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On my desk sits a copy of a photograph published last May in the Boston Globe. Outside Mass. Hall, a young woman stands amid a crowd of students protesting the newly announced College policy on single-gender social organizations. The sign she carries proclaims: I SHOULD’VE GONE TO BRYN MAWR. The point, I assume, was that I did go to Bryn Mawr—long before this student was even born.
When I arrived excited to begin my freshman year in the fall of 1964, everything at Bryn Mawr was open to me. Every space, every opportunity, every dream. Had I entered Radcliffe at the same time, things would have been quite different. (And it is worth noting that I could not have applied to Princeton or Yale at all.) A quota system for admissions set the ratio of Radcliffe women to Harvard men at one to four, so I would have been in a distinct female minority. The right to live or even eat in the River Houses belonged exclusively to men. Women were not permitted in Lamont Library. There were only two tenured women, an anthropologist and an astronomer, in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In all probability, I would never have had a female professor to help me see myself in her image—with a Ph.D. and a future in academic life. Instead, I attended a college where I was not a second-class citizen.
In the past half century, both men and women—beginning with Radcliffe president Mary Bunting in the 1960s—have worked steadily to eliminate barriers to full citizenship for women at Harvard, ending admissions quotas, establishing co-residence, and opening to women Lamont Library, Commencement, the Faculty Club, the Society of Fellows, the Alumni Association, deanships, University professorships, the Governing Boards, and the presidency. The legal merger of Radcliffe and Harvard did not occur until 1999, and it was only then that undergraduate women no longer received letters of admission to Radcliffe and no longer had Radcliffe inscribed on their diplomas.
This long path was not smooth or easy. In the 1960s, President Bunting’s vision of merging Harvard and Radcliffe into a fully co-educational institution was stymied by the Radcliffe board of trustees. When women at last took up residence in the Yard, one Harvard alumnus proclaimed, “Civilization is dead.” Professor Katharine Park ’72 has described the harassment she experienced when she moved into Winthrop House and men regularly expressed their displeasure by urinating against her door. But it was in fact often Radcliffe that put the brakes on the integration of women undergraduates into Harvard life, regarding the continuing existence of the college as a necessary “haven from the male-dominated hurly-burly of life at Harvard.” Even with the merger signed, some Radcliffe alumnae still feared and opposed the formal end of Radcliffe College, which they believed had ensured that “undergraduate women at Harvard would always have a place, if not a room, of their own.”
But, in the eyes of many at both Harvard and Radcliffe, separate had implied and embodied unequal. Their goal had long been to enable women to claim their rightful place in the “hurly-burly,” to emerge from a room of their own to be part—to borrow the words of the current Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton”—of the “room where it happens.” Opening such rooms to all has been a goal not just for my presidency but for my life.
The policy on single-gender social organizations Harvard College announced last May is intended as another step in the long and historic movement to ensure that opportunities central to Harvard undergraduate life are not limited by accident of birth, but open to every student. I want all undergraduates to have the experience of full citizenship and to be able to do so in the world of unparalleled intellectual, social, and cultural resources that is Harvard.
I am glad I went to Bryn Mawr, but I want all 6,696 of you—now and 50 years from now—to be glad you went to Harvard. I want Harvard to nurture the belief that you never should settle for second-class citizenship—or for an identity fashioned out of the arbitrary exclusion of others. That is the direction in which Harvard has been evolving for more than half a century. Let us do our part to complete the work.
Drew G. Faust is the President of Harvard University.
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