Making Spaces

There are very few women found amongst the ghosts of Tercentenary Theatre. In her introduction to the anthology “Yards and ...

There are very few women found amongst the ghosts of Tercentenary Theatre. In her introduction to the anthology  “Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History,” 300th Anniversary University Professor of History Laurel Thatcher Ulrich writes, any Radcliffe student attending service at Memorial Church had to sit behind a screen because she was considered “a temptation,” until the rule was changed in 1955.

From that decade on, the presence of women grew stronger, steadily filling in this historic void. In 1970, graduating Radcliffe seniors were allowed, for the first time, to march in the commencement ceremony that famously ends at the foot of the church. A year later, 1971 marked the earliest instance in which a woman was allowed to preach from the Memorial Church pulpit.

Other parts of the College’s geography underwent a similar transition. The libraries of Harvard Yard remained exclusively male until the mid-20th-century. When Lamont was founded in 1949, Widener, open since 1915, extended access to Radcliffe students. Ulrich explains that for women, “There were certain rules about where they could walk in Widener, because the idea was they would distract the males.” Lamont remained accessible only to men until 1967.

Interestingly enough, males were always allowed in the Radcliffe College Library, where, 1956 Radcliffe alum Paula J. Omansky observes, they did not come to only look at books. When Hilles opened in 1966 as the new Radcliffe library, it was open to both Radcliffe and Harvard students. The old Radcliffe College Library is now the Schlesinger Library, which features women’s rights collections, among other items.

Accompanying these changes was a shift in the primary landscape through which women engaged with their education on campus. Before World War Two, Radcliffe Yard was central to an undergraduate woman’s experience at the university as the location of all classes and activities. Thereafter, the changes began. Says Ulrich, “In the 1940’s, during the war, when there were so many men away, they started co-ed classes for the first time.” She notes however, “It was a very long process of integrating.”

By the time Omansky began her freshman year at Radcliffe in 1952 the gender divide had faded. “The education was identical, we went to Harvard classes,” she says. Even student organizations she was a part of, like the Democratic Club, were co-ed. Gym classes, dining halls and housing were the significant exceptions, with gym classes held at separate facilities for men and women.

Freshman Dean Thomas A. Dingman ’67 recalls that Radcliffe women were not allowed to eat in House dining halls on the River. “There was a separate world up there, and then you came here for your education,” says Ulrich. Women could only fully occupy the space in the Quad, but even there, the dynamics were different.

Men were housed in suites on the River, which had common rooms and bedrooms. Radcliffe housing consisted of singles, in the Quad, with smoking lounges, or “smokers,” on each floor. Even in the mid-20th-century, men’s control over their own social space started close to home as an extension of their dorm rooms.

For most of Harvard’s history, the Yard was a restricted space for Radcliffe women, and even life in the Quad was subject to administrative rules. Omansky relates how Radcliffe women were under the jurisdiction of parietal hours and had to sign in and out. They were required to be in their dorm by 10 p.m. on weeknights and 1 a.m. on Saturdays. There were also restrictions about how late a Radcliffe student could remain visiting someone at Harvard.

Dingman explains, “If they were visiting, you had to sign them in, and they were allowed to be here between 4 [p.m.]and 7 [p.m.].” Omansky notes however, “A lot of stuff went on notwithstanding these parietal rules, I assure you.”

Despite the integration of freshman dorms in 1972, the actual point at which women became part of the main campus is an ambiguous one. “There’s no possible way of fixing a date when women entered Harvard because it happened so gradually,” Ulrich says. She emphasizes that even after this integration, “Women still got their diplomas counter-signed by Radcliffe.” This didn’t change until 1999.

While Radcliffe was not formally transformed from a college into an Institute for Advanced Study until that same year, it began as the Harvard Annex, an add-on to the main institution, created with the intention of ultimately incorporating women into the Harvard community, says Marilyn Dunn, Executive Director of the Schlesinger Library. In the past, “Radcliffe had been this kind of stepchild,” says Ulrich.

Today, a remaining legacy of the once all-male Harvard College is still seen in the freshman dorms, where male students often occupy the first floors.

