Lecture Highlights History of Harvard Women

Harvard Crimson
April 24, 2012
By C.E. Chiemeka Ezie

Members of the Harvard community gathered on Monday afternoon to discuss the University's evolving relationship with female affiliates throughout the course of its history during the Dean's Lecture on the History of Women at Harvard, delivered by former Radcliffe Fellow Helen H. Horowitz.

The lecture, one of many events this year to commemorate Harvard's 375th anniversary, included opening remarks from University President Drew G. Faust and Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Lizabeth Cohen.

According to Horowitz, women overcame a series of obstacles before receiving full membership in the University's academic community in 1977.

"Moving an institution towards equity turns out to be very hard work," she said.

Starting in the 19th century, Horowitz said that women demonstrated an interest in becoming full participants in the University community.

When the University first opened its lectures to the public, she said, women attended in large numbers. By 1870, 70 percent of those in attendance were women.

Despite this show of enthusiasm, Horowitz said that the University hesitated to fully open its doors to female students. Even as women studied at Radcliffe College, formerly a women's undergraduate institution that shared some University staff and faculty, they were not granted access to some University resources, including full use of Lamont Library.

In 1977, the University began to remedy the disparities between genders in abandoning its policy of maintaining a 4:1 male-to-female ratio and adopting a sex-blind admissions process.

However, Horowitz said that there is still work to be done on this topic at Harvard. While she agreed that much progress had been made, she concluded the lecture by mentioning the disparity in tenure positions held by men at the University compared to the number held by women.

She said that this was indicative that the initiatives begun several decades ago continue to be a work in progress.

The audience, which included Harvard affiliates, Radcliffe alumni, and local community members, said that the lecture provided information about an important topic in Harvard's history.

"I thought that it was a very incisive and also a very fair-minded talk," said Cheryl Robertson, a community member who attended the event. "And I do believe that her emphasis on chronology, the dates that things happened, was very helpful in framing the history, but also in allowing the listeners to make their own judgments." 

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