Birth of a Feminist

I left Brooklyn in 1954 at age 17 and headed for Cambridge, suitcases jammed with pleated skirts, twin sweater sets, loafers, and bobby sox. I would look like a college girl even if I felt more like a displaced adolescent. My mother had advised me to study home economics at Brooklyn College like my cousin Bernice. "What will you be?" she asked. "You'll change diapers just as well without all that education." I was furious, not so much because Mother was wrong but because she just might have been right.

The author's photograph in the Radcliffe class of 1958's Freshman Register
Photograph courtesy of Ann R. Shapiro

The last suitcase was loaded into the blue Oldsmobile, distinguished from the other cars on the block by somewhat larger fins, since ours was newer -- a testimony to my father's recent prosperity. We still lived in the apartment over the BMT, where the roar of a passing train could be heard at five-minute intervals, but Mom had a new Persian lamb jacket, Dad was smoking an occasional Cuban cigar, and I was going to Radcliffe. I was not feeling gratitude for the benefits of upward mobility, however. What I was feeling was fear -- utter panic. What if Mother was right? What did I know of the world beyond Brooklyn? I knew only that Scarlett O'Hara and Jane Eyre didn't just change diapers.

Five hours later I would join the 266 other girls who would comprise the class of '58. Yes, all the publications of the period refer to us as "Radcliffe girls." The male students with whom we would attend classes over the next four years were known as "Harvard men." There were more than 1,000 of them. It should have been clear to us then that Harvard considered that its mission was to educate men, not girls.

We female students were a small but visible part of the Harvard scene, despite living several blocks up Garden Street -- secluded from Harvard Yard and the Harvard Houses, which were the real Harvard College. Radcliffe's conventional dormitories, with their minuscule rooms and common bathrooms, did not compare very favorably with the Houses, which offered suites with fireplaces and private baths, not to mention well-stocked libraries and access to professors. The year before I arrived, the Houses were still cleaned by "biddies," women employed to make sure that Harvard men would not be demeaned by housekeeping chores. At Radcliffe we waited on table, cleaned our own rooms, and worked the switchboard. I never complained about "waiting on," but I was all too aware that housekeeping was women's lot, not men's. Nevertheless, the lopsided ratio of men to women assured us of many dates and, because most of us knew that it was essential to find husbands ASAP, we could easily overlook some of the inconveniences.

During freshmen orientation week, I doubt that any of us at Radcliffe thought about equal rights or second-class citizenship in the Harvard community. I, at least, felt like a princess surrounded by Harvard Prince Charmings, eager to add more names to their lists of potential dates for the Yale game. This was our reward for the straight As we had accumulated at Brearley, Rosemary Hall, and even my alma mater, Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School.

The week's social events culminated in the mixer at the Harvard Union, where Crimson editors gathered to choose "Miss Radcliffe" and her runners-up, the prettiest girls in the freshman class. Alas, I was not selected as Miss Radcliffe or even as a runner-up, but I did not feel neglected. Each day I received several phone calls from young men who began, "I saw your picture in the Freshman Register...." How wonderful! The high point of my week occurred the day I returned to Moors Hall to find 18 phone messages from Mr. X. Was it one love-struck swain who called 18 times in the hope of igniting my young heart, or were there 18 different anonymous gentlemen? That weighty question, I'm afraid, will never be answered. What can be said after so many years is that orientation week made it clear that being chosen by Harvard men, confident in their own judgments about what was important in the opposite sex, was an important goal that Radcliffe College enthusiastically supported.

Being chosen, of course, was only the beginning. After that, we were expected to keep our boyfriends in a constant state of titillation while carefully protecting our own virtue. Both Harvard and Radcliffe had elaborate parietal rules to assist us. At Radcliffe we had a limited number of "one o'clocks" and we dutifully signed in at the end of the evening. It is hard to imagine what lewd activities all this prevented, but there seemed to be tacit agreement that as long as we were locked in the dormitories by 1 a.m., all would be well. At Harvard, female guests could visit men in their dormitory rooms, but had to be signed in by their Harvard hosts and then signed out when they departed. As the visits were unmonitored, it remains unclear how Harvard persuaded vigilant parents that the College was acting in loco parentis.

