On a Thursday night in 1990, a group of women crammed into Adams House’s Coolidge Room. Above the din, they argued over the project materializing before them. In the coming months, their “emotional, historic, turbulent” discussions, the women would later write, would coalesce into “an atomic bomb of self-expression.”
A few months later, the bomb, in the form of a thin magazine, fell on Harvard. It was called “The Rag.” Around campus, students could flip through the first issue to find an essay considering feminist perspectives on lesbian pornography, a poem about performing fellatio on Uncle Sam, or an argument for a more equitable housing policy. Some readers were outraged, and others were inspired.
For the next two years, The Rag continued to publish essays, photography, fiction, and poetry. At weekly meetings, the collective of women pushed their artistic and intellectual boundaries. Members, who referred to themselves as “on The Rag,” formed a tight-knit community.
By 1994, however, those women had all graduated, and the magazine disappeared. Preserved only in a few articles from The Crimson and three issues in the Schlesinger Library, The Rag otherwise slipped through Harvard’s porous memory.
Yet during the three years of its existence, The Rag played a powerful role in campus culture. The collective created a space for women to play with radical ideas and reckon with pressing issues, while the magazine added a distinct voice to the college’s fraught discourse. Despite its short life, The Rag expanded what feminism could be at Harvard.
The early ’90s was a “period of fierce political debate” on Harvard’s campus, as one article in The Crimson puts it. As students battled over problems large and small, new publications sprang up one after another.
“It was very easy to get funding for a new publication,” remembers Rebecca Hellerstein ’92, a founding member of The Rag. “You had this real sense of possibility.”
In early 1990, Sean P. McLaughlin ’91 left his position as a writer at the Salient because he believed it failed to properly represent conservative voices at Harvard; he then founded a far-right periodical he called “Peninsula.” The new journal’s controversial stances — anti-gay rights, anti-abortion, and anti-birth control — sparked campus-wide debates and outrage among liberal students.
Later that year, when Peninsula published a 56-page attack on homosexuality, the Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Students Association responded by organizing protests and rallies and creating their own publication: HQ. Other students founded the Lighthouse, a women’s magazine, and revived the leftist journal Subterranean Review. Less seriously, a group of Adams House students distributed a satirical journal called the Little Friend which aimed to print ideas so ridiculous that everyone would disagree with them.
Within this tumultuous storm, The Rag was a bolt of lightning.
Although the Lighthouse was a journal meant for women, it was not explicitly feminist. Some of its members wanted to pursue a more radical vision.
“There was a really strongly felt need for a feminist magazine,” remembers Heather Love ’91, a contributor to The Rag.
“There wasn’t a venue for the expression of the kinds of ideas many of us were having,” says Tiya A. Miles ’92, a current professor in the History Department and another contributor. Instead, a different kind of venue dominated Harvard’s landscape. “The combination of elitism and sexism that made up the final clubs … took up prime real estate on campus,” Love says.
In October 1990, Sheila C. Allen ’93 and five others split off from the Lighthouse to form The Rag.
The Rag didn’t just espouse radical ideas — it actively embodied them. In an effort to reject tradition and hierarchy in all forms, The Rag eschewed a typical top-down leadership structure and instead was organized as a collective. All decisions were to be made by consensus. “We have no editors or editing process,” a statement in the first issue reads. Rather, as Hellerstein put it at the time, the magazine would “evolve” out of a series of open workshops.
At the first meetings, “there wasn’t really someone in control,” Love remembers. “What the magazine should be... was very much up for debate.”
“We were really wrestling with new ideas… and our diverse socioeconomic standing in relation to these issues,” Miles says. The meetings “were not without tension.”
For some of those ideas, “academic context helped to plant the seeds,” as Miles puts it. The work of prominent Black feminist bell hooks, whom she first encountered in a literature course, became “a pivotal thinker for me and many in The Rag.”
But The Rag was no dull academic pursuit: “It was a huge amount of fun,” Hellerstein says. Instead of strictly adhering to any particular set of ideas, the collective felt “much more fluid, much more creative.”
“We were just brimming with ideas, emotions, energy,” Miles says. “It was the most exhilarating thing.”
The Rag also facilitated “the beginning of something like queer activism,” Love says. Indeed, Allen had previously co-chaired the BGLSA, and once described herself as “the paradigm of the Harvard lesbian.” Meetings could spark more than just feminist solidarity: as they workshopped a poem that described the curve of a lover’s neck, members might catch eyes or brush arms.
For all its theorizing, the goals of The Rag remained deeply rooted in the needs of women at Harvard. The discrimination and violence the members discussed shaped their lives at college. “I always felt that Harvard wanted me to be a boy,” Hellerstein says. “It was easier to be in classes... if I erased any gender. Any femaleness.”
That fall, students protested after administrators made comments regarding date rape that many perceived as victim blaming, especially at a time when the prevalence of sexual violence on campus could not be understated. “I had at least twenty friends with whom I talked about sexual trauma,” Rag contributor Rebecca Goldin ’93 says. “And I had exactly one friend who had not been technically raped.”
