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My Radcliffe

July 2024
12min read

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

My mother was a member of the class of 1899 at Radcliffe College, having come east from St. Paul, Minnesota—a sort of reverse pioneer. She was one of the two or three students from west of the Berkshires and was considered rather exotic by her classmates because of her Midwestern background, which she loved to describe in exaggerated detail, implying that a fresh Indian scalp was hung over the fireplace every week or so. Her years at Radcliffe were, it seems, passed in a state of continual euphoria. Her enthusiasm and energy appeared to be overwhelming, for she held every office in her class, acted the ingenue in the Idler plays, played basketball in serge bloomers, and went with her classmates on picnics and canoe trips on the Charles River. She threw herself into her courses with the same zest, taking a wide sampling of everything that suited her inquisitive and darting intelligence. She “chose the man and not the subject” and in that way became “remarkably inspired.”

In its early days Radcliffe must have been something like a superior female boarding school, full of highly motivated young women eager for knowledge. They lived in carefully chaperoned boardinghouses and were not allowed to go to Harvard Square without hat and gloves. The camaraderie and loyalty of my mother’s classmates were intense. Even in very old age they would come together for class reunions, leaning on their canes and often still wearing the hats, left over, it would seem, from those lighthearted, undergraduate days.

Upon her graduation my mother returned to St. Paul to teach (teaching being one of the few respectable professions open to educated women in those days). But her high spirits were in no way dimmed by such a fate, for she apparently caused a furor by applying for membership in the Harvard Club of Minnesota, one of the first Radcliffe women to storm the sacred precincts. “I thought I might as well make a test of myself for membership, and the poor things have called a special meeting at the Club to consider the question.” She must have presented too much of a hazard to the gentlemen—there is no mention of her being admitted.

However, her sojourn in Minnesota did not last long. She married my father, who was a young professor of physiology at the Harvard Medical School and a fellow Minnesotan, and came east to spend the rest of her life as an academic wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

We children, four girls and a boy, were therefore brought up as academic children in a Cambridge that in those days was a sharply divided city, its neighborhoods isolated from each other by tradition, by economic considerations, and by ethnic factors; and no group was more isolated than the academic community. On the one hand, the college, although always the pride of Old Cambridge, was an institution apart to the family-oriented society of Brattle Street, which kept its distance in the presence of “scholarship” and “learning.” These endowments were respected as admirable social benefits, but they seem to have produced in old Cantabrigians certain feelings of uneasiness and insecurity. After all, a community of intellectuals, especially one increasingly peopled with “men from away” whose names were not familiar , did not make for social ease. On the other hand, the rest of Cambridge—occupied, to be sure, by the largest segment of the population—was a trackless wilderness to both Old Cambridge and the academic community.

So we children fell between two stools. We were unplaceable. Recently I was discussing with a friend of mine, the son of a distinguished professor of mathematics who was a member of an old Boston family, the peculiar isolation we felt as we grew up. I recall saying to him: “You mustn’t have had the sense of not belonging that we did as children. After all, your family has been around for generations.” “Not at all,” he answered. “My father felt isolated from the Harvard community because he was a Bostonian, and was in turn treated by his Boston friends as a ‘queer duck’ because he was a Harvard professor.” There was still a sense in which these families, in some ways the most parochial in the country, considered professors to be hirelings who taught their young princelings but were considered otherwise rather like exotic zoo animals.

We were academic children with a vengeance. Our house was completely surrounded by Harvard buildings—on one side the old Harvard University Press, on the other the Semitic Museum, across the street the Germanic Museum and the chemistry laboratories, and up Divinity Avenue, the Zoological Museums. Moreover, we were part of a small contingent of academic offspring who went to public school, most of our contemporaries having been hustled off to the “safety” of private day or boarding schools. A large number of Catholic children passed their whole educational life in parochial schools, so that the sharp divisions within the city were further accentuated by the absolute alienation that existed between the various educational institutions. Harvard, above all, was “over there,” aloof, remote, tacit in its sense of superiority, almost a rebuke to the rest of Cambridge.

The college course at the Cambridge High and Latin School was full of bright, aspiring students determined to make their way in the world, and academic child or not, one had to fight tenaciously to keep in the contest. It was a real rest to get to college, where the pace seemed relaxed after the demands laid on us by some of our hard-driving teach- ers and fellow schoolmates.


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!


Radcliffe in the thirties was thought of as something of a poor relation by the other women’s colleges. The chic girls went to Vassar, the intellectuals to Bryn Mawr, and the comfortably placed bourgeois types to Wellesley and Smith. At least that was the way it seemed to us. We may have been Cinderellas but we knew something our haughty stepsisters did not. We were getting the best education in the country, and besides, we weren’t banished to the sticks to rusticate. Weekends at Yale and Princeton may have been the answer to a maiden’s prayer at Vassar, but we did not have to wait for ceremonial weekends for our entertainment: there were those among the Harvard population who recognized our merits. It took more than a decade and the Second World War for these facts to sink in.

Radcliffe was still in part a commuter college when I was there; perhaps half my class came by streetcar or subway from Boston, the Newtons, Dorchester, or Cambridge. The rest lived in dormitories presided over by house mistresses and were waited on at table by maids in white aprons and caps.

This was still the time of the gentleman’s C at Harvard among certain of the prep school graduates and the “clubbies,” who treated “greasy grinds” who got A’s with contempt and looked upon Radcliffe women as “bluestockings” to be avoided at all costs. Some of us, too, were rather hierarchical and snobbish in our judgment of our classmates. Concentrators in the sciences were thought to be rather “wet,” and taking a laboratory course was something to be avoided, for it meant long hours of work in the late afternoon and a freezing walk back home or to one’s dormitory in the winter’s twilight. In our carefree approach to the whole subject of education, convenience rather than intellectual stimulus seemed to have been the basis for a good many course choices. Nine o’clocks were taboo, eleven o’clocks desirable.