This arcane system more or less assured my own purity, but years later I began to hear about the secret pregnancies of some of my classmates. Although I became fairly adept at keeping my blouse buttoned even amidst the periodic fumblings in the back seat of a car, I was almost defeated one warm spring evening by a wise Harvard junior who accused me of "bourgeois morality." Having just read Karl Marx, I knew enough to eschew everything bourgeois, but my mother had not lectured me in vain about used women. I won the debate in the back seat of the car, but I lost my Harvard junior.

 

If the message about acquiring a man was both exhilarating and demeaning, at least it was clear; everything else was contradictory. Harvard was, after all, not an extended prom, but arguably America's preeminent academic institution, and it took itself seriously -- so seriously, in fact, that it hardly knew what to make of its female student minority. We lived at Radcliffe, but we attended classes at Harvard. Those of us who forgot that we were not permitted to enter Lamont, the undergraduate library in Harvard Yard, were unceremoniously expelled from the premises as "trespassers." We had our own, and much smaller, library, almost half a mile away in the Radcliffe Yard. A few years later, Radcliffe would build Hilles Library at the Radcliffe Quad, apparently upholding the doctrine "separate but equal," but for the class of 1958 "separate" was definitely "small and inconvenient." No matter. Given the smaller size of the Radcliffe freshmen class, we were even more carefully selected than our Harvard counterparts. Surely we were expected to be smart enough to manage this visible symbol of our inequality.

"Most of us knew it was essential to find husbands ASAP": Ann Rabinowitz (at left) with her future husband, Donald Shapiro '57.
Photograph courtesy of Ann R. Shapiro

More serious was the inequality in the classrooms. Large lecture courses were filled with male students, and some -- particularly in science or such preprofessional areas as constitutional law -- had no more than two or three women. Small sections were even worse. There, in the company of 12 to 15 mostly male students, we could be called upon and it was impossible to hide. It was probably the third week of classes in Hum 4, "Good and Evil in Western Literature," when Mr. Edelen, sitting nonchalantly on the edge of his desk, looked up and smilingly asked, "Miss Rabinowitz, what do you think?" The embarrassment of hearing my name uttered in this male environment was overwhelming. What I actually thought was, "Please, God, don't let me make a fool of myself in front of Mr. Edelen." I have no idea what I mumbled to the obvious delight of my male classmates, who clearly believed it was their manly duty to disagree, but I learned fast that we women were intruders in their world.

I don't remember any senior professor ever asking me, as Mr. Edelen did, what I thought. They did their best to ignore us in class, but they, in concert with the teaching fellows, determined our grades. I was in Perry Miller's class on American Romanticism, a course listed in the catalog as primarily for graduate students. Undergraduates were frightening enough; I did not want to be in a graduate course, but I had no choice. I was going to major in American history and literature, and I had to cover the Romantic period. Miller announced early in the semester that our grades would be based mainly on a long paper. I spent many hours mulling over the possibilities of that paper, but I was clueless. I would simply have to make an appointment to see Miller.

I had no idea how old Miller was at the time, but years later I learned with some surprise that he had died in his late 50s. He could not have been the hoary aged man I thought he was that winter morning when I timidly went to his office. He sat behind his desk with his hands crossed over his protruding middle, a wry expression on his face, as he asked me why I had come. I explained that I needed some advice on my paper and began to tell him everything I then knew about Herman Melville and Walt Whitman. He nodded as I spoke, but said nothing. Finally, when I had finished my breathless narration, he rose slowly from his chair, put his arm around me, and ushered me to the door with the words, "Don't worry about it. Life's too short, and you're too beautiful." Outside on the icy path, I kept my head down as I retrieved my bicycle from its place in the rack, fearful that someone might see the tears that were already streaking my cheeks. I had revealed my stupidity to a senior Harvard professor, I thought, and I would probably fail.