William Cooper ’94, Resident Dean of Freshman, writes in an email to The Crimson, “It’s generally true that vertical entries have men on the first floor while horizontal entries are a mix, but there’s a lot of variety in the Yard due to the architecture of each building. Also, since the gender balance of each class varies from year to year we make annual adjustments to the rooms.” Dingman comments that the first floor of Thayer Dorm remained all-male until about five years ago.

From living spaces to social ones, the search for a place at Harvard has been two-fold. Before the full integration of the two colleges, women had limited areas where they could wait around in the Yard between classes. Susan B. Marine, Assistant Dean for Student Life and Director of the Women’s Center, describes the Radcliffe students of the 50s and 60s as restricted: “They could really only go to the Memorial Church basement because that’s where the bathrooms were, and it was also like a lounge. They had couches and stuff down there, and that’s where the Radcliffe women hung out.”


Because of these boundaries, the creation of a space for women on campus was essential. In reference to the 1990s, Ulrich says, “One of the big issues was, ‘We need a women’s center.’ And the administration said, ‘It’s illegal, because we have to be equal, and if we have a women’s center then we’ll be discriminating’ …. It was an ongoing, ongoing argument.”

Finding this type of space has required persistence. Over the years, there have been many attempts to establish a permanent women’s center. Before the 1990s there were precursors to what is now the Harvard College Women’s Center. The first space, then called The Women’s Center, was started at Radcliffe College in 1974.

Initially located in the Phillips Brooks House, it moved to Lehman Hall, then to Apley Court, then to Agassiz House, and finally to Canaday Hall. The Harvard College Women’s Center (HCWC), as it is known today, now has a place in the Yard.

Opened in September 2006, the HCWC aims to create a place for women to feel safe and comfortable. People come here to share their opinions, socialize, or seek guidance. Despite its name, the center has never been solely for women, and all genders visit it. Currently, three of the 12 student interns at the center are male.

The location of the HCWC—in the basement of Canaday Hall—may make it seem like an afterthought, placed in a building that happened to have space. However, being in the Yard gives the center its accessibility and convenience, and situates it in a once all-male domain.

Says Marine, “We’ve never seriously talked about space expansion because at this current moment, it would mean leaving the Yard, and I think we feel it is both symbolically and historically important to be here.”


Despite the historical inequalities regarding space for women at Harvard, organizations geared toward women and women’s issues have attained prominent positions at the College. Their existence highlights the presence of female leadership and equality on campus.

Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business is one of the premier business organizations on campus, with somewhere between 300 and 400 members, WIB (as it is more commonly known) has grown since 10 undergraduates established it back in 2000.

Through a series of workshops, speakers, and an annual conference held in October, WIB seeks to provide women with pre-professional resources and advice, focusing on marketing, general business skills, balancing work and life, and other skills essential to success.

However, these skills only provide a basic foundation for success in business.  Another major component is developing relationships with industry professionals. Approaching others in the field can be tricky when a bias exists. “There are already a lot of men in these high power positions and they are more likely to bring other men up … networking sort of happens on the basketball courts, at sporting games, in these arenas that women may not be invited to or feel comfortable going,” says Elizabeth C. Ahern ’12, WIB Co-President.

WIB recognizes the need to foster connections and create a community of women students and leaders that pulls from the strengths of its members. Thus, a strong component of their mission is crafting a network for Harvard women to connect with others with similar interests and with alumnae.

Despite its name and women-oriented workshops, WIB also attracts male participants. Over the years, a number of males have completed the comp process and attended the organization’s conference. Ahern explains, “I think we are viewed as almost not gendered, even though we are … I think we are very much viewed as a premier business organization rather than a premier women’s organization.”

The Women’s Leadership Conference, under the Women’s Leadership Project, illustrates the role women on campus have today. This five-day conference takes place right before the start of the fall semester and provides participants with guidance and career advice. Every year, it has about 30 to 40 attendees, including males. Because of its intimate size, WLC aims to create a community among its participants, professors, speakers and leaders at the conference.

