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“A Risky Experiment”: Harvard-Radcliffe Women’s Weekend

As delivered.

Thank you so much, Acey [Welch]. And thank you also to the Radcliffe Pitches. And thanks to so many of you—including the many alumnae and alumni groups—who have worked so hard to make this weekend possible. And thanks to all of you for coming back. I am pleased to consider myself part of both Harvard and Radcliffe. I will say this: Both places have given me an education. 

It’s truly a pleasure to be here tonight to celebrate the women of Harvard and Radcliffe. But it’s also easy to forget how we got here — to lose sight of the cold and cloudy day in Boston when a group of women met for the first time, in 1881, to form the Association of College Alumnae. No Harvard alumnae were there — the “Annex” for educating women was too new to have any graduates, and too cautious to grant degrees; it awarded certificates. According to Harvard’s leaders, women’s education was, as the University treasurer put it, a “risky experiment,” because — in the words of my predecessor, President Charles William Eliot, and I quote him — “We know nothing of the mental capacities of the female sex.” At a Radcliffe Commencement President Eliot questioned whether, as he put it, “women have the originality and pioneering spirit which will fit them to be leaders.” Then, we went to the inauguration of a new Wellesley College president, and there he chose to wonder aloud about whether the higher education of women had a point and was “as profitable to society as the higher education of men.” Clearly, a diplomat. 

A Harvard Medical School professor cautioned that the demands of college would divert too much energy to women’s brains, and ruin them by “blight[ing] their vital organs.” And he was especially worried about this in the case of American women, whom he proclaimed to be “a feeble race.” Now, the “remnants of this feeble race,” as an alumna later put it, had a different view, and so the very first effort of this alumnae group that I just described to you, which was published in 1885, was designed to fact-check these assertions about the fitness of women for college, and the conclusion of this study was that college, in fact, made women healthier. Consider yourselves Exhibit A.

Your presence here tonight — this uplifting force of nearly 150,000 Harvard and Radcliffe alumnae across the globe — was once just unimaginable. Just as students now can hardly believe — and I think many of them don’t believe — that when I was in college, I couldn’t wear pants to class, would not have been able to apply to Princeton or Yale, or get a credit card without a male co-signer. This is a world they struggle to imagine. But it is a world where none of us here would have been allowed into Lamont Library — an all-male space until 1967. Nor can they imagine a universe in which Widener Library, until 1949, restricted Radcliffe students literally to a room of their own, which was hardly big enough to hold a table and a volume of Virginia Woolf. And for years, the female graduate students who were allowed to use the main reading room and its tables were not, however, allowed to sit down at those tables. They did not have the same access to the chairs. And in the 1950s, a Widener librarian once received a formal complaint, “There was a woman here and she sat down!” 

But here you are, and here I am, because of the women and men who stood up for a woman’s right to sit down at the table — people who made themselves into an answer, no matter who questioned a woman’s brainpower, or doubted a woman’s stamina, or denied a woman’s capacity to lead. The category “woman” itself has been challenged and expanded — to incorporate a growing diversity of representation — by race, ethnicity, sexuality — think of the BGLTQ Gender and Sexuality Caucus and wide array of alumni and alumnae groups sponsoring this event. And think, too, of our transgender students who are insisting that we confront even broader categories of identity. And so as we celebrate this first Women’s Weekend, we also celebrate the sense of purpose of this great community that propels us forward.

We remember Helen Keller, Radcliffe Class of 1904. She broke barriers few can imagine to become not only the first female awarded a Harvard honorary degree, but the first deaf and blind student — of any gender — to receive a college degree.

We remember Barbara Tuchman, Radcliffe Class of 1933, who somehow made it into the Widener stacks to research her senior thesis, presumably never sitting down while she did so. She called it the “most formative experience of my career … my Archimedes’ bathtub, my burning bush …” — and, of course, went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes.

We remember 1948, when Helen Maud Cam left a distinguished Cambridge University career at age 63 to join the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as Harvard’s first female full professor, a role she that filled with such brilliance and grace that she said she felt not just “accepted … [but] completely and utterly at home.” 

Now these are stories we share, the unexpected past that dares us to imagine the surprises and wonders of the future. But more stories still are necessary.

We remember, especially tonight in this location, the three women fresh from the business certificate program in the Radcliffe basement, who crossed the bridge in 1959 to become the first female students here at Harvard Business School. And when The Boston Globe reported on these three women, they shared with their readers some essential academic details — of the three women, one was married, and the other two were brunettes.

We applaud Wellesley’s new president, Dr. Paula Johnson, a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1981, the first class to admit men and women in equal numbers. She used her education in cardiology to actually change the way we approach vital organs: She established a center for women’s health and gender biology that has helped reshape Harvard Medical School. And I had the great honor and privilege of being asked to speak at her inauguration where I tried to do a do-over for Charles William Eliot’s remarks.

And who can forget Pauli Murray, denied admission to Harvard Law School in 1944, not because she was black but because she was female. She fought fiercely, and lost, and went to Berkeley. She not only contributed to the litigation strategy in Brown v. Board of Education, she became a driving force behind adding sex discrimination to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, linking Civil Rights and women’s rights, and human rights. She told the Harvard faculty that they were — I’m quoting her — “not denying a mere woman an opportunity … You are denying a promising … legal scholar the right to use 550,000 volumes in your library and the opportunity, perhaps, to make a contribution to legal thought.” You might say she proved her point.

These are not just our stories. These are everyone’s stories. A drama of changing parts telling us: This is what happens when you let a woman cross a bridge, or sit down in a library. The ending is not yet written. We still struggle on toward equal work for equal pay, an end to sexual violence, and education for girls and women around the globe. We keep reimagining the promise that those once excluded by an accident of birth will be able to claim their rightful place, to emerge from a room of their own into a boardroom, or a family room, or a situation room — to be a part, in the words of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” of “the room where it happens,” wherever that may be.

Looking out over this room tonight, I see a lot to tell President Eliot. Even he admitted, after nearly 40 years as president, that his fears about educating women had been without merit. Women today, across all racial groups, receive a higher percentage of bachelor’s degrees than men in the United States. And through a conscious effort — aided by many of you here tonight — Harvard’s University-wide percentage of female faculty is at an all-time high — 26 percent of its tenured faculty across the University, a 31 percent increase in the last decade — and among tenure-track faculty, the entry-level faculty, it’s very close to even male and female. But we have a distance to go. And as I look at this room tonight, I know that your time here together will be an energizing force for the University as we take on the future and take on the work that still remains before us.

So, welcome back. Let’s see what’s next. Together, we can make all kinds of room for the risky experiment that is our presence in this institution. 

Thank you.