- Historic Sites
The author recalls two generations of “Cliffie” life—hers and her mother’s—in the years when male and female education took place on opposite sides of the Cambridge Common and women were expected to wear hats in Harvard Square
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
Although it was taken for granted that one went on to college and would get into the college of one’s choice, once the dread College Boards were hurdled, there was never any college but Radcliffe for the girls of my family. For one thing, the family could not have afforded any institution “away,” no matter how much we may have yearned for Bryn Mawr or Vassar, but more important, it would have been a kind of lèse majesté as far as my mother was concerned to have deserted Radcliffe.
All sorts of changes were taking place at Harvard in the late twenties and early thirties. President Lowell had inaugurated the house system, and splendid Georgian buildings were being erected along the Charles River to house the undergraduates in unparalleled comfort and luxury. In the process there was a certain amount of cannibalization of real estate, and ladies who ran boardinghouses for students were being done out of their livelihood. This did not sit very well with the city fathers. The relationship between “town” and “gown,” always edgy, took a distinct turn for the worse. Some of the awe and respect with which the university had been viewed in earlier days by the rest of Cambridge had been eroded in the last decade or so, and Councillor Toomey, at a meeting of the City Council, even called for the sundering of relations between the City of Cambridge and Harvard.
The student body had grown continuously over the decades and become more cosmopolitan, and in the early days of the house system a kind of true identification with the individual houses took place on the part of both faculty and students. Professors became integral members of the houses, dined there, and mixed with the students in a way that after the Second World War, with the enormous expansion of the student body, was never to be repeated in the same intimate manner. For just a few years the system came close to the ideal of an intellectual fellowship that had been Lowell’s idea in the first place.
Even Harvard professors, whose lives in the past had seemed cloistered and parochial, were beginning to break out of their mold. Numerous bright instructors in government and economics and some senior professors, together with a yearly complement of clever young law graduates serving as law clerks to such Supreme Court justices as Brandeis and Cardozo, had begun to trickle down to Washington to work for the Roosevelt New Deal—a trickle that became a veritable flood during the Second World War and one that has continued unabated ever since.
The Business School was a community unto itself, sealed away from the rest of Harvard in its neo-Georgian compound and despised by the intellectual snobs across the Charles. For them it was a “trade school.” As for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it was still impossibly remote, a cold, classical pile in the middle of a matrix of down-at-the-heels factories in the nether regions of Cambridge, where students learned to build bridges and experiment with wind tunnels, a far cry from the genteel world of the classics and the more esoteric humanistic disciplines. Academia meant Harvard, and that was that.
In my days at Radcliffe, so that there would be no unseemly cross-infection, Harvard professors still trudged across the Cambridge Common to repeat lectures delivered in the previous hour to male students in the unpolluted classrooms of Sever Hall. Many a faculty baby’s birth was financed by the extra dollars earned by its father in these biweekly treks to the hinterland. There were, to be sure, certain professors who looked with horror at the incursions of women into the sacred precincts of Harvard College, even at the safe distance of the Radcliffe Yard, and would have nothing to do with the academic arangements by which their colleagues taught the Radcliffe students. Roger Merriman, for example, the first master of Eliot House and a professor of history, would not have been caught dead teaching a Radcliffe class.
Though Radcliffe women were allowed to use Widener Library, it was considered a bit wild and dashing, not to say “provocative,” to make the trip, and they were segregated in the upper reaches of the library in a small cell into which they were permitted to retire discreetly with their books. In the handbook for my class of 1934 we were requested to wear hats at all times when we went to the Square, having made no progress on that front from the days of Mrs. Agassiz and the “Harvard Annex.” As for the parietal rules listed in the same handbook, in the atmosphere of today they read like the strictures laid upon novices in a nunnery. In fact, the concern about sexuality spelled out by implication in these blameless little red pamphlets has a piquancy when read today that I feel sure the original authors never dreamed of.
The rigmarole attached to going to a party in someone’s room in one of the houses was of unbelievable complication—head tutors had to be alerted, chaperones provided, and witching hours observed. The final conclusion after all this exhausting experience on the part of the “fast” girls in my class was that a student who had escaped the Harvard houses and had an apartment of his own was no longer a student but a man . So why bother with the rest!