Long before Harvard students occupied the Yard to end income inequality, Harvard women used the tactic of occupation toward their own vision of equal opportunity.
On March 6, 1971, about 150 women occupied 888 Memorial Drive, a Graduate School of Design building that was mostly abandoned and about to be destroyed.
The occupation began at the end of a march for International Women’s Day. As the peaceful procession winded back to Harvard Square, as had been planned, the marchers split off and entered 888 Memorial Drive. They stayed there for 10 days.
The group, self-defined as “feminist, anti-imperialist, socialist,” declared that they would not leave until they were satisfied with the University’s response. Their demands: low-income housing on the site, funds for a women’s center, and use of the building until it was to be torn down. While the women occupied, they produced flyers and press statements about the need for a women’s center in the area. They worked with community activists from Riverside, who were protesting Harvard’s expansion into the neighborhood. They also began their own makeshift center—holding auto mechanics and karate classes, cooking food for each other, and providing childcare.
More impressively, by the time they left the building on a judge’s orders, the occupiers had raised several thousand dollars toward their goal. A few months later, they were able to buy what would become the Cambridge Women’s Center. The Cambridge Women’s Center started Boston’s Rape Crisis Center, the first shelter for battered women in Cambridge, and held pregnancy counseling and a number of teaching and self-defense programs. At 41 years old this year, it is the oldest still-operating women’s center in the country.
In “Left on Pearl,” a lively and moving documentary by Susan Rivo (as of publication in its final editing stages), the occupation comes across as a moment of almost continual exhilaration. The women faced some opposition: a health inspector called their occupation “unsanitary.” Frank W. Tomasello, a Superior Court judge, told the Crimson, “I demand that the police get the bums out of there—As far as Women’s Liberation goes, let my wife come and shovel out my driveway as well as I do—that’s when there will be Women’s Liberation.” The Harvard Republican Club even came to protest the occupation, and a particularly funny scene in the film depicts members parading around the building with signs as women yell from the second floor, “Any women down there?...You all look silly!” But on top of the women’s considerable persistence, what’s so striking about the footage is how elated everyone was—dancing, singing, yelling and smiling. “It was probably the freest moment of my life,” one woman said in the film. Their happiness was not just excitement at a small act of transgression—it was the euphoria that comes from taking one’s own ideals seriously.
1971 was the height of women’s liberation. Even at Harvard, conversations about the role of men and women were everywhere. Reading through old archives of the Crimson, where much of this history is located, I couldn’t help but envy students of that age for being so continuously engaged in feminist activity. A few months earlier, radical separatist Ti-Grace Atkinson gave a talk to a packed law school auditorium where she yelled at her audience, “Are you going to move, are you willing to kill if you have to-at least be willing to blow up some property for Christ’s sake,” insulted other feminists (“There’s a lot in me that’s dead now that only women could have killed,”) then slipped out during the discussion that followed.
Many of the conversations on campus were less aggressive, but they retained that same energy. This was a feminism that was not afraid to offend if it meant getting women to discover their own ideals and attain them.
The issues raised by this occupation—like the difficulty of finding child care in Boston, the lack of health and self-defense resources for women, the scarcity of low-income housing—have not gone away since those women took over a Harvard building over forty years ago. Childcare is still exorbitantly expensive in Boston. Sexual assault is pervasive and its prosecution difficult. So as we appreciate the occupation of 888 Memorial Drive as an inspiring anecdote of the ’70s (as we should—the history of women’s liberation is still shamefully under-recognized), it is also time to bring this energy back to the discussions and actions that we have. What’s at stake is well worth the effort: these are issues that govern the shape of individual lives. It’s worth making a fuss—our happiness depends on it.
Madeleine M. Schwartz ’12 is a history and classics concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.