From the Archives: Harvard’s Womanless History

Completing the University’s self-portrait 

A composite of Radclife College classes through the years: 1896, 1912, 1931, and 1935 on the cover of the November-December 1999 issue of Harvard Magazine.
A composite of Radclife College classes through the years: 1896, 1912, 1931, and 1935 on the cover of the November-December 1999 issue of Harvard Magazine.From the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. Photomontage by Jim Gipe

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who retired last summer as 300th Anniversary University Professor, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize (historians’ highest honor) for A Midwife’s Tale.  She also pioneered histories of material culture, some featured by this magazine (see “An Orphaned Sewing Machine” and “A Woodsplint Basket”). During her years of Harvard service, she became interested in this institution’s incomplete history, particularly of women, resulting in the edited book, Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History. A sort of first draft for that project appeared in these pages in 1999, and is republished here.

~The Editors


In the opening pages of A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagines her fictional self walking across the grass at a college she calls Oxbridge when a stern beadle in a cutaway coat intercepts her. His outraged face reminds her that only the “Fellows and Scholars” are allowed on the grass. A few minutes later, inspired by her reverie on a passage from Milton, she ascends the steps to the library. “Instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.”

I thought of these passages late on a summer day in 1997, when I walked into the newly renovated Barker Center for the Humanities at Harvard. There was no living person to be seen in the grand public rooms, but everywhere I turned the eyes of long-dead men looked down at me from their portraits. “What are you doing here?” they seemed to be saying. “Have you a letter of down at me from their portraits. “What are you doing here?” they seemed to be saying. “Have you a letter of introduction?” There was no room on these walls for ladies. Nine eminences, bewhiskered and stiff-collared, asserted the power of Harvard past.

At the gala dedication a few weeks later, the ghosts were less formidable. There were as many women as men in the crowd, and some of them were faculty members. Porter University Professor Helen Vendler gave a graceful dedicatory reading that included lines from Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich ’51, Litt.D. ’90, as well as Lord Tennyson and Seamus Heaney, Litt.D. ’98. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy Knowles said how pleased he was that both the chief architect and the project manager for the new Barker Center were women. The tone was light, but both speakers knew that something in the room needed exorcising.

I should have been reconciled, but as I started to leave the building, I felt a tug of something like responsibility. I was going to lecture on A Room of One’s Own the following week, and I wanted to make sure I could come to terms with my own disquiet on my first visit to Barker Center. Seeing two young women with “Staff” badges near the entrance, I asked if there was someone who might be able to answer a question about the portraits. They pointed to a woman standing in a nearby doorway.

I approached her awkwardly, concerned about raising what might be perceived as a negative question on a day designed for celebration. The renovation was lovely, I told her, but I was puzzled by the portraits. Had the absence of women been discussed?

“Of course, it was discussed,” she said briskly. “This is Harvard. Everything gets discussed.”

Was she annoyed at me? At the question? Or at a situation that forced her to explain a decision she did not control?

I pushed on. If the issue had been discussed, I asked, what was said? She told me that there had been so much controversy about turning the old Freshman Union into the Barker Center that some people thought it was a good idea to keep some things just as they had been before.

“Besides,” she continued, “Harvard doesn’t have any portraits of women.”

I was stunned by her certainty. “No portraits of women! Not even at Radcliffe?”

“No,” she said firmly. “Nothing we could use.”

As she walked away, she turned and said, over her shoulder, “You can’t rewrite history.

Maybe you can’t, I thought, but that’s my job description. You can blame the woman in Barker Center—and Virginia Woolf—for this essay. If I hadn’t been preparing to teach A Room of One’s Own, I might not have been so attuned to the subtle discriminations around me. If the woman in Barker Center hadn’t tossed off her quip about history, I wouldn’t have been provoked into learning more about Harvard’s past.


Most people assume that history is “what happened” in the long ago. Historians know that history is an account of what happened based on surviving evidence, and that it is shaped by the interests, inclinations, and skills of those who write it. Historians constantly rewrite history not only because we discover new sources of information, but because changing circumstances invite us to bring new questions to old documents. History is limited not only by what we can know about the past, but by what we care to know.

