“They’re perfectly free to express their opinion, but we can’t do anything.”
So was Radcliffe President Mary I. Bunting’s response to twenty-three student hunger strikers, as recorded in a May 1967 Crimson article. The students, in their five-day hunger strike, were protesting the right to live off-campus. The strike garnered attention from media outlets ranging from WBZ and WNAC TV to the New York Times and Boston Globe.
It was a single act of protest in an era marked by anti-war organizing and racial justice activism. So why did the students feel the need to stage such a dramatic protest over what seemed to many to be a trivial issue?
Bunting was not a fan of off-campus living, which Radcliffe students demanded in the late ’60s. The president persistently stated that off-campus living had major financial implications. Bunting repeatedly said, in The Crimson, the Radcliffe Quarterly, and her own papers, that each student who moved off-campus cost the college $1000.
Bunting was committed to establishing a strong on-campus environment for Radcliffe students. Despite some opposition from students, she embarked on a campaign to fund the creation of a new house. A Crimson op-ed from May 1967 called her campaign for residential housing a “$10-million mistake.”
The saga of the Radcliffe hunger strike began in Jan. 1966. Radcliffe College announced that 30 students would be allowed to live in off-campus apartments, free of adult supervision. Radcliffe administrators invited interested students to write personal letters to apply for this housing. Seventy women applied for 30 spots, and the administration instead opted for a lottery system to select the 30 students—10 from each house—who would move off campus the next fall.
In the winter of the following year, students circulated two petitions with suggestions for saving money on the cost of running the dorms—they hoped these cost-saving methods would make the the lottery system unnecessary, so all interested seniors could have the option to move off-campus.
Bunting told the students that they “did not understand the finances” and continued with the spring lottery, increasing the number of students from allowed to live off-campus to 36. Radcliffe released the lottery results on April 14, 1967, granting 36 Radcliffe women permission to live off-campus for their senior year. Frustration increased among Radcliffe students, and some demanded off-campus housing be made available to all students, prompting the protest.
“It is something I always remembered with some ambivalence because of course there were so many important things in those years and it seemed so small to want to move off campus,” said Susan Levenstein ‘68, who studied philosophy and participated in the hunger strike as a junior at Radcliffe. “But we felt like it was a power issue.”
The strike was documented by several outlets, with the number of strikers varying with each source. According to the 1965-67 Radcliffe College Report of the President, fifteen students began fasting on Wednesday; according to the New York Times, nineteen Radcliffe students began the hunger strike and did not start until Thursday, May 11. The Crimson reported that the fast began on May 11, with seven more Radcliffe Students joining the protest on May 12.
According to the minutes from a Radcliffe Government Association Meeting, fifteen original strikers undertook the hunger strike, and included some students who had been granted the right to move off campus.
“This was 1967, Levenstein said. “We were feeling very against all authority and very much in favor of running our own lives.”
Several other women who participated in the strike could not be reached for comment.
The administration of Radcliffe did not interfere with the hunger strike “since the students were not interfering with others or with the conduct of the College,” according to the 1965-67 Radcliffe College Report of the President.
According to the New York Times, the aim of the hunger strike was to “protect a system for selecting seniors who will be allowed to live in their own apartments off campus next year.”
But Levenstein said the Radcliffe Students banned together in solidarity to protest a deeper issue—a lack of power for students.
“There were people who thought it was exaggerated to have a hunger strike over such a small issue. One of the things that some people thought was, well you should save your hunger strikes for protesting the war in Vietnam.” Levenstein said. “I don’t regret it. I know that we felt passionately that this had to do with our control.”
Levenstein said she remembers her smell changing and “the very strong sense of solidarity” during the hunger strike.
“We were on a water fast, we really had nothing. Interestingly, one memory that I have of it is that you start to smell different,” Levenstein said. “That’s just a memory of what it is to be starving.”
“I don’t remember the hunger,” Levenstein added. “After a while, when you’re on a complete fast, I found that you don’t miss food so much, you don’t really feel like eating.”
According to Levenstein, the strikers hoped they would “win a small dip of power” as a result of the strike. To some, they succeeded.
On Sunday, May 14, the hunger strikers—with support from alumnae and faculty—developed a proposal to form an arbitration committee to settle the strike. In the proposal, the strikers stated that they only began the hunger strike after learning that “there is no way for students to effect a policy decision through talks, referenda, or letters.” After an endorsement by Helen L. Gray ’32, former president of the Radcliffe Alumnae Association, the strikers circulated a petition endorsing the hunger strike throughout Radcliffe Dining Halls.
Four of the 23 hunger strikers fell ill on May 15, the fifth and final day of the strike. The remaining 19 hunger strikers anxiously awaited Bunting’s decision. On 3 p.m. on May 15, Bunting publicly announced her proposal decision in Harvard Yard: Radcliffe College would assemble a committee of faculty, students and administrators to have a more representative debate on housing issues. Her announcement marked the end of the hunger strike: The striking Radcliffe students celebrated the end of their fast with roast beef, provided by the Boston Globe.
After five meetings and a collection of student input, the committee recommended students have greater input in housing decision and plans. The committee’s recommendations were non-binding and Bunting did not choose to implement them during her tenure.
Levenstein repeatedly said that she does not regret fasting despite the protests not yielding any immediate results.
“Whatever it was, we did feel that we had done something that was worthwhile and I’m glad I did it,” she said.
—Staff writer Ashley M. Cooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ashleymcooper_