Meetings of the collective became a space where women could be honest about emotional and sexual trauma. Many members shared stories from their own lives. Sometimes “it was like a group therapy session, but there was no therapist,” Goldin recalls. “I just remember the weight of how hard it was to even have a conversation about it and how intense it was.” At each meeting, one person took on the role of “vibes watcher,” monitoring the tension of the group and intervening if necessary.
These discussions became essential to the women who participated. “What it did was validate the commonness of [sexual trauma]... People felt like ‘I can remove the sense of shame, or sadness, or confusion, and I can lay that at the feet of something that’s not my fault,’” Goldin says. “That was very powerful, not something people were taught anywhere else.”
“I remember developing a sense of feminist identity through those conversations, and of a Black feminist identity,” Miles says. During meetings, she wrote in a 1995 essay about The Rag, “I was first able to voice and begin to transform … my long-held belief that as a black woman, my hair and features were ugly.”
Through The Rag, the women felt “liberated” from the constraints they felt Harvard placed on them. “In the absence of a Women’s Center,” they wrote in the first issue, “we have created a space for ourselves in which we are comfortable speaking out.”
Eventually, the conversations became consensus, and in February 1991, The Rag published its first issue.
The women distributed the magazine to dorms across campus with a sense of triumph. “That was just the most tremendous moment,” Miles remembers. “The feeling was [that] we are going to tell all these people exactly what it is we’ve been thinking… No matter how much any of us was exposing herself, she would not be doing it alone. That was such a powerful feeling.”
Styled “a feminist journal of politics and culture,” the pages of the first issue included photography, poetry, fiction, and essays. The writing covered final clubs, eating disorders, racism in beauty standards, lesbian sexual politics, and more.
Of course, The Rag was more than just polemics. One article was simply a recipe for banana bread, except for the final line: “will there still be banana bread after the revolution?”
Indeed, The Rag did have a revolutionary impact at Harvard. In an event organized by the collective the weekend after the issue’s publication, over 50 students met to discuss the magazine, expressing “anger, relief, confusion, and frustration.”.
The Rag’s explicit accounts of sexual harassment and violence were met with especially strong responses — and, for many, a sense of recognition. Members of the collective had worried about the backlash when they chose to publish a personal story of date rape. Instead, the article inspired a flood of proposals from victims of abuse for similar pieces in the next issue.
The Rag remained a polarizing force on Harvard’s campus for the next two years. Contemporary editorials praised its contribution to a flourishing campus discourse, while more lighthearted articles poked fun at it. One particularly salacious photo published in a 1993 issue inspired a host of satirical responses.
But within the collective, divisions grew. According to Miles’s essay, a “small group” of women handled the business and logistics of the magazine, and some resented that concentration of power given the group’s commitment to collective control. Disagreements related to the magazine’s socio-economic representation further strained the organization. One woman felt she was worth less to the group because, unlike some of the women, her parents could not donate to fund the publication.
To Miles, these tensions spelled the end of the collective. “We never recovered,” she wrote. The year after her graduation, she says, “the group dissolved.”
Other Rag alumni emphasize different reasons for the group’s demise.
Hellerstein points to a problem with funding. At that time, it was much easier to start an organization at Harvard than to sustain one. “You had a ton of funding for the first year and the second year, and then it died down,” Hellerstein recalls.
More importantly, The Rag wasn’t actively recruiting new writers. At the end of the 1993 school year, all remaining members of the collective, including Allen and Rebecca Goldin, graduated. The next semester, an op-ed lamented how students had let “the infamous Rag lapse into oblivion.”
However, the founders didn’t grieve the magazine’s end. “We didn’t have a next generation of women [in the collective],” Hellerstein says. “It felt like it was a natural end.”
Although many outsiders saw the group as “extreme” for what it published, the women of The Rag mostly remember it for the community. To Goldin, the collective was “a bunch of young women feeling like they could finally talk about what had happened to them.”
“It was a kind of home for a lot of folks,” Hellerstein says.
“When I think back over my life and consider which experiences have been the most important to me, The Rag is the first thing that comes to mind,” Miles says.
Even today, such an organization could be seen as radical. Its anti-hierarchical structure required difficult discussions and consensus for every decision. In its pages, The Rag unabashedly interrogated taboos, explored pressing issues, and defended unpopular views. As Harvard students continue to confront many of the same problems they did 30 years ago, The Rag illustrates the possibilities for feminism on campus.
“There’s always a pressing need for a feminist movement,” says Love. “The Rag would be completely salient for me if it started right now.”
At the first meeting, when someone suggested The Rag as a title, Miles was initially aghast: “That’s direct, and bold, and maybe a little bit rude,” she recalls thinking.
But her opinion shifted after the discussion. “That’s what people thought we should go with, and I grabbed onto the coattails of their bravery in that moment,” she says. “That speaks to my experience on The Rag: being able to gather courage from the voices and words of other women.”
— Magazine writer Hewson Duffy can be reached at email@example.com.