Occupy 888

In 1971, a group of protestors occupied a Harvard-owned building on Memorial Drive. To them, the building stood as a symbol of the University's failure to listen to both its own community’s demands for a women’s center and the surrounding neighboring Riverside community’s need for affordable public housing.

“NO BOYS...THE GIRLS RUN IT,” declared a graffiti message streaked across the outer walls of 888 Memorial Drive.

It was March 6, 1971 — two days before International Women’s Day — and the halls of 888 Memorial Drive were brimming with the fervour of students and working-class women from Radcliffe College and the greater Boston area. Today, the building is just another unassuming brutalist structure sitting comfortably on the banks of the Charles River, but in 1971, Cambridge women occupied the space to fight for a community women’s center.

Harvard had owned the 888 Memorial Drive building, formerly the Hingham Knitting Factory, since 1929 and was at the time repurposing it as a home for its Graduate School of Design. To the protestors, however, the building stood as a symbol of Harvard's failure to listen to both its own community’s demands for a women’s center and the surrounding neighboring Riverside community’s need for affordable public housing.

Bread and Roses, a women’s resistance organization responsible for the takeover, strategically chose this underutilized Harvard building located in Riverside for their ten-day protest, scheduled from March 6 to March 16.

The protest began with a march through Boston and ended in Cambridge on the banks of the Charles. Judith E. Smith ’70, electrified by the march, recalls how the marchers called out in solidarity to the women of the Boston Playboy Club and the Charles Street Jail — both of which are now luxury hotels. When the protest reached Cambridge, its organizers announced their intended takeover of the Design School building.

Over the course of the next ten days, they faced admonishment and increasing hostility from Harvard, the media, and the city of Cambridge. Amy C. Brodkey ’71, a Radcliffe student who took part in the building’s occupation, still remembers the fears and pressures that the occupants of 888 faced.

In response to the protest, Harvard turned off the power and the heat in the building, and called the police to the site.

"Walking into the building was frightening,” Brodkey says. She was one of only a handful of Radcliffe students occupying the building; the other protestors included Bread and Roses members, working-class women concerned about the lack of public housing in Cambridge, wives of Harvard professors, and other university students. They would wear scarves around their faces as they went in and out of the building to go to work and school, hiding their identities from the surrounding police officers.

The women sought to show solidarity with the anti-Vietnam protestors, who two years prior had staged a similar operation in their 1969 takeover of University Hall. “Like the Southeast Asian people, and like the people of Cambridge who have already begun to make their demands known, we, as part of the growing community of women have found it necessary to fight for what we need,” a pamphlet from the protest declares. “We are determined to keep our women’s center open.”

The occupation of 888 came at a pivotal moment during the broader women's liberation movement, when women across the world were banding together to make themselves heard. Those at Radcliffe saw the community created at 888 as one that provided an outlet for the opinions they couldn’t express in classes.

Smith notes that “the curriculum at the time did not feature the voices and concerns of women.” Spaces like the occupied building gave freedom to these voices, providing an attentive audience and open arms.

Libby C. Bouvier, who become the resident manager of the new Cambridge Women’s Center the following year, says that although this takeover was painted in broad, degrading terms by the local papers, it was, in fact, a multifaceted and surprisingly successful 10-day occupation.

Ultimately, Harvard called in the state police and filed a court case against the women, forcing them to finally vacate 888 Memorial Drive. However, Susan Story Lyman ’49, a member of the Radcliffe Board of Trustees, donated $5,000 (roughly $30,000 today) to the organizers of the protest, who then built the Cambridge Women’s Center at 46 Pleasant Street, only 10 minutes away from the site of the occupation.

Eventually, 888 Memorial Drive became graduate student housing. Despite this transition though, the building’s history — and the story of the protest it witnessed — remains a testament to the longstanding presence of the women’s liberation movement at Harvard.