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Alumni | Alumni

“More As People Than Dating Objects”

The class of 1971 reflects on the coeducational living experiment.

November-December 2011

Top from left: Helen Snively, Tom Southwick, Carol Sternhell, and Deborah Johnson

Top from left: Helen Snively, Tom Southwick, Carol Sternhell, and Deborah Johnson

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Virginity and parietals were all falling apart,” reports Helen Snively ’71, “and no sweet dean from Fay House was going to prevent it.” Such was the mood in the spring of 1970, when a group of Harvard and Radcliffe students volunteered for a radical (at least for Harvard College) social experiment: coeducational living—the product of tumultuous cultural and political change that was quickly altering the lives of undergraduates, and the core nature of the College.

Snively took part in that experiment and attended her fortieth reunion this September, where a lively, well-attended symposium was dedicated to “Coed Housing and the Gender Revolution.” Freshman year was still like the 1950s, said Carol Sternhell ’71, a symposium panelist, along with classmates (and fellow Harvard Crimson writers and editors) Tom Southwick and Deborah Johnson. “My memory was that boys were only allowed up in the rooms on Sundays—with the door open and three feet on the floor at all times,” she added. “We had curfews: we had to sign out in the evenings…if we got in late we were in big trouble. Men still had to wear jackets and ties to dinner in the Freshman Union.” By sophomore year, we’d entered the 1970s. Women were living (unofficially) with their boyfriends, and by junior year, some of the dorms were coed. “All of this was in the wider context of the anti-war movement and then the women’s movement,” she explained. The cultural shifts were shockingly sudden: “a change of values and morality, of politics, of possibilities, and of our most fundamental beliefs about ourselves. Overnight!”

 

That spring about 150 men from Adams, Lowell, and Winthrop Houses traded places with 150 women from South, East, and North Houses. The experiment was continued and expanded through the following academic year, and by 1972, co-residency had become an official option for undergraduates.

It was hardly the first move toward full coeducation at the Colleges. Talks about a Harvard-Radcliffe merger were under way among University leaders; males and females had been sharing classes for two decades and participating in most extracurricular activities together, including work on the  Crimson. (Women first became “Radcliffe correspondents” in 1957, but were not allowed to vote or hold office until two years later; Sternhell was only the paper’s second female managing editor.) But living quarters were still segregated, as were dining halls, where “dates” could be signed in only by personal invitation. Other practical barriers also kept women at bay, as Marjorie Press Lindblom ’71 recalls: “There were only about three ladies’ rooms in The Yard!” 

As a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Policy Committee (HRPC), Lindblom was instrumental in pushing through the student-supported exchange by formally recommending it to College administrators in 1969. “The mission was about coeducation and the integration of women into Harvard University life,” she explains. “It just seemed silly to us that girls were being separated from things.”

About 80 percent of ’Cliffies and two-thirds of Harvard students were in favor of an exchange, according to the committee’s report, as reprinted in the Crimson. “The present system of limited coeducational contacts is so detrimental in so many ways that it makes a change in the pattern and style of coeducational life at Harvard mandatory,” the document continued. “Since, under Harvard’s residential structure, the Houses are the center of social life, this change must take place within the House system.” Furthermore, the experiment should lead to permanent coed living and dining because that would “provide informal contacts between men and women; it would enable men and women to view each other more as people than dating objects; it would have numerous educational advantages.” 

Masters at Adams and South Houses and elsewhere discussed the proposal, believing it would aid the nascent merger between Harvard and Radcliffe, and ultimately brokered it. Starch professor of psychology emeritus Jerome Kagan chaired the faculty subcommittee on the coeducational aspects of the merger. “There was not a lot of trepidation about this because the mores around sex had changed so much by 1969,” he recalls. “Right around that time, students around the country were living in communal houses and having sexual partners.” Given that sister universities with comparable student populations already allowed coeducational living, “The mood among the faculty was: it’s time.” He acknowledges that “among some students, there was a more macho attitude—‘What do we want women here for? We can always get women.’ But that was the minority view.”

In general, people were more concerned about the possibility of coed bathrooms than about sharing Houses: “People seemed more embarrassed about being seen in their bathrobes,” Kagan remembers, adding, “If a boy or girl didn’t want that, we thought they were entitled to that.” Snively, who first exchanged to Winthrop House, where athletes tended to live, agrees. “The bathrooms were more taboo because there it wasn’t a choice about whether you wanted to be intimate or not,” she says. “In the bedroom, you had that choice.”

 

The coed living experiment may now seem like a minor, even quaint, event. Most current Harvard undergraduates live in “gender-neutral housing” and share not only dorms and Houses but sometimes rooms and suites. Allowances are also made for self-identified transgender students who request specific housing needs.

Younger generations find it hard to imagine how separated everything was not that long ago, notes Leverett professor of mathematics Benedict H. Gross ’71, a former dean of Harvard College. At the time of the exchange, for example, the ratio of men to women was four to one, so Radcliffe students were widely outnumbered wherever they left the Quad. Gross recalls how, when a boy invited a girl to dinner at the all-male Freshman Union (now the Barker Center), the couple entered a cavernous room where hundreds of young men were eating. If they thought the woman was attractive they would clink their glasses with their forks. “We all thought it was hilarious at the time,” Gross says. “It took me a while to realize that the purpose of the exercise was to make women feel as uncomfortable as possible. The Union was our male preserve.”

The residential exchange represented a huge step toward gender equity. “The big difference was not suddenly having men around where you lived,” says Sternhell, who moved from South House to Adams House with Johnson, her former roommate. “The big difference was that for the first time we were living the Harvard experience. It was pretty shocking how much better the conditions were for men.” Sternhell moved from a cramped single with a communal, hallway bathroom to a two-bedroom suite with a separate living room and private bath. “We were also so much closer now to everything a student might be doing—from our classes to work on the Crimson,” she adds. “In the exchange, we moved from being on the periphery to the center.”