When I came here in 1995, I naively assumed that female students had been fully integrated into the University. I soon discovered ivy-covered partitions that divided the imaginative as well as the administrative life of the institution. My encounter with the woman in Barker Center epitomized the problem. Obviously, if Harvard had no portraits of women, it couldn’t integrate women into a vision of the past that required portraits. But the woman’s allusion to history told me that the real problem was not missing artifacts but a curiously constricted sense of what belonged to Harvard’s past. In the weeks that followed, I found the same narrow vision everywhere I turned.

The standard assumption was that female students were recent arrivals. Yet by any historical standard, that notion is absurd. Women were studying with Harvard faculty members at the “Harvard Annex” in 1879, 20 years before Henry Lee Higginson donated the money to build what was then called the Harvard Union (later to be transformed into Barker Center). Radcliffe College, chartered in 1894, predated the House system, the tutorial system, and most of the departments now resident in Barker Center. Because it never had its own faculty, its instructors—and sometimes its presidents—were drawn from the Harvard faculty. Radcliffe’s history always has been an essential part of Harvard’s history, yet few of our custodians of the past have acknowledged that.

Womanless history has been a Harvard specialty. The most egregious example is the glossy booklet handed to guests at the Barker Center dedication. This short history of the humanities at the University has nothing at all to say about Radcliffe’s many distinguished graduates. With the exception of Elizabeth Barker, who with her husband, Robert R. Barker, funded the renovation, not a single woman is included in the text or its accompanying illustrations. All 11 of the artists and scholars pictured are male. Among the collection of artifacts from the various programs illustrated in the margins, only the poster from the committee on women’s studies, with its announcement of a lecture by Maxine Hong Kingston, gives any indication that works by women are included in Harvard’s humanities curriculum. Surprisingly, the illustration from the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies, known for its feminist scholarship, shows a composite picture of Henry VIII and Freud.

If the author of this brochure had wanted to write a history that was not only more gracious and inclusive but more accurate, there was plenty of source material to draw upon. That this was not done suggests that at some fundamental level the wall between Radcliffe and Harvard has been impenetrable. The brochure might have mentioned Gertrude Stein, A.B. 1898, as well as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, LL.D. 1859. It could have pictured Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin ’46 as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Walter Piston ’24, D.Mus. ’52. And it could have included the fact that Henry Lee Higginson, the man whose portrait by John Singer Sargent commands the central foyer of Barker Center, was not only the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the donor of the Union, but the first treasurer of Radcliffe College.

Harvard Observed, the lively new history by John T. Bethell published last year in conjunction with the centennial of Harvard Magazine, also elides Radcliffe from Higginson’s biography. In a color-illustrated, full-page account, Bethell identifies Higginson’s wife as the “daughter of Professor Louis Agassiz,” but says nothing about her step-mother, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the first president of Radcliffe College. Nor does he mention Agassiz in any other part of the book. Although Bethell does include women in his story, he gives short shrift to Radcliffe. The index has more references to Sissela Bok than to Mary Bunting and no citations at all for Radcliffe’s early presidents except for Le Baron Russell Briggs—who is identified in several places as a faculty member and dean, but never as president of Radcliffe College.

Harvard may or may not be the world’s greatest university, but it is certainly the nation’s oldest, and no one who enters a dormitory, walks through the Yard, or sits in the library is allowed to forget it. But what the University chooses to celebrate about its past is highly selective. After the Barker Center dedication, I turned to the University’s official Web page. There I discovered the “brief history of Harvard” that can still be found today as the “Introduction” to the “Harvard Guide” produced by the University News office. This 1,200-word sketch contains not one sentence about Radcliffe or the education of women. It explains that under President Eliot (1869-1909) the “Law and Medical schools were revitalized, and the graduate schools of Business, Dental Medicine, and Arts and Sciences were established,” but it apparently never occurred to the author that the establishment of Radcliffe College was another landmark of Eliot’s administration. This past spring the “Harvard Guide” added a brief historical component to its “Understanding Harvard” section, under a subtopic labeled “Women at Harvard University.” But the essay as a whole emphasizes the present, giving most of its attention to a defensive account of Harvard’s recent efforts to recruit more women faculty members.

Before assigning all of the blame for this situation to Harvard, it is worth noting that a year ago Radcliffe’s own website also gave little attention to history. Its colorful opening page then offered a few sentences on the founding of the College, noting that it was chartered in 1894 and that it “was named for Ann Radcliffe, an Englishwoman, who established the first scholarship fund at Harvard in 1643,” but it provided no information on the century between the College’s founding and the present. Today, with some effort, a visitor can find some historical information, though at this point the site is still changing. No doubt both websites will improve, but until someone decides to integrate Radcliffe’s history into Harvard’s history the marginalization of women will persist.

