Harvard in the Sixties

Harvard in the Sixties 1

(Photo from City of Boston Archives under a Creative Commons license)

Ellen Cantarow, who received her doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard University in 1970, went on to a brief stint of academic work, then has published widely as a journalist in The Village Voice,  The GuardianMademoiselle, Mother JonesGrand Street, and other publications. 

By Ellen Cantarow

At present, pregnancy and parturition are made by the profession to seem somehow shameful, unbefitting professional dignity. The imposition of ‘quasi-masculine’ standards on women takes a grave psychological toll…Many women professionals must think more than twice not only about when to have children, but about whether to have them at all: under present conditions, child-bearing means either five years of arduous work at two full-time jobs, or the lamentable ‘option’ of suspending one’s career. The alternatives are thus very few. Many women professionals who have succeeded in their careers have in fact chosen to lop off a whole area of their lives, as men are never forced to do.Excerpt from an explanatory postscript to one of six resolutions on women’s lives in the Academy, brought by Ellen Cantarow and Lillian Robinson for The New University Conference’s women’s caucus to the 1969 MLA Business Meeting.


One day in 1965, early in my progress towards a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Harvard, I was asked to serve tea at a department function. I’d just returned after two years of “real- world” jobs. I’d served time as a secretary at Harper & Row where “manuscript-reader,” an editorial apprenticeship, was a position given only to men; as a file clerk at The Providence Journal, where all first-time reporters were male. Surely at Harvard I would be an intellect;  surely at Harvard people wouldn’t automatically regard me as a workplace housewife!

I remember my shock when I was asked to do that little thing: pour the tea. I hadn’t yet grasped that being an angry young woman amounted to insubordination, since I still held the touching belief that academia was above gender prejudice. So I refused, saying something acid about women’s always being asked to do “that sort of thing.” My face has always been a dead giveaway for my emotions, which means, on the plus side, that deviousness isn’t among my vices, but on the minus side, that I’ve tended in life to be my own worst enemy. In this case I don’t recall that I made any decorous (“I’ll be out of town”) excuse, and I must have showed my anger, because  the graduate student deputized to ask me to pour the tea made his irritation with me very plain. Into the breach leaped my graduate colleague, Roger H.: HE would pour the tea! Roger was effusively commended for his humility, good will and generosity. And it was made very clear that I was being unreasonable, mean-spirited and ungracious.

I begin with the tea-pouring incident because it’s one of those “trivial” moments when wake-up bells sound: You’re a woman, and don’t you forget it! The sexism inherent in it—mute, potent—was more common than that of my undergraduate French professor who hissed one day, when too many of us flubbed an answer, “But why am I teaching all of you anyway? You’re all nice young ladies who are only going to meet nice young men and have babies!” But I ran into enough of both sorts of prejudice to have acquired, some years before the women’s movement began, a gut understanding of the implications of my womanhood in academia; how much of my sexuality was at once inferred and curtailed; at what peril I walked the halls of the academy. I teetered on an emotional high-wire, trying to be a mind (gender, masculine) in a body that bled every month, had breasts, and suggested sex, if not maternity, to all onlookers. On the one hand I’d been raised to believe that beauty was at the core of self for women; I loved being pretty.  I favored tight ski slacks, jeans, high boots, clinging turtlenecks, dangling earrings. On the other I felt my physical presence a distressing eruption among my male colleagues with their scholarly slouches and furrowed earnest brows. It was clear that I was meant to be womanly, but not sexual. Daughterly, never maternal.

Harvard in the Sixties

Ellen Cantarow in the Sixties (Scan of an old image)

Harvard did not tolerate mothers — unless they were those ancillary persons, faculty wives. By 1965 I’d already met the man I would marry. Twelve years older than I, he already had tenure. Of his colleagues’ wives, one was a concert pianist; none of the others was a professional. Two of the younger women already had children. There was a deep divide between the wives-and-mothers on the one hand and, on the other, the men and a few childless women academics and grad students.

My mother was a faculty wife with (unusual in her day) a Master’s degree in psychology. When I was born she left full-time work for good. It’s telling that I don’t know precisely how many days a week she actually worked while I was growing up: was it two, or three? And how much did either of my parents actually talk about my mother’s work, her successes or her problems on the job? On the other hand I heard from my mother, my parents’ families and all their friends about my father’s work. A renowned biochemist and cancer-researcher, he went to international conferences; his textbooks had been translated into many languages including (exotic for me in the 50’s and 60’s) Japanese.

My mother supported him energetically and with self-effacement. Her own rearing by a beautiful, spoiled, self-involved mother had ravaged her self-confidence. In later life she suffered from severe depressions. These no doubt owed to biology and upbringing, but “the feminine mystique” of the postwar period certainly didn’t help.

