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Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History, edited by Laurel Ulrich.

April 6, 2014

Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History, edited by Laurel Ulrich.  Palgrave Macmillan (2004), 352 pages.

 An anthology of articles and documents exploring the treatment of women and gender as these institutions have changed over time.

 In her introduction to this volume, Laurel Ulrich notes that women have always been at Harvard, often only as the servants, cooks, and significant donors.  But women have been excluded from Harvard’s history because they have been assumed to be too inconsequential to merit notice.  The book she has edited here is part of a larger attempt to correct this situation.  It contains such documents as formal historical research accounts, items found in archives, and memoirs written by women who attended these universities.  Some brief articles are by undergraduate students; others are by librarians, administrators, alums, and scholars.  They all add a new dimension to the complicated story of how women sought to become students at Harvard and how leaders at Harvard sought to exclude them.

 Articles in the anthology describe women’s peripheral connections to Harvard in the colonial and revolutionary periods.  By the early nineteenth century, wives of Harvard men were sometimes able to access the resources of the college, especially in the sciences.  A few were able to pursue research under specific professors.  As more women sought to study at Harvard and receive its degrees, debates over college education for women repeatedly took place.  Women’s organizations worked towards their admission and a series of compromises were tried.  Opposition to women studying at Harvard was strong, even as women’s colleges and coed universities flourished.  Charles Elliott, responsible for many reforms at Harvard, was particularly vocal in arguing for their exclusion.  Halfway measures, such as creation of the Harvard Annex and Radcliffe, were intended to placate women, not to be steps toward their inclusion.  Additionally, as the nineteenth century ended, educating men for the rugged style of manliness advocated by Teddy Roosevelt grew in importance.

 When Radcliffe was established as an administrative entity in 1894, it had no faculty of its own.   Initially, Harvard faculty delivered the same lectures to Radcliffe women that they gave to Harvard men, a compromise that left no one satisfied.   None-the-less, the young women at Radcliffe soon developed their own traditions separate from those of Harvard.   In the early twentieth century sports and theater give women the chance to act out roles usually held by men and fostered a culture of cross-dressing which the administration sought unsuccessfully to curb.    But women continued to push for more meaningful inclusion into Harvard well into the post-World-War-II era.  Articles by Radcliffe alums reveal how the inequality with Harvard men plagued them.  Even as other all-male institutions admitted women, Harvard administrators fought inclusion of women until 1979.

 The closing essay in the book is a speech that Drew Faust made in 2001, in which she pointed out how gender equality had still not been achieved at Harvard.  The university had traditionally operated with men as the norm, and continued to do so even when women were allowed to be participants.  Since the book was published, Faust has challenged that norm by becoming Harvard’s first woman president.

 I learned of this book when I read Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks.  Caleb, a Native American youth, actually went to Harvard, and Bethia, the book’s narrator, is a fictional example of the ways in which a woman could gain a little of what Harvard offered its male students.   It is a fine example of how a novelist can help us re-image our past by fictionalizing it.

Yards and Gates is an excellent book. I recommend it to readers interested in changes in our definitions of gender and in the resistance to those changes.  It is too easy to forget what work had to be done for women to be able to take part in first-class education. For us to forget is to endanger those changes.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    April 6, 2014 9:31 pm

    You had me at Laurel Ulrich, as I bet you knew. Love her!

  2. April 8, 2014 10:02 am

    Her piece in this book is excellent, but she is mostly the editor of a variety of other people’s writing in this one.

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