The aesthetes frequented the Fogg Museum, where Paul Sachs produced platoons of future museum directors in his museum course, and the intellectual elite concentrated in history and literature, where a remarkable group of tutors like Perry Miller, F. O. Matthiessen, and Kenneth Murdoch created an atmosphere of excitement for whole generations of students. The emphasis in literature seemed to have been on English authors. If one read Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies , or dipped into Zuleika Dobson , it was a true sign of sophistication. French literature was pretty much uncharted territory, except in my case, for I received a copy of Les Fleurs du Mal with a “sensitive” inscription on the flyleaf from some moony boyfriend. The unexplored terrain of the Russian novel was as immense as the steppes themselves.

Sociology was an academic stepchild and psychology a minor pseudoscientif ic discipline not much discussed in those days. It was history that held a paramount place in the curriculum. Those of us who took Sydney Fay’s course in modern European history emerged imbued with the idea that the Germans were not solely responsible for the First World War, a revolutionary thought that we digested with a certain amount of skepticism. Our bible was the Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, which we read with a sense of the author’s courage and valor that we all longed to emulate. It fitted in well with our firm conviction that there must never be another world war and that, of course, there never would be. The world simply could not afford it. So deeply was this concept instilled in us that in spite of Hitler’s rise, the Japanese invasion of China, the Spanish Civil War, and all the other signs of international anarchy, when the Second World War finally broke out, it seemed absolutely inconceivable.

In comparing the academic interests of her college years with those of her daughters, my mother said: “We were avid for science—the theory of evolution, the decline of outdated theology. Now girls are interested in world affairs, international relations. The world does move!”

Harvard Square in the thirties compared with its present incarnation resembled a country crossroad. The streetcars still clanged along Massachusetts Avenue, and the newsboys under the shelter of the kiosk leading into the subway sang out the list of newspapers, the Boston Herald , the Boston Globe , the Evening American , the Evening Transcript , and the Boston AD-VA-TISA , like an incantation. On the first warm days of spring there would be the usual ”.spring riots” on the part of high-spirited undergraduates, who threw rolls of toilet paper out the windows of their ancient dormitories in the Yard, or snake-danced through the Square—mild stuff by modern standards but considered pretty far out for the times. The Cambridge police looked on with a certain amount of benevolence and left the nabbing to the college “cops.” And late in the spring, during the “reading period,” the Harvard Glee Club used to give concerts in the early evening on the steps of Widener while couples sat on the grass and held hands.

A for parietal rules in my Radcliffe handbook, today they read like strictures laid upon novices in a nunnery. In fact, such concern about sexuality has a piquancy now that I’m sure the original authors of the pamphlet never dreamed of.

Going into Boston was a big adventure. But when ennui overcame us and the double features at the “Unie” palled (even though a heavy date might pay the extra fee and take you to sit in the over-stuffed seats in the balcony), we would get on the “Mass-Ave” streetcar and go into town to the Fine Arts Theater around the corner from the old Loew’s State Theater. There we would sit entranced by René Glair’s Sous Les Toits de Paris and Le Million or Congress Dances , a charming old chestnut about the Congress of Vienna, replete with waltzes and romantic intrigue, which for some reason or other we used to pride ourselves on having seen at least a dozen times. For years the Fine Arts was the only theater showing foreign films in Boston.

The favorite hangouts of the students population ranged from the all-night eateries like the Waldorf Cafeteria on Massachusetts Avenue to Gusties in Brattle Square, where one could get a square meal for thirty-five cents and be waited on by a busty proprietress who was apt to dictate what one ate. Up the street, at the Brattle Inn, presided over by two maiden sisters, bright law students such as Jim Rowe and Ed Rhetts (who went on to distinguished careers in the Roosevelt administration) and David Riesman, winding up their third year at the Harvard Law School under the tutelage of Felix Frankfurter, would argue cases over lunch in the ladylike atmosphere of the inn’s dining room. David Riesman, whom I remember as the intellectual pet and buzzing gadfly of his more worldly classmates, would have a hundred ideas in one lunchtime, a good many falling flat but a few brilliant and penetrating.

My mother was forever pressing me to have “some of your nice classmates” around so that “we can have a good talk,” a prospect that always seemed to me a bit embarrassing, and, even worse, boring. However, I would from time to time gather some of them together for dinner, where she would challenge them with such topics as “Has Moral Indignation Gone Out?” and serious conversation would ensue, with apparent total participation by those present. The atmosphere was always informal, and any fool remark was accepted with respect.

My mother encouraged the students to talk about what they looked forward to as careers, pointing out that they must remember that the breadth of possibilities for them was the product of pioneer women like Lucy Stone and the heroic suffragettes and that they must not be ungrateful. She was doing her best to break them out of their habitual patterns of thinking and apparently succeeded to an extent, for I was startled years later by some of my classmates who remembered those evenings given over to “great thoughts” as being some of the most stimulating and vivid memories of their college years.

In spite of my mother’s noble sentiments and possible influence, only a handful went on to graduate school, and most of my classmates got married upon graduation, usually to worthy graduate students whom they would dutifully put through law or medical school by working as researchers or secretaries. The height of their career aspirations, if they had any, was to be a researcher for Time . A job at Macy’s was considered rather glamorous too and also gave one a chance to live in New York, an experience considered de rigeur among certain of my classmates. It all seems a millennium ago, and the Radcliffe of my day was in many ways a quaint and dated institution. But I still look back on those years with nostalgia and a certain amount of pride. We knew a good thing when we saw it and seized the moment.

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