The need for Manifesta started in 1636, when a school was founded in Cambridge that wasn’t interested in including women among its pupils. It started in 1952, when the first library in the country built exclusively for undergraduates was also built exclusively for males. It started in the late nineteenth century, when almost all of the people of color on campus were waitstaff, and when Jewish student enrollment was restricted by quotas. It started the first time a woman was sexually assaulted at a final club. It started when students were expelled for being gay in the 1920’s, and queer faculty members were shamed in the 1990s. It started the first time a student felt unsafe on this campus having to choose between a male and female bathroom.
Sometimes it’s easy to think that this is over and done with, part of a past solidly cut off from the present-day reality of life at Harvard College. Yet when we look closer, we find that vestiges remain even at the surface level, and that these histories shape much of the way we experience life here. We see concentrations of money, real estate, and social capital in the hands of groups dominated by white males. On the other hand, the centers for women, queer students, and students of color have been relegated to basements. And if we look a little deeper, we find that many of the investments enabling the University’s operation are in companies with abusive labor practices, from HEI Hotels and Resorts in the US, to companies forcibly displacing farmers in Southern Africa.
What does it mean to attend a school with a “rich history” when that richness is overwhelmingly literal, and overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of white men? When our fight songs were written about these men, our yearly traditions shaped by these men, and the majority of our housing was built for these men, how can women, people of color, working-class people and queer people find a way to feel relevant? How can we love this place without reservations?
The truth is, we can’t. We can’t love Harvard without reservations because we can’t wholeheartedly love the society that produced Harvard, and that Harvard in turn helps shape. Harvard’s history–and its present–is not an accident or an anomaly. It’s the product of systems that empower some people while oppressing others, systems that shape much of the world we live in today. As Harvard students, we’re inheritors of the vast social and educational privilege that comes with attending an institution like this. We have a responsibility to acknowledge this privilege. And we also have the responsibility to use it, to speak.
Our Manifesta is rooted in an engagement with these contradictions, but it grows from there. Above all, it comes from a feminism aimed at criticizing global systems of oppression that distort the way that all of us live our lives. It is about gender, but it is simultaneously and necessarily about race, class, sexuality, ability. It is a struggle that exists within the context of other struggles, and intersects with them, and has little meaning in and of itself without these intersections. And it requires the voices of many to keep moving forward.
In this, our Manifesta, we offer some of those voices.