Part of the problem is that the history of women at Harvard is both extraordinarily long and exasperatingly complex. Does the history of undergraduate women at Harvard begin with the Women’s Education Association in 1872, the establishment of the Harvard Annex in 1879, the chartering of Radcliffe College in 1894, the merging of classroom instruction in 1943, the awarding of Harvard degrees to Radcliffe students in 1963, or some time earlier or later?

Not long after the Barker Center dedication, Boston newspapers were full of plans for a gala event commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the integration of women into the Harvard freshman dormitories in 1972. Under the direction of Harry Lewis, dean of Harvard College, the College organized seminars for undergraduates, published an expensive picture book honoring recent alumnae, students, and faculty members, and—in a moving ceremony—dedicated a new gate into the Yard to women. Yet where was Radcliffe, some wondered, in this celebration of Harvard’s past? The inscriptions on the new gate added to the puzzlement. To the right was a cryptic quotation from the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, who died in 1672, to the left a statement, beautifully engraved in gold, explaining that the gate “was dedicated twenty-five years after women students first moved into Harvard Yard in September of 1972.” Intentionally or not, the organizers left a gaping hole between Bradstreet’s death and the integration of Harvard dormitories 300 years later.

Walking into the Yard the Monday after the dedication of the gate, I saw two first-year women looking at the plaques. One of them had attended the dedication and was very excited about the day, but when I asked her what had happened in 1972, she said, “That was the year female students were first admitted to Harvard!” She was not alone in her confusion. Before the dedication of the gate, I attended a luncheon where a female faculty member who should have known better announced that the College was about to celebrate the “twenty-fifth anniversary of co-education at Harvard.” A few days later, a professor in my department used the same newly invented anniversary to comfort me on the absence of women in the Barker Center brochure. “After all, coeducation at Harvard is only 25 years old,” he reasoned. Ironically, the very effort to add women to Harvard’s public history erased a full century of their presence.


There is no conspiracy here, just collective complacency and an ignorance compounded by separatism. Writers and publicists at Harvard have never considered Radcliffe their responsibility. Radcliffe has been too busy negotiating its own status to promote its history.

Fortunately, in the past two years, some people have begun to think more creatively. Rather than take the “great man” approach to its past, the Afro-American studies department, housed on the second floor of Barker Center, embellished one wall with a roster of student photographs dating from the late nineteenth century to 1920. “I wanted our current students to know who came before them,” explained Henry Louis Gates Jr., Du Bois professor of the humanities and chairman of the department. By including African-American students who attended Radcliffe as well as those at Harvard, Gates acknowledged the joint histories of the two institutions. He also offered an instructive history in interlocking discrimination. Not only are there fewer female than male students in the gallery, but more of them are represented by blank ovals where photographs are supposed to be.

In an exhibit mounted in November 1998 in conjunction with the conference “Gender at the Gates: New Perspectives on Harvard and Radcliffe History,” Harvard archivists Patrice Donaghue, Robin McElheny, and Brian Sullivan took an even more innovative approach. Their introduction offers an expansive view of women’s history:

Q: Since when have there been women at Harvard?

A: From the establishment of the “College at Newtowne” in 1636 to the present, the Harvard community has included women.

Q: Then where can we find them?

A: Everywhere—from the Yard dormitories, where they swept the halls and made the beds, to the library, where they cataloged the books and dusted the shelves—and nowhere, their documentary traces hidden between the entries in directories that include only faculty and officers, or missing from the folders of correspondence that they typed and filed.

Despite the obvious problem with sources, the archivists were astonished at how much they could document once they put their minds to it. “From our initial fear that an exhibition on women at Harvard would barely fill one display case,” they wrote, “we found that we could amass enough evidence to fill twice as many cases as we have at our disposal.” Vivid examples of such material turned up in the booklet Women in Lamont published last May by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Task Force on Women and Leadership. Using old Crimson articles, photographs, and “Cliffe” songs, the designers vividly recreated the controversy in the 1960s over admitting female students to Lamont Library.