In 1969 The New University Conference charged Lillian Robinson and me with writing feminist resolutions to the MLA [Modern Language Association, the principle professional organization for scholars of literature] business meeting. I was thinking of my mother when I wrote: “As Alice Rossi has pointed out, ‘For the first time in the history of any known society, motherhood…has become a full-time occupation for the adult woman’…The result is that mothers are often the strongest opponents of measures that might at once free them for work outside the home, and free their children from a frequently debilitating dependency.” In my mother I saw the latter-day experiences of the heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story The Yellow Wallpaper. In her life I perceived what a writer on motherhood would observe nearly 30 years later: “Once she attains motherhood, a woman must hand in her point of view.” (Sharil Thurer, The Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994, xvii).

The 1960s were still boom years in the US. Upper-middle-class young women entering the professions didn’t confront the issues of economic survival their daughters would in the 80s and 90s. We had time and leisure to drop out of school as I did between 1963 and 1965. We could drop out, return, and then choose from a variety of options. We could become part-time or volunteer workers like our mothers and raise families, or we could be what our parents and their friends called “career-women.” Or we could marry AND have children, AND carry on careers if we had the courage and stamina. We had a Hobson’s choice. We could “lop off a whole area of our lives,” in the words of my postscript to the MLA resolution on full- and part-time work, or we could be mothers, taking care to keep that a private affair while flogging ourselves through our comps and dissertations.

There were no older role models either at Wellesley or at Harvard to help me fight clear of my schizoid notions about gender and sexuality (at the time of the tea-pouring incident the word “gender” was something I associated only with language-learning and “sexuality” was a fancy word for having sex). There may have been women faculty members who had children, but we never heard about their lives outside the classroom. There was no such thing as Women’s Studies: senior faculty members like Alice Rossi and Florence Howe, and junior faculty and grad students like Lillian and me, invented the courses that launched that discipline.

At Harvard I became an activist. In the antiwar and women’s movements I gained self-confidence as an intellectual and began to get a lot of encouragement for my writing. It was a new life, one I feared compromising, especially for that permanent obligation, a child. Perhaps, I thought, I wouldn’t have children at all. At very least I’d wait until I’d established my career.

A few women graduate students at Harvard—very few—took the path I rejected. Martha (not her real name) studied Romance Languages and looked like a figure out of French classical painting—dark hair smoothed back with a center part; a lush, gleaming bun; sleek, flowing clothes. I knew her in the middle 60s. She was married to a Nobel Prize-seeking scientist; she had an infant. When I visited her at home she seemed very romantic, wistful about her ever-absent husband, roguish about her sexual attraction to another man. With all this she carried on with her classes. I’d just read Madame Bovary; Martha seemed to me her latter-day incarnation.

At some point in our friendship Martha confided to me that a distinguished member of the Harvard faculty had seized her in his office and embraced her while he pressed his erection against her. What should she do? Should she drop his class? How could she face him the next time she saw him? Long after we’d gotten our degrees the faculty member in question was charged with sexual harassment of other students. But at the time he accosted her, Martha and I had no words to describe what he’d done. And I had a sense, which I articulate only today and which was then more feeling than thought: she was more a candidate for the professor’s advances, given her choice to exercise her full sexuality, than I, given my choice to restrict mine to an after-hours sport.

Susan, another friend at Harvard, also married an academic scientist. She carried on her graduate studies in French AND motherhood AND wifehood (her husband took no responsibility for either housework or child-care; not long after, they divorced). She was central in activism at Harvard, agitating for a teaching fellows’ union and against the university’s involvement in the Vietnam war.

At some point Susan told the then-dean of the Graduate School, John Elder, that she was going to have a baby. “I was a teaching fellow,” she told me recently, “and in some way or other part of those funds provided for some of my health care. He said in a very hostile way that he wouldn’t let my teaching funds pay for a private or even semi-private room. He would let them go only for a room of the sort used by people on welfare. And what I remember was that after I gave birth I came back to a room where there were ten other women who had all given birth a few days earlier. They all wanted to play cards and eat pizza and I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep.” When it came to coping with classes and motherhood, she recalls only adversity: “There was no child care anywhere. The only thing Harvard provided was married students’ housing.” Harvard punished women students who, in my friend’s words, “had the nerve” to be mothers: “There was a prejudice against women in academia to begin with. The idea at Harvard was, if you’re going to be a woman the least you can do is to have the decency not to have a child. And if you do have a child you’d better take care of it all by yourself because no one here’s going to help you.”

My understanding of Harvard’s gynophobia lay behind another explanation appended to our MLA resolutions: “Women faculty who do have children must go through the embarrassing procedure of asking their chairman’s permission to take leave…The fact that individual women are forced to make such private arrangements leaves institutionalized discrimination intact. Were maternity, paternity, and parenthood leave—leave for both parents to care for very young children—to exist as usual and routine institutional practice, there would be little fear that women would be punished for the fact of their reproductive cycles.

The early 70s found me writing my dissertation and job-hunting in a market just beginning its descent into the mid-70’s recession. I’d already begun to publish; my dissertation advisers had written warm letters of recommendation. But I’d been my department’s lone curriculum-reform activist (the comp lit and English departments were among Harvard’s most conservative in the late 60’s). To boot, I’d challenged my department chairman in a full meeting with graduate students. After the meeting he summoned me to his office, drew out a file on me, and threatened me about my career future. Ever the rebel,  I wrote a letter to The Harvard Crimson  exposing the incident, which I interpreted as an example of  academic professionalism in all its nastiness.  Unsurprisingly, I had a very hard time finding an academic job. When two Boston-area colleges offered me full-time positions and then retracted, I drew the obvious conclusion.

The struggles to find an academic job, assert myself in marriage to a much-respected professor, and keep both personal and professional life afloat, were hard enough without bringing an innocent into the picture. As for my husband, he was avoiding parenthood for reasons of his own.  Instead of becoming parents ourselves, we moved in 1970 into a house with two academic couples who had infants. In the intimacy of communal living we saw first-hand  the toll child rearing, despite everyone’s best intentions, took on the mothers. Still, one summer I burst out, “Oh, why DON’T we have a kid?” “Wait till the winter,” rejoined my husband, “when you’re studying full-time. If you still want to do it, we can talk.” Now, notice the hermetic nature of this conversation: it was him versus me versus the future baby. Nothing else entered as it might have had we been, say, Danish. In which case he might have said: “Your college’s daycare center or mine? And, by the way, are we ready for this?” No: in sink-or-swim-by-yourself America it was “an individual decision” —one from which he exempted himself.

To do him justice my then-husband, known for both his loyalty and sense of responsibility, would have become a full-time mother if he’d had to.  I was self-preoccupied in studies and political pursuits as men were supposed to be but women weren’t; I showed only a patchy interest in other people’s children. Soon after the birth of their child the downstairs couple divorced. He moved out; she stayed. Sometimes she’d take an overnight holiday, on which occasion she’d ask us to stay in her apartment. When the baby woke up crying, it was my husband who lurched out of bed to hold and feed her. This, you may say, was evidence that we’d be splendidly equipped to share parenting 50-50. And, you might add, what would have been so bad about a role-reversed, untraditional 60-40 or 70-30? After all, women have been at worse odds forever. The bottom line was that I—as I put it to myself —”just didn’t want them enough to insist.” Nor did I feel it right, given that I myself didn’t want to run the multiple-lives marathon, to suppose anyone else should have to, either.

While I was making (or not making) up my mind, a friend of Susan’s and mine, Rosalie, who was living alone in Paris after getting a graduate degree from MIT, had a baby. She was in her mid-thirties and writing her second dissertation for a doctorate at the Sorbonne. There were major differences between Rosalie and me. She was hell-bent on having a child; I wasn’t. She was far braver than I; I would never have had a child as a single woman. But she also lived in France, whose national health care system included options that for US mothers were as far out of reach as if they existed on Mars. I believe she got three months off before the birth and between six and nine months after. She received her full salary; no one penalized her for her absence when she returned to work. Her health care and that of her child were and still are guaranteed by the state. I don’t know about daycare in France twenty years ago, but the very fact that there was universally guaranteed, paid maternity leave tempered the atmosphere in which Rosalie decided to become a mother. She probably would have gone the same route in the US, where increasing numbers of women professionals in my circles were single parents, but the climate where she lived certainly helped her in her decision. In France the law took account of the whole human lives of women; the state did not view pregnancy, childbirth and child rearing as irresponsible self-indulgences in women professionals.

Had there been a similar atmosphere in the US and its universities in the 60s and early 70s, I might have felt more at ease to have a child than I did.  If Harvard had what we recommended in one of our resolutions—”day-care centers…institutionally-funded, parent-controlled, staffed by both men and women, and open to children from the age of six weeks on” – the world of study would have been quite different. There are, of course, other “ifs.” Had I been a Dutiful Daughter rather than an isolated rebel in my department—had I, that is, been not myself but another young woman—I’d have undoubtedly gotten a full-time job in the region, if not the city, gotten my career “in place” and felt more at leisure to have a baby. Again, had I been born eight to fifteen years later than I was, with the benefit of at least some older role models and a curriculum friendlier to women than that of the 60s, I’d have been part of a generation where women of my background felt a surer right to both children and career. I might have been surer in my desire when I made my impulsive suggestion to my husband that summer. And in his turn he might have said, “Yes, let’s!” But then, as the saying goes, if pigs had wings they’d fly.