Women began studying with Harvard professors and working in biology and botany labs on campus as early as the 1820s. But, Mbaye and Fabber explained, they were still denied admission to the College and graduate Schools. By the middle of the 19th century, women could participate in lectures and even take examinations (such as modern-day SATs), but could gain only a certificate if they passed, not admission.
In the late 1800s, small groups of women were offered some Harvard courses taught by Harvard professors. The organization became known as the Harvard Annex, which years later would become Radcliffe College, and would operate separately from Harvard.
The tour relates how some Harvard professors were warned against the “dangers” of teaching at Radcliffe, because its students didn’t offer the “mental resistance” necessary to keep professors’ minds sharp. It also profiles notable female professors in various Schools throughout the University’s history and looks at when, and how, men’s and women’s classrooms integrated, campus spaces such as libraries became co-educational, and most dramatically, dorms began to integrate.
Fabber said she was surprised by the way integration evolved at Harvard. “We always mention it on the historical tour, and the information is always presented as, ‘Oh they switched. They integrated,’” she said. “But then when we started doing research and began writing the women’s tours, I realized just how many accounts there were from these women who were the first to make the switch, and all the harassment they encountered in order to do this, and start this process of merging colleges and creating a more equal playing field. It was very interesting, very eye-opening.”
Mbaye agreed. “In the historical tour, we simply mention that Radcliffe was founded,” she said. “But there is so much more — the process of how it was founded, and the difficulties people faced, and just how difficult it was for women to get an education.”
Just 21 years ago, in 1999, Radcliffe and Harvard College officially merged, and women too were able to graduate with a Harvard College degree. Since that time, Harvard has been steadily expanding gender equity on campus, and working to raise awareness of women’s and gender issues. The tour examines newer courses and concentrations, including the Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality (WGS).