The Corporation Welcomes Its First Woman

In February 1989, Judith Richards Hope, J.D. '64, became the first woman member of the Harvard Corporation, the University's executive governing board. She would serve for 11 years. As she relates in Pinstripes and Pearls: The Women of the Harvard Law Class of '64, Who Forged an Old Girl Network and Paved the Way for Future Generations (Scribner, $26), she came back to Harvard on a raw, sleety Sunday, the night before her first meeting. "There was no welcoming committee or reception," she writes. "I ate dinner by myself at a dingy Chinese restaurant" and spent the night at Dana Palmer House, Harvard's official guest house.

At Commencement, 1997
Photograph by Jim Harrison

At 8:45 a.m. the next morning I crossed Quincy Street, passed through the massive black iron gates into Harvard Yard, and rang the bell at Loeb House. The security camera swiveled toward me. After a brief pause, a buzzer sounded, releasing the lock, and I was in. I struggled out of my slicker, boots, and rain hat, fluffed my hair with my fingers, slipped on my high heels, and purposefully climbed the sweeping, crimson-carpeted stairway to the second floor. With a shiver that came as much from anticipation as from the bitter weather I had just navigated, I entered the Cabot Room, where the Harvard Corporation meets every other Monday except for July.

Five men were seated in high-backed, brown leather chairs at the Corporation table, 12 feet of highly polished mahogany, probably made by Hepplewhite or Duncan Phyfe a couple of hundred years ago. There were three empty chairs. The men smiled and said, "Good morning." They seemed glad to see me, and I was definitely glad to be there. President [Derek] Bok was at the head of the table, facing the door, the adjacent fireplace, and a famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington hanging above the mantelpiece....Robert Shenton, the Corporation's Secretary,...sat at a small antique desk behind the left side of the table. He never spoke during the meetings unless asked.

Even though I was within reach of the table, I didn't know the customs of that table or quite the right way to travel the last few feet and take my place. No one told me where to sit and there were no place cards. Not wanting to reveal my ignorance of the inner sanctum, I sauntered toward the chair to the right of President Bok, reasoning that it was probably set aside, at least for the first meeting, so that I, as the newcomer, would feel welcome. Just as I was easing my way into that seat, Bob [Stone] shook his head no and said, "That's the Treasurer's chair." The Treaurer had died some months before. They told me later that, by unspoken tradition, each chair at that table remains empty until someone is chosen to fill it.

I jumped up and looked around nervously. I decided to move to the chair at the foot of the table: it was, like me, the lowest-ranking one in the room and the farthest from the power end of the table where the President, Senior Fellow, and Treasurer sat. This time, everyone shook his head no. Uncharacteristically, I was confused and uncertain about what to do next. Henry [Rosovsky] finally took pity on me, wagged his finger, and, with a twinkle in his eye, pointed to the chair next to Coleman [Mockler]. With relief, I sank into "my" chair, the one next to the foot of the table and nearest the door. For 350 or so years, that chair had been reserved for the Junior Fellow, who is responsible for opening and closing the door when the Secretary isn't present. I decided that deducing where to sit was some sort of initiation rite into membership on the Corporation. "My" chair had descended through 21 men....

There I was in my navy coatdress and black, patent leather, sling-back heels, wearing my mother's pearl necklace and my mother-in-law's pearl earrings for luck. The first female Fellow....There they were, in their pinstripe suits, regiment striped ties, and highly polished, black wing-tipped lace-ups, some of the most powerful men in America. We were sitting together at the top of the educational ladder surrounded by historic paintings of famous men in what had been, until I arrived, the most exclusive men's club in the world.        

You might also like

John Manning Appointed Interim Provost

Harvard Law School dean moves to central administration

Facebook’s Failures

Author and tech journalist Jeff Horwitz speaks at Harvard.

Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

Most popular

Harvard Files Amicus Brief in Graduate Student Unionization Case

The University argues that the relationship between graduate students and universities should remain academic, not managerial, and student labor unions would “damage private sector graduate education.”

Labor Litigator

Attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan takes on the app economy.

A Postmodern Youth

Tahmima Anam’s Bengal trilogy finds a resting place.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults