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Reflections on My Women's Collective Days  by Susan G. Cole
Reflections on My Women's Collective Days

When we arrived at the relatively modest country house in Martha's Vineyard in the summer, the kitchen action was already in full gear. Women chopping, frying, talking, laughing—the scene brought back memories of those old potlucks of the ’70s.

Chopping, frying, talking, laughing—the scene brought back memories of those old potlucks of the ’70s.This was, after all, a reunion, a gathering of the 10 women who made up the first women’s collective at Harvard-Radcliffe in 1970. We were groundbreakers who transformed student life at one of America’s most prestigious institutions. Nearly 40 years ago, we talked, fought, secured self-defence classes for Radcliffe students, helped take over a building (our coup de grâce—or disgrace) and inspired five more women’s groups like ours.

Our collective lasted only six months, but within two years of our formation Harvard began admitting more women and launched a full-fledged women’s centre on campus. We hadn’t known when we first came together that our collective would have this kind of impact, and it wasn’t until our reunion that we saw how the experience changed the course of our own lives.

After a delirious opening-night party, our formal sit-down began with disagreements about confidentiality—what could be recorded and what could be videotaped? As I listened to our members argue—me saying there’s nothing to lose, others insisting they could lose everything—I thought to myself, Oh my God, this is how the collective broke up.

It was 1971 and we were trying to decide whether to support a building takeover. A group of Boston feminists had strutted down the main drag in Cambridge, Massachusetts, destination 888 Memorial Drive, temporarily occupied by the graduate school of architecture. The women walked into the vacant building that was open, thanks to a break-in orchestrated the night before, and set up a de facto women’s centre. I and my closest collective associates thought supporting the action was a no-brainer. One of them was even torpedoed through a window, in all her winter overcoats, to grab the phone and the keys. Some of the more conservative members reacted like deer in the headlights. Talking about their personal lives or pushing for change inside the university was one thing, but a building takeover with a bunch of radicals not affiliated with the university? Town or gown? The choice was easy.

But they’re supporting workers’ rights on campus and protecting working-class neighbourhoods,” I argued, nearly weeping with radical outrage at my sister collective members’ tentativeness. How could we make any change if we were driven by fear and so worried about our Harvard status?.

Here we were in 2008 and it felt like a déjà vu. With a few exceptions, our differences at the reunion had broken down along the same lines as they had 37 years ago. There were those who supported the building occupation (“tape away”) and those who opposed it (“confidentiality, please”). Therefore, most of the names have been changed in this article.

But the story begins in the fall of 1970 with me and nine other young women. As my parents and I schlepped my suitcase and typewriter into my dorm, we almost tripped over Liss Jeffrey, with whom I’d been on the all-girls’ debating team in high school. A year older than me, she’d recommended that I apply to Radcliffe. She was standing in the doorway. .

“We’re forming a women’s collective and I want you to be in it,” she said. “The first meeting’s tomorrow.” .

Uh … okay, I thought. It might be a good way to get to know people, and I kind of liked the idea that I was the only first-year student in the group. .

Though I was intuitively attracted to the concept, I had only a rudimentary idea about what feminism was—Kate Millett, author of the groundbreaking Sexual Politics, was on the cover of Time the first week our collective met. But just days into my stay at Harvard, I had a clear idea of how discrimination operated. I’m not looking for sympathy here—I am aware that only privileged people get to enter Harvard’s hallowed halls.    

Radcliffe had an unusual relationship to Harvard. Unlike the other so-called sister schools, the women’s college didn’t have its own faculty, but rather borrowed Harvard professors who, until World War II, taught the same classes separately at Radcliffe Yard. After the war, Radcliffe became coed, but the dormitories did not.

 

As late as the 1970s, the experience for Radcliffe women was nonetheless bitter. For starters, the ratio of men to women was four-to-one. Women were still considered outsiders, expected to stay invisible when professors made sexist jokes, and were often asked to offer “a female perspective” if encouraged to speak in class. .

I arrived during the campus’s first year of coed living. Young men and women lived together in the dormitories and—except at the four Radcliffe houses, where at least a one-to-one ratio was maintained—women who lived in the Harvard houses often numbered only 30 among 300 men. Not that the Harvard men were that interested in us. The guys bussed in women from the junior colleges in the area to the Harvard House parties and deep into the night you could hear the depressing sounds of women mournfully calling out for the friends they’d lost along the way. .

In the early days of our collective, we had only a vague sense of sisterly solidarity and a stronger need just to talk. We talked about our aspirations, our fathers—a lot—our mothers even more, our hassles with sexist professors and our aggravation at the Harvard boys’ club in general. .

Liss was a mercurial, charismatic and sometimes intimidating visionary who had come to college hoping to start a new religion. M. was a science whiz who had been known in high school as “the neuter computer.” Alice was a brooding and mysterious literary talent with patrician roots. An ancestor had been president of the U.S. L. looked like a quintessential hippie, with long flowing black hair. Then there was L.B., a straitlaced beauty destined for Harvard’s influential business school. Silver-voiced L.H. was intense and brainy, while E. was a sexually obsessed math whiz. E.C. was a blooming photographer who often hid behind her camera and D. was our collective’s Christian representative. And there was me, at the time very into rock and roll, with long flowing hair and army boots, twisting tobacco into cigarette papers. .

All we really had in common was that we were Caucasian students at a prestigious American university. And we were budding feminists. At first that was glue enough. We had weekly meetings where we shared our life experiences. The main dynamic was support—we listened, responded and validated, inspired by the slogan “The personal is political.

Take L., who looked like a flower child. She came across as serene and calm but was a woman in serious trouble, trapped in an increasingly abusive relationship. I remember sitting in the gloomy basement where we met, listening to L. as she tried to eke out the words to describe her situation. We were all in shock. .

Leave him,” we all breathed. But her look of terror at that prospect spoke volumes—she wasn’t going anywhere. It was my first awareness of how violence can paralyze a woman, however gifted or brilliant. Then the first reported rape occurred at the Radcliffe quadrangle and an explosion of consciousness occurred. I remember feeling queasy walking through the Cambridge Common at night, panicking every time I heard footsteps quickening behind me.    

Suddenly, women were feeling it— the sense that we were vulnerable in ways male students weren’t. Dorms took on new security: the doors were locked; there were monitors at all the front desks. And women wanted to do something about the fact that they didn’t feel safe in their own territory. .

 

Our collective led the way, demanding that Radcliffe provide free self-defence classes for female students. By then our collective had given itself a name—no, not the Radcliffe Women’s Collective (snore). Liss had toyed with the name Vagina Dentata, but many of our members gulped at the thought of being named after a toothed vagina, a sign of things to come. .

We settled on Radcliffe Women to Keep Mind and Body Together. As a moniker, it was a great calling card. Petitions handed to the Harvard and Radcliffe administrations always got a chuckle—one Harvard dean could barely stifle a giggle. .

We looked him straight in the eye in that way that said, “Don’t laugh or there’ll be trouble.” But he wasn’t laughing at us, he was admiring our gall.     We were shocked when the Radcliffe administration agreed to set up the classes. As we learned more about real Harvard’s relationship to Radcliffe, however, this quick approval made sense. In the early ’60s, when women began receiving Harvard degrees, Radcliffe deans worried that a merger between the two schools was in the air and that the women’s college might vanish. By the time we arrived, Radcliffe consisted of an admissions system and an excellent library, some Greco-Roman real estate and the dormitories.

Eventually, feminists would oppose the merger until there were equal admissions—another godsend to Radcliffe. But at the moment, self-defence classes? No problem. At the same time, Radcliffe Women to Keep Mind and Body Together kept fanning the flames. We pushed the idea of women’s collectives on campus. We called a meeting and leafleted, and brought enough cookies for the dozen guests we thought we’d attract. We were stunned when close to 200 showed up—almost a sixth of the female undergraduate body.

But inside our circle, things were tense. There were classic splits, misunderstandings and frustrations. Some members were deep into counterculture and wore their radicalism like a badge—literally. I sported a hat with 20 political buttons on it. And what was D., a faithful Christian, doing in our collective? Not to mention L.B., thinking of business school—puh-lease! Meanwhile, there was nothing we could do to convince L. to move away from her awful boyfriend. Some of us liked the drugs part of the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll subculture; others were appalled by such behaviour. The collective never met as a group socially—we just got together at those weekly meetings where we gave each other the space to talk.

But our differences became insurmountable on International Women’s Day in 1971. A women’s group in Boston had taken over a Harvard building to protest the institution’s incursion into the working-class Riverside neighbourhood near the school and to demand that Harvard fund a women’s centre. These women were older than us. They took the microphone with an authority we were a long way from developing. .

