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Seven Sisters and the Old Boys’ Club

Seven Sisters and the Old Boys’ Club

Located at 10 Garden Street, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study offers resources for students.
Located at 10 Garden Street, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study offers resources for students. By Soumyaa Mazumder
By McKenna E. McKrell, Crimson Opinion Writer
McKenna E. McKrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Adams House. Her column, “Seven Sisters and the Old Boys’ Club” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.

An old black and white photo has followed me throughout my time at Harvard, stuck to the walls of each of my dorm rooms. In it, Radcliffe women march in a suffrage parade.

I am a Harvard woman in a Harvard dorm, yet this image speaks to a time when there were no Harvard women — no Ivy League women at all.

Instead, there were the Seven Sisters. Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Barnard, Vassar, and Wellesley: a group of women’s colleges with a loose association as the female counterpart to the all-male Ivy League, supposedly nicknamed after the Pleiades sisters from Greek mythology.

Since 1926, these seven colleges, scattered across the Northeast, have met annually with the goal of advancing access to and quality of higher education for women.

Five of these institutions continue to serve female-identifying students, and Vassar has gone co-educational. This makes Radcliffe, which officially merged with Harvard in 1999, the only Sister to not remain an independent college.

This process of unification began in the early seventies with what is colloquially referred to as the “non-merger, merger” — Harvard men and Radcliffe women lived in the same buildings, took classes together, and received Harvard degrees, but until the official merger of the two institutions in 1999, Radcliffe remained, at least in some ways, distinct.

Radcliffe’s identity during this period of the non-merger merger feels complicated and ambiguous, and in speaking with women from Radcliffe’s Class of 1973 — who were freshmen when some dorms went co-ed in the spring of 1970 — I have come to understand that it is complicated for them as well.

“We had this discussion at our fiftieth reunion,” Anna M. Wichansky ’73 told me in an interview. “I identify more with Radcliffe, so I will tell people I am in Radcliffe Class of ’73.”

When Wichansky receives blank looks, “I tell them it is part of Harvard University,” she continued.

Radcliffe College officially merged with Harvard University in 1999.
Radcliffe College officially merged with Harvard University in 1999. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

Phyllis August ’73 also noted the lack of name recognition for Radcliffe.

“The older we get, the fewer people have even heard of Radcliffe, to be honest, outside of the Harvard community,” she told me. “You’ll say Radcliffe and they’ll kind of look at you with a puzzled look.”

In some ways, the idea of Radcliffe waning from memory and a new, co-educational Harvard absorbing the spotlight could be regarded as a victory. Radcliffe’s goal as an institution was always to give female students access to the quality education and resources that Harvard offered its undergraduates, and as a current female undergraduate, I feel that goal was achieved.

Women make up over fifty percent of my College class — the Class of 2026 — and have access to the very resources from which they had at one point been excluded.

Women were infamously barred from Lamont Library until 1967.

“When my daughter got there a generation later, the first thing she did was walk into Lamont and dance on the desk, because she knew how I felt,” Alice I. Davies ’65 told me.

Davies’ aunt, Mary Ingraham Bunting, was the president of Radcliffe from 1960 until 1972. Under her leadership, joint Commencement exercises were held, women moved into the Harvard River Houses, and Radcliffe students began receiving Harvard degrees.

“That’s what my aunt worked her little tail toward,” Davies said. “The integration of Radcliffe and Harvard was just key.”

It is obvious why the students and administrators from Radcliffe’s past would celebrate the integral and inseparable role women now play in an institution deemed the “the Oldest Old Boys’ Club,” but I wonder whether there can still exist an active and vibrant Radcliffe for the Harvard undergraduate women today.

When I reflect on Radcliffe’s legacy, I think of the photo on my dorm room wall: a literal depiction of the power of Radcliffe women to advocate for and to enact meaningful change.

In 1999, Radcliffe College was reborn as the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Today, the institute provides co-educational support for scholarship through fellowships, the Schlesinger Library, and public events.

“I’m delighted that Radcliffe has developed a new and strong identity,” Leslie P. Tolbert ’73, who served as a member of University governance for the past six years, said.

“It’s got this new identity and it will thrive as people come to do their work at the Radcliffe Institute and see it as a go-to place for a particular kind of scholarship,” she added.

Though Tolbert expressed her belief in a new, strong Radcliffe identity, some women still expressed conflicting feelings about the institution’s legacy or hope that more could be done.

“I am sorry that Harvard is in the process of absorbing the last vestiges of Radcliffe,” Winifred M. Creamer ’73 told me.

In 2021, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study adopted a new vernacular name, becoming the Harvard Radcliffe Institute — or the Institute, for short. Though the website explains that the change establishes a “family relationship” between the institutions and follows the naming conventions of other Harvard schools, many women were outraged.

“It’s a physical place right now. So I think that it’s important to continue to call it Radcliffe,” August said.

A name, a place, a photograph — my conversations with these women reaffirmed the importance of these tangible touchstones, but their stories left me searching for the intangible sense of community they described, too.

Though most women felt that the integration of Harvard and Radcliffe greatly served both institutions, there was a certain nostalgia for the distinct Radcliffe community women from the Class of 1973 experienced during their freshmen fall when they were all living together.

“There were things the first semester that differed once housing became co-ed,” Janet L. Roen ’73 told me. “Around 10 o’clock milk and cookies were served, I kid you not. That went out. No more milk and cookies.”

When reflecting on her first semester living at Radcliffe, Creamer recalled eating dinner with women from her dorm hallway.

“We just sat and talked for a long time, and those are the women I still know,” she said.

Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library specializes in scholarship on the history of women in the United States.
Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library specializes in scholarship on the history of women in the United States. By Truong L. Nguyen

While I celebrate the value of co-education, I want to see Radcliffe play a more active role in the lives of undergraduate women and education. Its name is preserved in the Radcliffe Institute, but its mission as one of the Seven Sisters — to be an advocate for women in their education — feels lost in a project that seems to primarily serve advanced study and graduate level projects.

Representatives from Harvard or Radcliffe have not attended the annual Seven Sisters Conference since the early 2000s, while Vassar —which is now co-ed — continues to participate actively in this work.

“I think that Radcliffe still does have a presence as a focal point and maybe advocacy for women,” Madaline B. Harrison ’73 told me.

Still, she continued, “It’s hard for me to figure out exactly how large a role it has in the day to day lives of undergraduates. I worry a little bit about that, and I think some of my classmates do too.”

I imagine a future for the Harvard Radcliffe Institute in which its identity remains inseparable from Harvard, but its roots as a Seven Sister college are more pronounced. Its mission should expand to tackle issues that continue to disproportionately affect women in their undergraduate education — like sexual misconduct and underrepresentation in STEM fields — by providing guidance to Harvard administration and resources to women at the College.

A partnership with Harvard College Women’s Center and representation at the annual Seven Sisters conference are larger changes that would reflect the continuity of Radcliffe’s historical commitment to women’s advocacy.

Though Radcliffe continues to do important work, perhaps it is time to revisit the role it can play in the undergraduate experience.

Today, I can often forget that Harvard was never intended to serve women, but recognizing Radcliffe and calling for its revitalization as a resource for undergraduates is only the beginning of my attempt to understand how women continue to carve out a place for themselves at this storied old boys’ club.

Correction: September 14, 2023

A previous of this column incorrectly spelled Madaline B. Harrison’s ’73 name. In fact, her middle initial is B, not V, and her first name is spelled Madaline, not Madeline.

McKenna E. McKrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Adams House. Her column, “Seven Sisters and the Old Boys’ Club” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.

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