Classmate and fellow panelist Tom Southwick, who relocated from Adams to South House, told the audience that the exchange opened his eyes to the subtle forms of discrimination against women. This realization hit “the first time I had to walk back to Radcliffe from the Crimson at 4 a.m. and it was four below and I had forgotten my gloves,” he says. “I thought, ‘Hey, this isn’t fair!’” But the exchange did not play a central role in his undergraduate experience (in fact, he moved back to Harvard for senior year). He sees it as one small aspect of the changes and general “turmoil in our time at college. The University was twice shut down for final exams, there was the University Hall bust, a lot of ferment over the war, civil rights, and ROTC, and then women’s rights,” he summarizes. “Compared to having the police come into the Yard and start beating people with night sticks—and I was there for that—the idea of coming to live at Radcliffe was minor.” For him, the rewarding working relationships formed with women at the Crimson did much more to engender the respect, knowledge, and understanding and bring the sexes together than any housing arrangement could. 

In daily life, Southwick found the structure of the Quad dorms a hindrance to socializing and community building. The geographic isolation was also fairly demoralizing. (In a Crimson account at the time, he wrote: “You could die in your room at Radcliffe and, if the door were closed, no one would know about it until the stench from your decaying body became so unbearable that it offended people out in the hallway.”) 

“Radcliffe wasn’t fun,” he says now. “A lot of women weren’t there much. They would be in the Square or at classes or with their boyfriends. Weekends were particularly dismal.” Parties had to be organized and vetted in advance if a common room was required, and the small singles offered little space for impromptu gatherings—except on the bed. He and his friends often regretted the move: “‘Why did we do this? We have to walk all the way back and these dorms are terrible.’ We all missed the opulence and convenience of living at Harvard.”

Benedict Gross did not. He moved to the Quad from Adams House in search “of a little peace and quiet.” He enjoyed the longer walks to classes, the fact that there were fewer people, and the smaller scale of the dorms. “There was a nice culture—if you didn’t go out on Saturday night, they served milk and cookies,” he adds. Initial fears about “students having nonstop sex day and night didn’t happen,” he reports. “Coed living did demystify the opposite gender for us, though. We got to meet and talk with women in the dining hall and that had been unheard of.”

“It put relationships in a whole different category,” agrees Lance Lindblom ’72. “Before, even though you might work on some projects with women, most of the time they were targets. People could work together and live together and be friends. It was kind of revolutionary at the time.” 

Lindblom in fact met his wife of 40 years, Marjorie Press Lindblom, while working together on the Harvard-Radcliffe Policy Committee. But they did not start dating until much later and never shared proximate living space as undergraduates. If they had, Marjorie, who did her exchange at Lowell House, is not sure he would have liked her in the morning in the dining hall. “Some of the men didn’t want women there at all,” she recalls, “but most were happy to have us and wanted to talk and be friendly, including at breakfast.” She, however, is “not that friendly at breakfast,” and sat in a far corner with her back turned, reading her newspaper while she ate. “Invariably some nice young man with a smile would come over and set his tray down and try to be nice to me,” she says now, with a laugh. “I feel badly that I often greeted them with grunts and groans.”

Negative experiences did occur. The Women’s Guide to Harvard includes an excerpt from remarks made by Katharine Park ’72 during a 2000 conference on “History and Memory: Gender at Harvard and Radcliffe.” Park, now Zemurray Radcliffe professor of the history of science, moved from North House to Winthrop House, where, she reported, “the hostility was particularly palpable in my entry, where our mates used to urinate against our door.” Coeducational living the following year, back at North House, went a lot better, she reported, perhaps because it consisted of a cohort of men who had voluntarily elected to live with women, “who actually liked women—who enjoyed our company, appreciated our intelligence, and found us interesting and funny (which we were).”

Snively also exchanged at Winthrop House and found she “could not get past the exterior of the jocks.” But her exchange at Quincy House the following year was a stellar experience—largely because of a coed group of about a dozen people, various members of which had dinner together every night. “We talked about politics or biology or dating. It was a mixed group with some very brilliant people,” she says. “I became comfortable with them and finally felt articulate. Being around men in that way somehow made me feel more confident and like I could take on more challenges.…Being with that group was the first time I really felt I had a coed circle of friends.”

For better or worse, co-residency soon became the norm. Jerome Kagan still supports it, although he now wonders about the impact of that more constant intimacy, of the “loss of mystery” between the genders. “Romantic relationships are gratifying when each gets from the other what they do not have. It used to be that women got power from men and men got innocence and grace from women,” he says, but “we’ve destroyed the mystery of sexuality” as the social pendulum has swung too far in favor of transparency.

Sternhell, who says her feminist views, formed while in college, were utterly transformative, sees it differently. “There isn’t any evidence that people who lived in coed housing are less likely to have long-term heterosexual romantic relationships, either in college or afterwards,” she says. “That’s just a familiar argument against equality: it kills romance—vive la différence!”  In fact, I think coed housing made genuine intimacy more likely.” The meaning and impact of coed living for women were less about more open sexuality than about building the foundation for basic equality. Sternhell was among a group of women promoting what is now called gender-blind admissions at Harvard; they all wore the traditional female symbol on the back of their Commencement robes—and she brought the original cloth to the reunion, holding it up at the panel discussion. “We all felt the possibility that everything was changing, and then things for women really did,” she explains. “The feminist revolution really did happen. I still feel it was the most amazing four years. It was a most incredible time to be young.”

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