We were electrified by the events. Some collective members had been active in the student strike in the spring of 1969, protesting the war in Viet Nam, but felt bullied by the male-dominated anti-war movement. They and I, the latecomer, were craving political action. We ran down to the site to support the takeover. Others ran in the opposite direction and couldn’t bring themselves to enter the building—now full of women and children and martial arts classes and boiled cabbage and pot—or to embrace the politics of illegally seizing property. Six of us wanted the collective to spearhead a movement to get support for the takeover. The other four were either hostile or indifferent. Our collective was breaking up.     Not that we were entirely surprised. The thing that brought us together us was our admission to Harvard and our chromosome design. This was a group that formed before there was such a thing as hyphenated feminists: socialist-feminists, radical-feminists, liberal-feminists, lesbian-feminists. We began to realize that feminism wasn’t only one thing, and we discovered, to paraphrase the French philosopher Luce Irigaray, “feminisms.” .

In retrospect, our rift may have had more to do with personality types—the political heavyweights were extroverts; those who stayed away from the takeover were more inward-looking. And we had major class differences that were never discussed. Working-class members probably had very good reasons for not rocking Harvard’s boat—they’d struggled in major ways to get into the school. .

After we graduated, the collective met three times, although never with the entire group—that is, until the summer of 2008. M. invited us to her family’s summer home at Martha’s Vineyard for two amazing days of reconnection. The central theme of our reunion wound up being the terrible fact that our fearless leader Liss was dying. She was still as charismatic as ever, but she was frail, occasionally dozy thanks to her medications and furious that members of the collective had shared news of her illness—she had hoped to make the official announcement at our meeting. This, and the confidentiality issue, took up the better part of the first morning, but once we slogged through that we each gave a summary of our life and our current preoccupations, and talked about where the collective fit in to all of that. .

That’s when the magic occurred. As each collective member spoke, I realized how young we had been when we first met and how exceptional each had become. D., our Christian member, was still a believer, although obviously not of the Christian-right variety. But whereas a university student 37 years before I couldn’t help but scoff at her faith, this time it moved me as she talked about her religion in a community context. A member of a choir, D. sang two songs that brought me to tears, something that scared the shit out of everyone there—I don’t think they’d ever seen me cry before. .

L.B. had shown remarkable strength in assisting her husband through a devastating depression. She was the one who led us in the kitchen brigade at our reunion, which—not surprisingly, since women are easy to corral for this kind of stuff—ran like a well-oiled machine. Still working in the area of finance and real estate, she was real, grounded and smart as a whip. .

M., the former “neuter computer” and now our reunion host, had changed course, operating a health food store for 16 years. A trained homeopath, she now runs a professional training centre in homeopathy at one of America’s most respected schools. M. also turned into an extremely skilled facilitator. Her life experience, most of all, revealed to me how profoundly people can transform. Silver-voiced Linn, who lost her way in college, had definitely found it, becoming a world-class neurologist who now teaches medicine. Alice was tending horses and working on a play about Mary Rowlandson, an early American writer who wrote an account of being taken captive by North American Indians.

E., as sexually addicted as ever, became a math prof, got married and has two sons. She also moonlights as a costumer for local strippers. E.C. was doing development work in Mexico and played the role of official archivist, taking photographs at our reunion. And L., who had only just been able to wrench herself away from her controlling husband after 35 years, was finally pursuing a divorce. .

Throughout the weekend, I marvelled at these women’s resilience. I was reminded that even women articulating feminist ideas find themselves in abusive relationships, that the most privileged of us could still suffer from the devastating effects of a partner’s depression, that Buddhism and feminism mix with ease, and that compassion is one of the most important facilitators for social change.

Yes, we fought over some of our old issues. But we sat as mature women with a profound appreciation for where each of us had come to. We also began to grieve our spiritual leader’s illness. Liss had a career as a media scholar, as an adjunct professor with the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, then as part of the University of Toronto’s faculty of information studies. Until her death, she was an indefatigable promoter of Internet freedom and open-source technologies. Liss died in December 2008. (For more on Liss Jeffrey, see: www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=166699.) .

Over the weekend, each us described how our experience had given us a particular strength, a passion for female friendship and an opportunity to develop an emotional vocabulary that deepened our ability to make personal connections. .

We had been together for six months in 1971. In just three days in 2008, we became a better collective than we had ever been during our earlier period.

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