It’s Complicated

Harvard’s history of educating women

Drew Faust, Helen Horowitz, and Radcliffe Institute Dean Lizabeth Cohen
A poster promoting Horowitz's April 23 lecture

Women have always been at Harvard…not only as life’s mainstay, but as intellectual collaborators,” cultural historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, professor emerita at Smith College, told a packed auditorium at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on April 23. Horowitz’s lecture, part of the University’s 375th anniversary celebration, examined how the history of women’s education intersected with that of the University as a whole.

Horowitz began her talk, titled “It’s Complicated: 375 Years of Women at Harvard,” with a look back at old Boston. Exclusion at Harvard, she said, was connected to tradition and privilege with a “silken cord”: “Boston blue blood and Harvard rose together.” Men who had been to Harvard had daughters who could not attend, but who had, by association, what they had been told to value: “position and privilege.” 

The women who started knocking on Harvard’s doors did not come from wealthy Boston families. Rather, they were the “daughters of the middle class,” often schoolteachers seeking instruction in science. Women came to Harvard earlier than is commonly known: when the University opened its lectures to the public in 1863, women flocked to learn. By 1870, they formed 70 percent of the audience. But these lectures were suspended in 1872, when Harvard opened its graduate department—all male.

Around this time, two groups began to find new ways to educate women. The first was a set of prominent Boston women who began the “Society to Encourage Study at Home,” a correspondence course that drew pupils from across the country and Canada. Among its students were the future novelist and sociologist Charlotte Perkins Gilman; among its teachers, Alice James, the sister of William and Henry. More vocally, a group led by Elizabeth Cary Agassiz (the wife of Louis Agassiz, the professor of geology and zoology who founded Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology) began to fight against the exclusion of women at Harvard. They met resistance: Harvard did not want women to study at the “sacred grove” of elites and intellectuals.

The solution was to accommodate women in an ancillary to the main university, and in the fall of 1879, the “Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women” opened. Commonly known as the “annex,” the school would provide lectures by Harvard professors for its students—only 27 in number at the time of its creation.

But the price of this accommodation, said Horowitz, was invisibility: without a building of its own, the annex conducted classes in rented rooms on Appian Way. There were no dormitories or college life. Young women, according to an early brochure, would “quietly pursue their occupation, as unnoticed as the daughters of any Cambridge residents.” Further, although association with Harvard carried great prestige, it made the annex a “hostage,” in Horowitz’s words, to the University. Harvard did not recognize the institution in any official way—women who graduated did not gain a bachelor’s degree but merely a certificate. Only after another negotiation led by Elizabeth Agassiz would female undergraduates—their school now named Radcliffe College—begin to graduate with real degrees, starting in 1894.

To illustrate the steep, and sometimes seemingly insurmountable, obstacles women faced in gaining inclusion in Harvard’s ranks, Horowitz (whose books include Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s) pointed to the story of Mary Calkins. Hired by Wellesley in 1887 to teach Greek, Calkins took on a job in the new discipline of psychology on condition that she would do graduate work in the field. When she attempted to attend a seminar at Harvard at the invitation of William James and Josiah Royce, she was denied admission by the University. Calkins’s father, a prominent minister, interceded on her behalf, and in the fall of 1890, she began to work in James’s course—simultaneously an unregistered student and the only pupil in the class. A few years later, when Calkins applied, with stellar recommendations, to a doctoral program, her application was refused. During her long career, she wrote four books and more than 100 articles, and served as president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Society. In 1929, a group of psychologists and philosophers sent a petition to Harvard’s president requesting that she be granted a Ph.D.—but the University concluded that “there was no adequate reason” she should be awarded this degree, and so the request was denied. (Radcliffe had offered her a Ph.D. in 1902, but she refused.)


Women entered Harvard through a “side door,” as Horowitz put it: Radcliffe, whose students could enroll alongside men in Harvard graduate courses starting in the 1890s. By 1962, when Radcliffe ceased to accept graduate students, it had granted 740 Ph.D. degrees.

She noted that some Harvard graduate schools were quicker to accept female students than others: for instance, the Graduate School of Education admitted women from its founding in 1920. “If one steps away from Harvard College and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” Horowitz said, “a more complex pictures emerges…Perhaps we might express it in this formula: the less the prestige, the easier the access.” She added, “By the way, prestige is not related to greatness.”

In the late twentieth century, the milestones added up quickly, from 1968, when women were first allowed to enter through the front door of the Faculty Club, to 2007, when Drew Faust became the first female president of the University.

Yet moving toward equity, she said, “turns out to be very hard work.” Horowitz quoted Faust in saying that it was easier to change the makeup of the administration than the faculty. Women remain underrepresented in the tenured ranks, and barriers seem especially high in math and the sciences, where “issues go beyond tenure to engage the whole pipeline that feeds women into the sciences,” she said.

Horowitz named specific steps modern universities could take to promote equity. For instance, she said, they should provide women with services and “a flexible career clock” to help them balance work and caregiving. She also noted the “drumbeat of hypersexuality” and a new “mommy culture” with “impossible demands” that lead women to drop out of the “still-inflexible” workplace. And, she wondered, “What else is out there?...What bars to true equity are now hiding in plain sight?”

“Today,” she concluded, “there’s a lot to celebrate. But there’s a lot to try and change, and a lot to worry about, too. Yes, the history of women at Harvard is complicated.”

Madeleine Schwartz ’12 is a former Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow at this magazine.

Read more articles by Madeleine Schwartz

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