Meanwhile, the difficulties of integrating women into an already established and overflowing narrative were strikingly displayed in the timelines published in 1998 in Harvard Magazine’s centennial-year issues. Among the 45 historical events featured, nine mention women, clear evidence of a desire for a more inclusive history. Yet a close look at the actual entries is disappointing. In brief textual references we learn that the library named for Titanic victim Harry Elkins Widener was given “by his mother,” that the Biological Laboratories built in 1931 are “guarded by Katharine Lane Weems’s rhinos,” and that Professor Howard Mumford Jones once described Memorial Church as “Emily Dickinson above, but pure Mae West below.” Six entries include pictures of women, but in only one case—the photograph of Radcliffe president Matina Horner signing a “nonmerger merger” agreement with Harvard president Derek Bok in 1971—are women portrayed as actually doing anything. Harvard men build buildings, conquer disease, play football, appoint cabinets, give speeches, and confront the press, but the women pictured are apparently distinguished only because they were the “first” of something. In 1904, “Helen Keller became Radcliffe’s first blind graduate.”* In 1920, the appearance of women in a photograph of students from the new Graduate School of Education underlines the fact that the school was “the first Harvard department to admit men and women on equal terms.” In 1948, Helen Maud Cam “becomes the University’s first tenured woman.”

In the two other entries, there is a subtle—and no doubt unintentional—washing out of female activism. Here the contrast between the descriptions of women and related entries about men is striking. The “era of angry political activism” between 1966 and 1971 is symbolized in a photograph of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara trapped near Quincy House, but when the timeline pictures female students moving into Winthrop House in 1970, the prose turns cute. “The times, they are a-changing,” it says, as though feminist agitation had nothing to do with this radical transformation in undergraduate life.

Most telling is the treatment of two incidents of labor conflict, one involving men, the other women. The male story from 1919 is all action. The verbs convey the drama: “Boston policemen strike. Lecturer Harold Laski, a political theorist, supports them. The Board of Overseers interrogates Laski. President A. Lawrence Lowell...defends him, but Laski departs for the London School of Economics.” In contrast, the description of a 1954 labor conflict at Harvard is playful: “Biddies, more politely ‘goodies,’ cease making the beds of undergraduates. Their future has looked cloudy since 1950, when they mentioned a raise in pay. Former head cheerleader Roger L. Butler ’51 had described daily maid service as Harvard’s ‘one last remnant of gracious living.’ Astonishingly, the illustration accompanying this entry appears to be from the nineteenth century. By the time we get to 1988 and the successful organization of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, women have disappeared entirely. The union is represented by its campaign button, reading “We Can’t Eat Prestige.” There is no clue in the text that the leader of the union, Kris Rondeau, and most of the members were female.

Still, the decision to include Radcliffe students and female workers in the Harvard timeline is significant. Harvard Observed is also a great improvement on other recent Harvard histories. Bethell is best at pointing out the ironies in Harvard’s treatment of women. Summarizing the achievements of Alice Hamilton, appointed to the medical-school faculty in 1919, he observes: “Hamilton’s appointment did not entitle her to use the Faculty Club, sit on the Commencement platform, or apply for football tickets.” His juicy tidbits from the old alumni magazines remind us that Harvard men, too, participated in the emancipation of women—though usually not with the support of the University administration. In 1911, when the Harvard Men’s League for Woman Suffrage invited British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst to speak in Sanders Theatre, the Corporation refused them the use of the hall. In 1963, undergraduate columnist Edward Grossman reported in the Alumni Bulletin that a reverse panty raid by Radcliffe students on John Winthrop House had “focused a cold, hard light on the most compelling problem in this community: the integration of Radcliffe into the academic and social company of Harvard, on equal terms and no eyebrows raised.” The quote from Grossman is intriguing, but unfortunately we learn nothing at all about the Radcliffe women.


“The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself,” Virginia Woolf wrote. Perhaps someday a student at one of the new women’s colleges at Oxbridge might “collect examples and deduce a theory—but she would need thick gloves on her hands, and bars to protect her of solid gold.” Why did Harvard persist for so long in its curious system of apartheid? Shall we attribute it to tradition? Testosterone? Or the fabled prudery of proper Boston?

In studying historical attitudes toward women, some historians find the concept of gender useful. In academic usage, the word gender is neither a euphemism for sex nor a synonym for women. It is a convenient term for describing the varied and continually changing ways people define maleness and femaleness. In sociological terms, gender is a system of ordering social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes. Put in more ordinary language, we could say that sex makes babies, gender manufactures pink and blue booties. Hence, gender is present even when women are not—perhaps especially so.

