A few days into my first semester, I found myself herded into a group of prospective students, wide-eyed tourists, and other bored undergraduates wandering about Harvard Yard. One heel back, then the next: The tour guide had absolutely nailed the infamous backwards stride. Suddenly, we were stopped at a set of foreboding steps and met with an anecdote about valuable books, an unsinkable ship, and a rich mom who survived and honored a son lost at sea.
The story of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library is undoubtedly an interesting one. The library itself? Beautiful, although intimidating at first. The reading rooms are eerily quiet, and during my earliest study sessions at Widener, the thought of dropping so much as a pencil — let alone a Hydro Flask — was horrifying. Once I got over that mildly irrational fear, the long stretch of shelves and tables that is the Loker Reading Room became one of my favorite spots.
Recently, as I’ve found my gaze drifting from dense readings to the stunning craftsmanship on the ceilings and along the walls, I’ve begun to consider something else: What did this space look like 60 or 70 years ago? Surely not like it does today — well, not exactly.
This library may have been built by a woman, but it certainly wasn’t built for women.
As the classic tour tale goes, when book collector and Harvard alum Harry Elkins Widener ’1907 died on the Titanic, his mother Eleanor Elkins Widener — who escaped the tragedy on a lifeboat – sought to build a library in his memory. In 1915, after three years of planning and construction, the library opened to the Harvard student body.
Though female students from Radcliffe College — the all-female counterpart to an all-male Harvard — were occasionally permitted to use Widener, they were only allowed in a “small cell” in the upper level of the building.
In June of 1946, women at Radcliffe who were enrolled in summer classes were awarded full library privileges akin to those held by Harvard men, but only for that term. It was also around this time that Harvard’s classes officially became co-ed, although the mix of students did not extend far beyond the classroom.
When Lamont Library was founded in 1949, Radcliffe women were fully excluded from the premises, a move which was later justified as a measure to prevent “undermin[ing] ‘male emotional stability.’” It was at this point that female undergraduate students were officially allowed to use the main reading room in Widener, but they could not sit down and had to exit the building by six o’clock. There were also specifications about where women could walk so that they would not distract the studious men.
The precise timeline of the full integration of women into the male-dominated Harvard way of life is slightly ambiguous, but by the late 1970s, with the “non-merger merger” of Radcliffe and Harvard, women were allowed to use most of the formerly male-only facilities. More than 20 years later, in 1999, the two institutions officially merged.
This university has a deep and complicated history with women, and this brief transcription hardly scratches the surface. However, one thing is clear: Women have only been widely considered more than maids and distractions for less than a quarter of Harvard’s nearly four centuries of existence.
For most of Widener’s history, the trek up the marble steps was not daunting for undergraduate women because they were afraid of dropping pencils inside the reading room. The stairs were unwelcoming in the truest sense of the word.
Today, although I am able to fully take advantage of the library, I am also forced to confront the truth that this space wasn't meant for me. Harvard was not founded with the intention to educate women — especially not women of color, trans women, queer women, disabled women, or poor women. Even Radcliffe and the other Seven Sister colleges initially catered towards primarily wealthy and elite white women.
Sexism is still ever-present in academia, and anyone who is not a cisgender white man is subject to systematic discrimation in some form: lower pay, lack of representation in higher positions, much higher rates of sexual assault, and minimal recognition for their work. Institutions like Harvard continue to perpetuate harmful and exclusionary environments by protecting men who take advantage of power dynamics until student outrage forces them to act.
Nonetheless, through the efforts of women like Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, who founded what is now known as Radcliffe College; Florynce R. Kennedy, who organized a “pee-in” to protest the lack of women’s bathrooms at Harvard; and The Radcliffe Union of Students, who pushed for the development of both a Women’s Center and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department, there has been significant advancement in gender equality on campus.
Today, Harvard is marked by a diverse student body, flourishing gender-inclusive organizations, an increased amount of tenured female faculty, and constant engagement in important conversations. Progress still needs to be made, but as I stare at the intricate molding that lines Widener Library, I find comfort in knowing that the white men for whom it was built would be very angry that I sit here regularly and continue to make noise — metaphorically, of course, as long as I’m in the reading room.
Sidnee N. Klein ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Pennypacker Hall.
This piece is a part of a focus on Women’s History Month.