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I knew nothing about rowing before I came to Harvard. The boathouses, the regattas, and the long, long history of crew at the college were all foreign to me.
But I quickly learned.
As a first year, I made friends who were on the crew team. In an attempt to understand the sport, I asked a billion questions and even bought a pair of binoculars.
At their first race of the season, I was told that the oars for each team were distinct: When the men rowed, you looked for Harvard’s crimson, but when the women raced by, you were looking for Radcliffe’s black and white.
At first, I was confused by the difference. Why wouldn’t both teams be marked by the College’s colors?
But a letter to the editor written by then-captain Cecile U. Tucker ’91 published in 1991 filled in the gaps: Radcliffe rowing represented a history of women in collegiate athletics, and that legacy was uniquely preserved in the program’s name and colors.
Many of the women I spoke to for the first installment of this column could not recall significant involvement in extracurriculars or activities while at Harvard — they went to class, had jobs, and spent time with friends.
Though she wouldn’t describe it as exclusion, Gay W. Seidman ’78 — first woman to lead The Crimson — told me there were “different expectations of what men and women would do in college and how they would spend their time.”
Today, the campus culture has changed: Women compete in 20 D1 sports, write for and lead one of the country’s oldest college newspapers, and have carved out space for themselves within a number of organizations on and off campus.
In 1976, over a hundred years after the paper’s founding, Seidman was elected as the first female president of The Crimson.
Though women were first accepted as “correspondents” for The Crimson in 1947, it took nearly 30 years for one to stand at the organization's helm.
It is easy for me to simplify history: Women were shut out for ages, and then at long last, they were let in. A single hard fought battle.
My conversations with Seidman and other women tell a more rounded narrative.
“It wasn’t discussed in terms of breaking the glass ceiling. It was discussed in terms of, ‘We need to open these doors. We need to show that this can happen,’” Seidman told me.
Seidman recalled the women who had come before her at The Crimson — especially the female managing editors who led the newspaper’s coverage — and the widespread support that came from many colleagues as the elections for president neared.
Despite opening this door to the Crimson’s coveted role as president, challenges remained in the years that followed.
“It still seemed hard for people to imagine and kind of get their head around the idea of electing a woman president,” Rebecca L. Walkowitz ’92 told me.
Walkowitz, who said she was drawn to Harvard in part because of The Crimson, was selected as the paper’s president in 1991.
“I did feel like certain forms of sexism played into people’s preferences, although it was never phrased that way,” Walkowtiz said. “It wasn’t that transparent. It was more like, ‘Oh, she’s too difficult or she’s too pushy, or she just doesn’t get along with enough people,’ whereas you have this guy and, ‘He seems so affable.’”
Despite these lingering sentiments, Walkowitz ultimately felt welcomed in her new role.
“I remember feeling the really strong support of the other editors of my colleagues. I felt that they had confidence in me,” Walkowitz said.
“I don’t remember feeling challenged after the fact, if you know what I mean, as a woman, but I remember also feeling an incredible responsibility to help the paper think more about representation and diversity,” she added.
Today, a majority of Crimson editors identify as women, and we are in the longest stretch of female presidents in the paper’s history.
In many organizations — like The Crimson, or Hasty Pudding Theatricals, which went co-ed as late as 2018 — women have made something once meant only for men also theirs. In organizations like the Radcliffe Choral Society and sports like rowing, women created space for themselves through Radcliffe, and that independence — preserved today in name — holds power.
“If you were Radcliffe crew, you didn't have to be Harvard women, you could just be Radcliffe,” Tucker told me.
Tucker rowed for Radcliffe’s heavyweight team as a student, and went on to coach the lightweight program in the early 2000s.
Radcliffe rowing formally began in 1970, and just two years later, the program went on to win the National Championship and represent the United States at the World Championship.
After the “non-merger merger” between Harvard and Radcliffe went into effect in 1971 — beginning to pool resources but keeping the two schools distinct — the rowing team was given a choice to rename itself or remain Radcliffe. The decision to race as Radcliffe with black and white uniforms and oars continues today.
“We were very proud to kind of carry the banner of what the women before us had done in terms of breaking ground to open access to athletic opportunities” Tucker told me.
In trying to understand how the Harvard-Radcliffe women made space for themselves outside of dormitories and classrooms, I was struck not by moments of conflict, but those of admiration.
So many of the women I spoke to harkened back to those who came before: the very first Radcliffe rowers with limited resources and respect, the female Crimson editors who came before the first female president, and countless others.
“I felt welcomed,” Walkowitz told me. “Older women students — so people who were sophomores, juniors, and seniors who were all women reporters, or women executives — in particular, I felt, reached out to me and supported me, and that made a really big difference.”
None of the women I spoke to told their own story — of athletic success or a heroic first — as a single narrative. It was always a chapter in a longer tale of change.
There is something quite beautiful and comforting in seeing it this way. It is powerful to see your successes in light of trailblazers, while actively paving the way for those coming next.
I read Tucker’s letter to the editor so many months ago — months before we ever spoke about her time with Radcliffe rowing. The letter corrected an article from The Crimson, explaining the significance of the Radcliffe name.
“Although we are a women’s team, and although we are all undergraduates enrolled at Harvard University, we row for Radcliffe,” Tucker wrote on behalf of the entire team.
Today, that letter, The Crimson, and the women behind them, continue to inform my understanding of how we got here and how things changed. It is not about shattering the glass, but holding the door open for the woman behind you, and thanking those who unlocked it in the first place.
McKenna E. McKrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House. Her column, “Seven Sisters and the Old Boys’ Club” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.
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