On Women’s Week: History, Space, and Our Role in it All

Every once in a while, I am asked, “Why is there a Women’s Week? What about Men’s Week?”

My response is always the same: “Every other week of the year is Men’s Week.”

Another frequent question: “Why do we have a Women’s Center? What about a Men’s Center?”

“Every other space on campus is or was a Men’s Center.”

(It’s also worth taking a look at other responses to these questions if you have time!)

For 243 years, Harvard was a completely male institution. In 1879, the Annex was formed, allowing women to take classes taught by Harvard professors in rented rooms near campus. In 1894, Radcliffe College was chartered to replace the Annex. Radcliffe was named after Ann Radcliffe, who established the first scholarship fund at Harvard in 1643. At the time of the charter, a petition from Annex alumnae protested the chartering of a separate women’s college, advocating (unsuccessfully) for an opening of Harvard to female students.

For nearly fifty years, Harvard and Radcliffe functioned separately, finally signing an agreement in 1943 to allow Radcliffe students to enroll in Harvard classes. Harvard degrees were awarded to women beginning in 1963. It wasn’t until 1968 that women were allowed to walk through the front entrance to the Harvard Faculty Club, and all Harvard/Radcliffe residential houses weren’t co-ed until 1971.

For these reasons (among others) Harvard has been a predominantly male space. The current incarnation of the Women’s Center (finally supported by our institution and its administration, thanks to the work of student activists) has only existed since 2006. It’s important to acknowledge the significant statistic that 49.3% of undergraduates at Harvard are females who will graduate with the same degrees as their male counterparts.

Beyond the gates of Harvard, however, is where our female classmates will do their work, as career women, as mentors, as mothers, as leaders. Even though we’ve made progress as a whole, this fight is not over. While Harvard is approaching gender parity, issues of sexism and gender discrimination are still around, just as they are in the “outside world.” Women’s Week is a chance for Harvard undergraduates to discuss reproductive rights in a transnational context, or the mass incarceration of women of color – not because these events are necessarily direct connections to one’s experience on campus, but because these are the issues affecting women outside of our gates. Women’s week is a chance to explore, learn, and take action with other feminist classmates. It’s a break from the norm, historically and currently speaking. The more that we break these norms, the better conversations we’ll have. By taking a week to acknowledge, consider, and emphasize the importance of female-friendly safe spaces on our campus and outside of our gates, we can recognize our role as feminists in the world at large – the first step in doing the work that needs to be done with fellow feminists at our side.

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One thought on “On Women’s Week: History, Space, and Our Role in it All

  1. Thanks for this! As an alum, I also recognize that Women’s Week is an important institution that exists to re-ignite important conversations related to life as a woman at Harvard. The revolving door of incoming first-years and outgoing seniors has the potential to break the chain in this constant conversation. With the HCWC and Women’s Week, there is a consistent space to acknowledge and grapple with many challenging issues and celebrate inspirational victories that connect women across a variety of spaces.

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