The End Of An Era At Radcliffe

Radcliffe, the real Radcliffe--the women's college whose students lived in their own all-female quad and rode their bikes across Cambridge Common to coed classes at Harvard--hasn't really existed since 1977, when the two institutions technically merged. Since then, the exact nature of Radcliffe ("the invisible college," one waggish graduate called it) has been mysterious to undergraduates and alumnae alike. Still, the announcement last week that Radcliffe would cease to exist, except as a network of research institutions, gave me a twinge.

I never thought I'd feel that way. At the cusp of the '70s, I spent four years at Radcliffe chafing at rules and assumptions that seem outrageously hidebound and sexist today. Unlike our Harvard classmates, we "Cliffies" had sign-ins and curfews. My freshman adviser pooh-poohed my plan to study philosophy and pushed for the girl's major, English. Radcliffe wasn't coed, and it wasn't a full-fledged single-sex school; indeed, it had been founded by Harvard, in 1879, specifically to keep women at arm's length in an "annexe." Unlike Vassar or Bryn Mawr, which made a point of hiring female scholars in an era when even the most brilliant were snubbed by the all-male Ivies and major coed universities, Radcliffe never had its own faculty or curriculum; those were controlled by Harvard, which in my time had, depending on the year, between one and zero female tenured professors. In four years, I had just two female teachers, a gifted young classicist and a brilliant anthropologist--who vanished almost immediately. Many professors made no secret of their preference for male students, a.k.a. the leaders of tomorrow. One even wrote an article in a campus publication attributing the stellar grades of "Cliffies" to nothing more than dutiful drudgery.

That Radcliffe has been gone for decades. On the whole, it's a good thing for women, because what Radcliffe really was, in its pre-1977 heyday, was a quota system: a way for Harvard to reserve its choicest plums for male students and keep women in the grateful-just-to-be-here mode. Radcliffe's separate admissions process enabled the university to enroll four males for every female without admitting that it was practicing blatant sex discrimination. The two-colleges fiction obscured the fact that what we really had was a university with lower admissions standards, and many other privileges, for males: affirmative action for men.

The closer Harvard came to coed normality--mixed dorms, gender-blind admissions--the less reason Radcliffe had to exist. There was arguably even something undignified in the way the administration hung on, cheerily assuring alums that Radcliffe was integrally involved in campus life while female undergrads insisted they barely knew how to find Fay House, Radcliffe's main administration building.

So why do I feel a twinge at Radcliffe's official demise? Separate, as the Supreme Court said, is never equal. The trouble is, equal is not always equal either. Even today, Harvard lags behind other top universities in the number of tenured women, prompting a movement among alumnae to place their donations in escrow as a lever for change. Harvard men still join all-male "final" clubs, which make the news now and then after some particularly swinish outburst of misogyny. Women undergrads may see themselves as finally, fully integrated into Harvard--but if so, why do so many, as one recent grad put it, "choose" not to speak in class?

The new arrangement preserves the institutions for which Radcliffe is now best known, including the Schlesinger Library, the nation's pre-eminent women's history collection, and the Bunting Institute, a center for women scholars (it will now go coed). There will be a new richly funded institute for the study of women, gender and society. But the reorganization will do nothing to address the larger question of genuine equality for women at Harvard. Unlike the university's Dubois Center, which has revitalized African-American studies on campus, the new gender-studies institute will have no tenured faculty: a recipe for polite marginalization. Right now, it feels as if women have lost something--an institution that, for all its failings, looked out for women--without gaining a real commitment to the equality Radcliffe was never able to achieve. Once again, Harvard is telling women what's good for them.