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Children in the Stacks

Women gain at Widener, but much work remains

By Sandra Y.L. Korn

Over the break, something really important happened at Harvard Library. It didn’t get covered in The Crimson, or even in the Gazette, but Harvard Library changed its admittance rules so that children under 16 can enter Widener’s stacks when accompanied by an adult with a Harvard ID. I want to tell the story of how this happened, because I think it illustrates something important about Harvard, institutional momentum, scholarship, and motherhood.

Mia You, a graduate student in English at the University of California at Berkeley, lives in Cambridge with her family, including her baby daughter. About a year ago, You walked into Widener Library to do research for a review of a new edition of “Little Women.” She planned to get a few books from the stacks—but was told, as she swiped her library card at the stack entrance, that she couldn’t enter: her baby daughter was strapped to her chest, and children under 16 are not allowed in the stacks.

Two weeks ago, You wrote about this incident for the literary journal “A. Bradstreet.” She explains that she did eventually get ahold of her books—a student worker in Circulation fetched them for her—yet she missed out on the important and valuable scholarly experience of browsing bookshelves.

You noted that according to Harvard’s rules, she would have had to “pay $15-20/hour to a babysitter just to find a few books.” This is simply unaffordable for her. You asked, “Why does [Harvard] not see that supporting and encouraging young female scholars, many of whom who are either mothers or considering becoming mothers, will only benefit the university and the academy in the long run…?” Even worse, the rules weren’t applied consistently—she recounted that last month, when her husband brought their now two-year-old daughter to Widener, “he walked right into the stacks with our toddler on the loose next to him.”

This might be a good cue for a feminist deconstruction of Harvard’s role as a misogynistic, regressive, anti-mother, anti-baby institution. But that’s not merited. In fact, Harvard changed its policy on allowing children into the stacks within two days of You’s post. The updated policy reads: “In library areas where Harvard University-issued identification is required for entry (e.g. Widener stacks), Children under 16 years old may enter when accompanied by an adult with valid Harvard ID; children must be accompanied by an adult at all times.”

Harvard Library Communications wrote that Sarah Thomas, Harvard Library’s new Vice President, called for the policy to be re-examined immediately. I believe that this quick response was not simply out of concern for bad press, but due to a true desire on the part of Thomas and other Library administrators for Harvard’s libraries to be welcoming to women with children.

Nonetheless, this story exemplifies just how long it will take, how hard it will be, for feminists at Harvard to truly make this institution affirming for women, let alone working-class women, women of color, disabled women, and queer women. Mia You wrote in her piece two weeks ago that “the right for a young parent to enter the university library with his or her baby should not be left to hospitality, just as the right for a woman to enter a university library without a male chaperone shouldn’t have been considered hospitality in Woolf’s day.”

Yet it’s not the fault of the undergraduate student worker sitting at the stacks entrance for not extending enough hospitality. Institutions and their rules take a long time to change, and it will be generations more before Harvard has shaken off all the remnants of many centuries of patriarchy. The “no children in the stacks” rule is a perfect example of how patriarchy—like racism, classism, and ableism—perpetuates in institutions over time, even when those running and populating the institutions have the best anti-oppressive intentions.

In 1981, Ruth Hubbard, the first tenured biology professor at Harvard, was interviewed by Judith Walzer as part of a project to collect oral histories of all twelve tenured women at Harvard. In her oral history, Hubbard recounted her experience as a Radcliffe woman and then as a Harvard professor, noting, “I have felt, and I still feel, that Harvard is a bad place for women … Women are still socialized to sit at the feet of great men.” For Hubbard, it was “subtle sexism” that made studying and living at Harvard so difficult for female students in the early 1980s. More than thirty years after that interview, and more than forty years after the non-merger that joined Radcliffe officially to Harvard, Harvard’s history as an institution by and for “great men” has not gone away.

A rule against children in the stacks that’s bound to be enforced primarily on women hurts the scholarship of young mothers. In this case, one outspoken graduate student and one determined administrator managed to make a change. But rules like this one are woven into the very fabric of our university, and it will take hard work and dedication to untangle each of them, one at a time.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays. Follow her on Twitter @sandraylk.

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