Despite my considerable naiveté, I learned a great deal at Harvard. The world beyond Brooklyn was becoming accessible. I read voraciously: Aristotle, Plato, Voltaire, Rousseau, Newton, Shakespeare. I went to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum armed with information learned in Fine Arts 13 about line, color, and perspective. I saw or thought I saw the shape of history, literary movements, and scientific discovery. But I also learned that women never did anything. Because I did not study anthropology or astronomy and therefore never saw Cora Du Bois, who held the only Radcliffe endowed chair, or Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who in my sophomore year became the first woman ever promoted to full professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), I assumed that the only people smart enough to become Harvard professors were men. To be sure, there were a handful of young women among the teaching fellows, but they were merely assistants and even we undergraduates knew that they would never win tenure.

What passed for "access to professors": Historian of science I. Bernard Cohen attends a social event at Radcliffe.
Photograph courtesy of Ann R. Shapiro

As for the curriculum, the achievements of the Western world were indeed canonized, and if any woman ever did anything worth noting in that world, no one ever told me about it. Men fought the wars and wrote the treaties discussed in the history books; they created the art studied in Fine Arts 13 and wrote the symphonies discussed in Music 1; and with just a few exceptions they even wrote all the literature that was worth noting. It's hard to give a course in the nineteenth-century English novel without including women writers, but John Clive solved the problem. He included the big female names but managed to sneer at the authors' incompetence. He read passages of my beloved Jane Eyre, giggling at its sentimentality. I did not understand then (and still don't) why Dickens's orphan children were not thought sentimental, while poor Jane was vilified. I believed that my critical judgment was at fault, but I didn't care. I continued to love Jane, who overcame every obstacle and finally got her man on her own terms.

 

By the end of my senior year I had married a Harvard man, but was very unsure about my future. Nothing in my privileged education had prepared me for any of the realities confronting a young woman who came of age in the 1950s.

The only published information about our options appeared in the Radcliffe Yearbook of 1958, which identified the possibilities as "washing diapers, typing an employer's dull letters, or tackling graduate work." The last seemed by far the most attractive, but access to graduate school was by no means assured. At Harvard, the B School was the only one that actually closed its doors to women, although the Harvard Business School Wives Club awarded its members a Ph.T. (Putting Hubby Through) diploma, a mimeographed document suitable for display on the refrigerator, not in the executive suite. The other graduate schools, apart from the School of Education, had only token women. I considered law, but my father, a lawyer himself, declared, "I would rather throw the money away in Las Vegas than give it to you for law school. The law is not for women." I finally decided on graduate school in English at Brandeis because I was offered a full-tuition scholarship.

I never completed that program, but eventually earned a master's in teaching at Harvard while my husband was at the business school. By the time we both had our degrees, we also had a baby girl. We left Cambridge for Levittown, Pennsylvania, where I spent more time reading The Cat in the Hat than pondering the symbolism of Melville's white whale. My husband assured me that I could work if I wished -- as long as it didn't interfere with his life. I was to understand that my real job was wife and mother. I managed to teach on and off, but by the time my third child was born, I had become the woman Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique, vaguely longing for something beyond the confines of my pink kitchen.

Twenty-five years after my Radcliffe graduation, I got a divorce and completed my Ph.D. Today I continue to teach women's studies to undergraduates who typically insist they are not feminists. As for Harvard, women students are now welcomed, but they continue to be taught mainly by men. Although more women than men were admitted to the incoming freshman class in 2004, only four out of 32 tenure offers during the 2003-2004 academic year were made to women, who now fill 19 percent of the tenured positions in FAS [see "Gender Gap"]. An entering freshman might infer that she could have an academic career, but she would also have to conclude that she is much less likely than a male classmate to become a professor -- especially at Harvard.

 

Ann R. Shapiro '58, M.A.T. '60, is Distinguished Professor of English at the State University of New York at Farmingdale. Her essay "A Radcliffe Girl at Harvard, or Why Members of the Class of 1958 Staged a Revolution in 1993" appears in Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History (see "Complicated Relationship," May-June 2004, page 26).

 

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