WLC is an opportunity for professional development in areas such as resume writing. The conference also teaches participants how to manage finances, gives advice on pursuing graduate school, and offers other career and speaker workshops.

“So it’s a whole thing about figuring out where you are now, where you are going and how you’re going to get there and a big part of that is seeing different women role models through the speakers,” says co-chair Rachel M. Neiger ’12.

The HCWC also recognizes the importance of guidance, connections and role modeling. Some of the programs at the center today are legacies of Radcliffe College. “There was a [mentoring] program that connected Radcliffe alums with young women, and I think that’s still going,” says Dunn.

Of course, such mentorship is not only helpful to women, comments Marine, “Everyone needs mentors and role models. Everyone of every gender.”


The WISTEM Mentor Program (Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) connects undergraduates interested in science and math with graduate students. This creates a network of guidance and advice, which has great value for women in fields that are male-dominated. Marine discussed how the number of College women interested in these fields decreases substantially from freshman to senior year. “The only thing you can try to do then structurally is make it possible for women to feel supported, to be connected to mentors, to feel like they have relatable people in the field. That that’s what keeps them there, that’s what all the research says,” she notes. Women who are happy, who feel valuable and equal in their field, tend to remain, Marine explains, while those that do not feel valued often become discouraged and leave.

Bonnie Cao ’12, vice-president of the Undergraduate Council (UC), is a product of an encouraging role model. Her first experience with the UC was through a woman, former president Andrea R. Flores ’09. Turned away by the aggressive nature of door-knocking to earn votes and become a Freshman Representative, Cao, with encouragement from Flores, joined the UC her sophomore year.

“Through those personal connections, that’s how you encourage other females on campus to run for more leadership positions,” says Cao.

The UC, an organization that represents the entire student body, lacks female representation on its board. Of the twelve Freshman Representatives for the class of 2014, only one is female. Yet even though this gender divide is apparent, it is not necessarily an obstacle for women. “I never really felt it, there aren’t that many women on the UC but it’s definitely something you can see when you’re looking at the general meetings,” says Cao.

“Women aren’t really afraid of running, it’s not the handshaking that women are afraid of, it’s the perception that what they do or why they’re there isn’t going to make a difference,” adds Marine, explaining what she calls “a vicious cycle.”

In cases like Cao’s, mentorship offers a powerful source of support in an array of areas, but is it possible to provide it in every field—academic, extracurricular and social? While numerous organizations on campus work to create a community for women and provide them with skills necessary to succeed, not all women feel comfortable here. Gender divides, while more rare than a few decades back, continue to exist. In addition to the UC, Marine mentioned a recent conversation she had with a student who felt unwelcome being the only woman at a pre-professional club meeting for a science field.

“I also hear from students that they don’t feel necessarily welcome or fully like they can take on leadership roles in their student organizations ... I hear it from students who are trying to break through what they perceive as a bit of a glass ceiling around some of the other organizations on campus,” says Marine.

And yet there have been some significant breakthroughs. Women occupy some of the most powerful leadership roles on campus, such as P. Kenzie Bok ’11 former Student President of the IOP, Stephanie N. Oviedo ’12 Director-General of Harvard Model United Nations, Ekene I. Obi-Okoye ’12 President of PBHA.

The HCWC provides support to women’s student organizations, and Marine states that this is probably one of their most important tasks. It gives grants to groups, and supports projects and events that encourage women’s visibility on campus as well as women’s leadership. Staff at the HCWC also advise many women’s groups, one of which is The Women’s Cabinet, a coalition of members of all women’s groups on campus. It aims to connect them to resources and to each other. Marine calls the HCWC, the “scaffolding under these groups.”


Cao insists, “I feel like there’s a lot of women in a lot of leadership positions on campus. I think the main thing is more institutional or structural. The social scene is very male dominated.”

Dingman, who arrived on campus in the fall of ’63, echoes this sentiment, “Now, of course, the men and women have equal opportunities. I think the realm in which there is a difference is the social one.”

He continues, “There are some women’s organizations that have ended up with their own space, social organizations. That brings some parity, but I think that’s more the exception. [It is the legacy of male clubs] that leads to a skewed social landscape, and that’s concerning.”