Gender is also, as historian Joan Scott has written, “a primary way of signifying relations of power.” In certain settings—fishing boats, construction sites, and elite colleges come to mind—men have established their own importance precisely by the exclusion of women from their work. It is probably no accident that the period in which Harvard achieved its ascendancy was also a period of rigid gender separation. In 1899, when Henry Higginson donated $150,000 for the new Harvard Union, the men of Harvard and the women of Radcliffe dined, studied, and listened to lectures in different spaces. One could argue that Radcliffe was founded not so much to promote the education of women—which could have been accomplished through coeducation—as to protect the maleness of Harvard students. In the Harvard Union, the rugged virtues of Harvard men were symbolized in the antler chandelier that still hangs in Barker Center, in the masterful portraits of Theodore Roosevelt and Higginson, and in the inscribed names over the central doorway of the 11 Harvard men who died in the Spanish-American War. Gender made demands on men as well as women.

Gender norms also invited women to participate in male domination. Virginia Woolf was surely thinking of such arrangements when she wrote, “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” Our campuses are filled with such mirrors, from the Radcliffe gate on Garden Street given by Anna Lyman Gray “in Memory of her Husband, John Chipman Gray Teacher at Harvard Law School for 44 Years, Member of the Council of Radcliffe College from its Incorporation in 1894 until his death in 1915,” to the greatest mirror of them all, Widener Library, offered to the University by a mother in memory of her son. In such a system women enlarged their own status by caring for the needs of men.

Today’s undergraduates have a hard time understanding that hundreds of bright women lived happy and productive lives despite such assumptions. Some, of course, did not. In her famous fantasy about Shakespeare’s sister, Woolf explored the costs of gender discrimination. Judith Shakespeare, born like her brother with a great gift, ran away from home, became pregnant by a London actor, and died in despair. Harvard history offers equally grim examples of unfulfilled genius. The Barker Center brochure described Henry Adams, A.B. 1858, as “a pioneering figure in the serious study of American history.” What it didn’t tell us was that his brilliant wife, Clover (born Marian Hooper), was for years an unacknowledged assistant in his research (it was her language skills, not his, that got him into Spanish archives). Clover Adams killed herself on December 6, 1885, “by swallowing the potassium cyanide she had used in developing photographs.” She probably suffered from what we would today think of as clinical depression, but at least one factor in her growing despair, biographer Eugenia Kaledin concludes, was an “education that exposed her to so much—but did not want her to take any of it seriously.” She belonged to what Alice James, the thwarted sister of another of the pictured luminaries in the Barker Center brochure, the great psychologist William James, M.D. 1869, called “hemmed-in humanity.”

Such a history could be narrated at every gate of the College Yard, beginning with the west wall that commemorates the godly ministers who in the 1630s assured the survival of a learned ministry in Massachusetts by establishing Harvard College and by banishing the brilliant and recalcitrant Anne Hutchinson, a person who ultimately preferred the growing voice of God within to the authority of clerics. That is not, of course, the kind of history a donor would want to see printed in a glossy brochure.

But then neither would one want to include Henry Adams’s own comment on Harvard education:

Our men...cram themselves with second-hand facts and theories till they bust, and then they lecture at Harvard College and think they are the aristocracy of intellect and are doing true heroic work by exploding themselves all over a young generation, and forcing up a new set of simple-minded, honest prigs as like to themselves as two dried peas in a bladder.

Virginia Woolf put the same idea more crisply as she contemplated the shut door of Oxbridge’s library: “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.”

Ironically, the most powerful tribute to the value of a Harvard education is in the stories of those who struggled for so many years to achieve it. If I were to choose an unsung hero whose story ought to be preserved for future generations, I would pick Abby Leach of Brockton, Massachusetts, who came to Cambridge in 1878 to ask three Harvard professors for instruction in Greek, Latin, and English. Her brilliance and enthusiasm changed their ideas about female education. Thirty years later, Leach, then head of the Greek department at Vassar College, spoke at Radcliffe’s graduation. President Briggs exaggerated only slightly when he said, “No one can speak more fitly at a Radcliffe Commencement than she who was the Commencement of Radcliffe.” John Harvard contributed books. Ann Radcliffe gave money. But Abby Leach offered Harvard the best gift of all—a passion for learning. Let’s build a monument to her memory by rewriting Harvard’s history.

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