The 'Cliffe Girl, 60 Years Later

Let’s not forget the history of women at Harvard

A couple of weeks ago, I ran across an article in the Crimson from 1953 entitled “The 'Cliffe Girl: An Instructor's View.” The article quotes a number of Harvard professors and graduate students speaking about their thoughts on women in their classrooms, 10 years after joint instruction required Harvard professors to teach men and women at the same time. For example, the article notes, “Most of the instructors noted that the women are good, solid, conscientious, and rarely brilliant; they strike a steady mean, while the men tend more to extremes.” The instructors also suggest that Radcliffe women can be a “source of embarrassment” in the classroom, and one told the Crimson, “they read too much, remember too much, and don't chow it over,” in comparison with men.

This story is fascinating because it is both unfamiliar and very familiar. Students at Harvard today read about outmoded concepts of gender from sixty years ago and laugh—isn’t it silly that professors thought women “rarely brilliant,” or that Harvard was so concerned about teaching fellows marrying their students that it would not let unmarried men teach sections of women? Yet 1953 was not all that long ago, and I think it’s important that we not brush aside the lessons of history.

The Harvard of the 1950s looked rather different than the Harvard of today. For one, the only women at Harvard were workers, secretaries of professors, and maids in the Houses. Female students were enrolled in Radcliffe College and lived in dormitories in the Radcliffe Quad. Each year, each Radcliffe student received a copy of the Radcliffe Red Book, which detailed not only administrative structure and rules for fire drills, but also sexual mores: women were not to smoke on the street, they shouldn’t wear blue jeans in public, and they could only have Harvard men in their dormitories during certain set “parietal” hours each day.

Unlike other women’s colleges, Radcliffe never had its own professors—it was originally founded so that women could get access to Harvard faculty members.  Due to financial constraints during the Second World War, Radcliffe students started attending the same lectures as Harvard students in 1943. Men and women began living in the same buildings in 1970, and female students were officially enrolled in Harvard College starting in 1977. By 1999, Radcliffe College had been entirely consumed by Harvard.

Today, a Harvard before joint instruction and coeducation seems unfathomable. Yet 60 years is not such a long time. The year the article about “The ’Cliffe Girl” was published was also the year that Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 graduated from Harvard College. Although he is now a well-respected professor of government, Mansfield has consistently been the University’s most vocal opponent of feminist thought, decrying women’s studies and the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality for not including antifeminist thought in its teaching. Mansfield told the Crimson in 1996 that “women's studies is a disgrace to Harvard... It's characterized by shoddy scholarship, crackpot theories and tendentious, politicized classrooms." Although his views on gender seem frighteningly anachronistic today, for someone who went to school in a time when it was feared that women in classrooms would distract and marry their instructors, perhaps it’s not surprising that Mansfield retains outmoded conceptions of gender.


There is something very important that is lost when Radcliffe history is told as a long march towards greater equality. For one, as Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich pointed out in her article “Harvard’s Womanless History,” “Harvard” history all too easily erases the century of Radcliffe history and the important achievements made by women before the Harvard-Radcliffe merger. Of course, the merger gave Radcliffe students access to many opportunities formerly only open to men, like the advising system in the Houses and the financial stability of Harvard funding. Yet it also took away Radcliffe College’s autonomy, resulting in the loss of some resources designated and maintained by and for women.

Indeed, women have continued to be a bit of an afterthought at this institution, even after joint instruction and coeducation. Harvard’s professors of today learned in the classrooms of the 1950s: Some of the instructors quoted in “The ‘Cliffe Girl” article continued on as venerated faculty at this university and others until the 1990s. And the lack of credibility given to women in the classroom in the 20th century has played out in continued gender disparities among Harvard faculty today. Centuries of structural inequality and sexism cannot be erased in a generation. The continued existence of all-male final clubs and the need for a campaign to end rape culture on campus suggests that today’s Harvard women are not quite as liberated as we might like.

It’s wonderful that today’s female Harvard students can look back at the restrictive regulations of the Radcliffe Red Book and chuckle. But let’s not rest too comfortably on the current status of women at Harvard. After all, the Harvard of today is built on centuries of oppression of women and gender inequality, reminding us that history can teach us important lessons about where we are today.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Her column normally appears on alternate Thursdays.


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