the community, she concluded, "I invoke the past today to remind you that such commitments are not deeply rooted in Harvard's history, and that they require a transformation, rather than an extension of tradition, and that such transformation requires work and attentiveness."

This is the imagination, the work, and the attentiveness that students today will surely undertake to create a club culture worthy of the vibrancy and diversity of the Harvard College student body.

Diana L. Eck is Faculty Dean of Lowell House.