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The Radcliffe Name: At Risk of Erasure

By Ellen R. Leopold, Contributing Opinion Writer
Ellen R. Leopold ’66, is a graduate of Radcliffe College and the author of several books on the impact of medical politics and culture on women’s lives over the past century.

Harvard’s newly formed Committee to Articulate Principles on Renaming explicitly instructs its members “to ensure that renaming won’t result in erasing history.” But the recent rebranding at the Radcliffe Institute has clearly put an important piece of that history at risk. Slapping “Harvard” in front of what is now to be called the “Harvard Radcliffe Institute” is a retrograde step, conveying the same devaluation and loss of sovereignty once marked by a woman’s change of name upon marriage.

With Radcliffe College, once Harvard’s sister school, gone, the institute remains the sole institutional flag-bearer of a name that still represents, for a great many, the long and continuing struggle for parity. The rebranding is particularly baffling — and galling — because the wound has been self-inflicted, imposed by the institute itself. At a stroke, it diminishes the legacy of women’s history at Harvard, hard-fought since the late 19th century.

In officially joining the University in 1893, the new college took its name from Ann Radcliffe, an English Puritan, and Harvard’s first female benefactor. She endowed an annual scholarship with a gift of £100 in 1643, not long after Harvard was founded. Other candidates had been considered for this high honor before Radcliffe was chosen. Philanthropists were rejected on the grounds that enshrining one major donor at the outset would deter other major donors from contributing down the road. The most prominent individual under consideration was Elizabeth Agassiz, the first president of the Harvard Annex, where women had been receiving instruction from Harvard faculty since 1879. Alas, the surname Agassiz was already well known, associated as it was with Elizabeth’s husband Louis, at the time a well-respected Harvard anthropologist (whose racist ideas, exposed in the 20th century, would be problematic for any institution carrying his name). A similar problem blighted the chances of Alice Longfellow, the youngest member of the committee that had established the Annex.

Ann Radcliffe posed no such difficulties. Despite being known as Lady Moulson as the wife of a lord mayor of London, the Harvard scholarship had been established under her own name. This may have been as important a factor in the adoption of “Radcliffe” as her pioneering philanthropy. Implicit in the choice was the conviction that a woman might “make a name for herself” rather than be defined by her husband’s. Armed with the college education that Harvard would now legitimize, a graduate of Radcliffe might be in a position to forge an identity of her own. At a time when marrying and taking a husband’s name still meant the loss of property and parental rights, not to mention the renunciation of personal freedoms, the elevation of the name “Radcliffe” carried a radical if covert charge, one that would continue to resonate, and that is still palpable today. Sadly, the current University administration has chosen to ignore this undercurrent of feeling.

An observer from the Listener, writing in 1893, seems to have understood the significance of the name far better than many of those meddling with it today:

“It is eminently fitting that, since it is decided to honor thus this early benefactor of the university, her maiden name, and not her husband’s name should be chosen. It was the woman, and not the woman’s husband — her name, and not the name that swallowed hers up — that should be honored … A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.”

The “re-branding” has hit alumnae of my generation, from the ’60s and ’70s, particularly hard. Our collective distress may be partly explained by the fact that our college years pre-dated the rise of second-wave feminism, when the latent promise of “Radcliffe” remained unfulfilled. Harvard professors and career services routinely discouraged us from pursuing graduate work in areas where we were not welcome. Women were still expected to marry after graduation and if they chose to continue with their own names, forced to re-apply for bank accounts, passports, and voter registration. At the same time, it was impossible for unmarried women to obtain mortgages, loans, and credit cards. Our lives were still largely framed and constrained by relations — or lack of connections — to men.

Thankfully, many of the more egregious restrictions have now disappeared. We no longer need to rely on the Lucy Stone League, established in 1921 to advocate for the right of women to keep their own name after marriage (Stone, the 19th-century feminist, had insisted that “a wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers.”) But it would be a mistake to assume that the playing field has been magically leveled or that the call to action taken up by the original Radcliffe Institute in 1961 — the issues of “women, gender and society” — have been resolved. One has only to look at the uneven impacts of the pandemic lockdowns on the domestic and working lives of women, including women with academic aspirations. Heightened racial disparities have proved particularly damaging to women of color.

If, as we hope, the institute is to continue to play a leadership role in this field, it must lead with the name that, from its very inception, has embodied an unwavering commitment to gender justice.

Ellen R. Leopold ’66, is a graduate of Radcliffe College and the author of several books on the impact of medical politics and culture on women’s lives over the past century.

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