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The Complicated History of Women at Harvard

In the 1950s, Radcliffe College shared only course instruction with Harvard. Nancy Fisher '54 sits in on a lecture with Harvard men. Courtesy Radcliffe Archives, Schlesinger Library
Courtesy of Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library

At the Radcliffe Institute, historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz says that although there's much to celebrate about women at Harvard today, there's still much to change and to worry about.

Women have always been at Harvard, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz AM ’65, PhD ’69, RI ’01 noted in her lecture “It’s Complicated: 375 Years of Women at Harvard,” but for many years they were present as workers and donors or helpmeets to fathers, husbands, and sons. From the University’s founding, in 1636, until 1879, when Elizabeth Cary Agassiz and other women established the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, known as the Annex, there were no women students at Harvard.

“The Annex began with no building,” Horowitz pointed out, “only rented rooms on Appian Way,” where Harvard faculty members taught the women’s classes.

The Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor of American Studies and History Emerita at Smith College, Horowitz spoke at the Institute in late April, presenting a Radcliffe Dean’s Lecture as part of Harvard’s celebration of its first 375 years. She was a member of the Radcliffe Institute’s first class of fellows and has conducted extensive research at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, most recently for her book Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow Wallpaper” (Oxford University Press, 2010).

The fiercest opposition to women’s inclusion at Harvard occurred during the 1970s, Horowitz said, when students and the National Organization for Women fought for a one-to-one ratio in the admission of men and women instead of the four-to-one ratio that then prevailed. Starting in 1977, women’s numbers gradually increased until they reached parity in 2007.

There’s been real success at the administrative level in recent years, Horowitz said, with 7 of the 16 members of the Harvard Council of Deans being women. But opening the faculty to women has been more difficult. In 1985, the high point, women made up roughly a quarter of the faculty.

She’s “haunted,” Horowitz said, by the statement made by biologist Ruth Hubbard ’44, AM ’47, PhD ’50 about the impact on her generation of Radcliffe students not being taught by women. “Sitting ‘at the feet of Harvard’s Great Men’ may mean students do not awaken to the ‘expectation that we might someday be Great Women.’”

Compared to 25, 50, or 75 years ago, there’s a lot to celebrate, the noted historian concluded. “But there is a lot to try to change and a lot to worry about, too. Yes, the history of women at Harvard is complicated.”

“No Documents, No History”

Before the Horowitz lecture, Nancy F. Cott spoke to a gathering of Radcliffe alumnae and friends about the importance of Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. The Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the library and Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History, Cott recalled how important it had been for her to be able to turn to the Schlesinger in 1970, when she was a graduate student preparing to teach one of the earliest courses in women’s history. Influenced by the women’s movement, she distrusted previous historians’ accounts, assuming they were full of stereotyped assumptions about women. “I was able to look on the shelves of the Schlesinger and find one primary source after another” for students to read, she said, since the library (originally the Women’s Archives) had been collecting for more than 25 years by then.

Crediting the mid-1940s vision of Radcliffe College in intending to establish “a national center for research in the historical role and cultural contributions of the women in the United States,” Cott noted the essential role played by historian Mary Ritter Beard (1876–1958) in enabling the library’s first contacts and collections. Cott quoted her mantra: “No documents, no history. Papers. Records. These we must have.” 

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