In theory, final clubs are separate from the University. In reality, male and female final club presidents are strongly  encouraged to meet with the dean and assistant dean of student life after every election cycle.

“I meet with them every year, twice a year, and sit down and we go over the policies for the College together, and we talk about different ways that they can avail themselves of resources on campus to educate their members,” says Marine, “particularly about some of the things that would create risk for them, like alcohol use and abuse, violence, sexual and other kinds of violence.”

Presidents sign an agreement that indicates they have read and understood Harvard policies regarding hazing and social host responsibility. “It tends to be pretty conversational, we invite their grad board advisors to come,” Marine says.

Harvard has a social scene dominated by groups that are officially unaffiliated with the University, because it only recognizes student organizations that are open to both men and women. In 1984 final clubs were given the opportunity to go co-ed or break with the University, and chose to sever ties. Sororities and fraternities are single-sex according to national jurisdiction, and thus can never become co-ed.

Given this policy, names like the Black Men’s Forum, or Latinas Unidas may be misleading. According to Marine, any Harvard student group must admit both men and women. It is true, however, that single-sex a cappella groups usually find ways around this policy. Female choirs composed of sopranos and altos, are still able to turn away a male whose voice does not blend with the others, although male students must be allowed to try out. The same goes for male choirs made up of tenor and bass voices.

For some, the recognition of single-sex student organizations would simply bring parity. Junior Anastasia N. Roda ’12 says, “Because Harvard doesn’t give the standing to new organizations that those organizations need to gain footing in the social scene, they can’t really compete. Because of Harvard’s history with all male social organizations ... those organizations have the footing and therefore are the social life. Preventing single-sex organizations now actually makes the system discriminatory because it limits social options to social options that a lot of people are very uncomfortable with.”


There are currently three sorority chapters on campus, Delta Gamma, Kappa Alpha Theta, and Kappa Kappa Gamma. Women final clubs include the Bee, the Isis, the Sabliere, La Vie, and the Pleiades. The Seneca is another prominent women’s organization. All are banned from tabling at the Student Activities Fair, and, like their male counterparts, they are not allowed to use Harvard space for any official events.

In response, these female social groups have simply been leaving the University behind. Cao, also a member of DG, says, “I think a lot of the women’s clubs, lately especially, have been doing really great about socializing with each other, as opposed to just women’s clubs having mixers with male clubs. The Seneca has been leading up a lot of these initiatives.” The Seneca recently hosted a Social Spaces Discussion and will soon host a women’s club mixer at a local restaurant.

Some women, like Cao support University recognition of sororities. Official recognition would allow sororities to publicize at the student activities fair, legitimizing female organizations on a male-socially dominated campus. And yet, under their national chapter jurisdiction, even if Harvard recognized sororities, they would still not be able throw parties, and so others question how much recognition of Greek Life could really change women’s social spaces here.

Like sororities and fraternities, final clubs cannot publicize at the student activities fair, and yet they still appear to retain a huge amount of control over the social scene. Much of the status of male clubs is based on their long history. But even female final clubs, new by Harvard’s history, have been slowly establishing a presence over the social life in the Square.

Acquiring property in the Square is symbolically important for women’s social organizations. Many female social clubs rent spaces, and the Bee throws parties in their house, but most social mixers are hosted in spaces owned by male clubs.

Leah Reis-Dennis ’13 asserts, “There’s also something to be said for the really unequal power dynamic, because men are controlling the spaces, men are controlling what girls are getting in, what kind of drinks people are getting, and I think that’s a big problem.” She adds, “Especially in Cambridge, where space is so expensive, space is beyond just the physical mass, space in Cambridge represents a lot of money, which is really powerful.”

Whether the rules about where women can go in male final clubs stem from exclusivity, some clubs only allow women to use the basement as a social space, or from protecting a place they don’t want trashed, she insists that male clubs use space in a powerful way. “The basement is symbolic of inferiority, or secrecy, repression, darkness, all these things. Women shouldn’t be contained to that.” The way out lies in redefining these boundaries.