Harvard Co-Eds: Then and Now

By Jamie Tanzer

The next time you walk through Harvard Yard, take a moment to appreciate how the scene you see has changed in the past few decades. No, I’m not talking about the huge clusters of overenthusiastic tourists. I’m talking about the women.

It’s all too easy to forget that it was just 40 years ago that women were first officially admitted to Harvard College, although Radcliffe women had previously attended Harvard classes. But even as they won a battle in the classrooms, the war waged on in the dorms. The admission of women into Harvard came in the wake of a wave of progress in women’s rights in the 1960s that also had important effects on dorm policy, including gender-integrated housing and increased social and sexual freedom. Just as housing policies played a big part in the discussion about integrating Harvard and Radcliffe forty years ago, today, Harvard’s lack of a consistent gender-neutral housing policy is a topic of contention for many students, and especially in the queer community.

Until Harvard implemented co-ed housing in the late 1960s, Harvard’s housing policy was marked by discussions about separating men and women and regulating sex. First, men had nicer housing than women. Radcliffe women were isolated in what is now the Quad, where some described feeling cramped (many rooms that were meant to be singles were turned into doubles), “left out,” and even “existentially stunted”. They desired not only the superior physical environment of the Harvard houses, with their larger rooms and proximity to the heart of campus, but also their more intellectual atmosphere. In the Radcliffe dorms, rather than prioritizing community and learning, the tutors were more concerned with enforcing parietal rules, which specified when and how students of opposite sexes could socialize. Often restricted to just a few visiting hours a week and constrained by the clichéd “open door, one foot on the floor” policy requiring that the door be open and students keep at least one foot on the floor while entertaining a guest of the opposite sex in their room, students felt controlled and frustrated.

Students had two main complaints about parietal rules, the first of which was ideological: they felt that in establishing these strict regulations, the administrators were attempting to control students’ personal choices and dictate their values and sense of morality.

The second complaint was more practical and was based on the social and psychological impacts of the parietal rules. Male and female students alike were concerned about the focus on sex that the rules created; enforcing rules that were clearly meant to prevent sex just made the students think about sex more. Rather than decrease premarital sex, as the administrators intended them to do, the parietal rules may have actually increased it, or at least forced students in romantic relationships to prioritize sex over other forms of intimacy. One student from the class of 1962 described this problem in a 1963 Crimson article. He worried that students were developing a “distorted view of sex” in which it became the “end-in-itself” of a relationship, and that this view was causing Harvard men to lose respect for women and treat women as nothing more than the means to an end. This psychological outlook could have had negative consequences beyond Harvard; it could have impacted the way students viewed sex and relationships after graduation and could have lessened their respect for women in all areas of life. Students were sick of having to choose between sex and communication, between a significant other and friends of the opposite sex.

A minority believed that if parietal rules weren’t strict enough, there would be a “loose moral situation” at Harvard and worried about the public scandals that could occur due to “untoward incidents” if parietals weren’t in place. In the early 1960s, the Deans of Harvard College considered cutting back parietal hours even as students rallied for decreased restrictions, but their plan was unrealistic. The momentum toward gender integration was building and couldn’t be stopped.

1969 was a key year for gender relations at Harvard. First, parietal rules were overturned, thanks to a petition signed by 1000 of 1200 undergraduates and 41 of 47 proctors. Then, Harvard put in place plans for co-ed housing. In the spring of 1970, gender integration was put into action as East (now part of Cabot) and Lowell, South (part of Cabot) and Adams, and North (Pforzheimer) and Winthrop paired up and exchanged 50 students each. Radcliffe houses were still segregated by floor, while Harvard’s were separated only by suite. Some conservative alumni and administrators were upset by dorm integration and the dissolution of parietal rules, but many students were happy with the changes in terms of academics, their social lives, and the practicality of living closer to the Yard.

The gender integration of the houses may have felt radical in the 1970s. But by a couple of decades later, students began to recognize and resist Harvard’s inconsistent and restrictive policies on co-ed rooming groups, which seemed to rely on a presumption of sexuality that ignored gay and lesbian students. Starting in the early 1990s, students filed formal complaints with Harvard asking for co-ed rooming groups. The Civil Liberties Union of Harvard (CLUH) wrote a report in 1992 outlining the issues with the policy on rooming groups.

First and foremost, Harvard’s existing policy stated that co-ed rooming groups were not allowed but never actually defined a “rooming group,” leading to inconsistencies in policy between houses based on different room and suite configurations. Dunster, Eliot, Kirkland, and Quincy Houses did not allow co-ed rooms while the other houses had inconsistent and complex rules that allowed some rooms to be co-ed based on various factors such as fire doors, number of bathrooms, and whether or not the bedroom doors locked. The report referred to these rules as “lacking in consistency” and “tenuous at best” and recommended that they be overturned.

CLUH found that restricting students of different genders from living together was problematic for many reasons. In a poll of undergraduates, the CLUH found that 90% of students supported changing the Harvard policy to allow co-educational rooming groups, 80% of students would consider forming co-educational rooming groups, and 36% considered themselves likely to do so if given the opportunity. The CLUH also highlighted the disrespect for students’ self-determination and choices that the policy demonstrated, as well as the lack of regard for homosexual relationships that they felt demonstrated hypocrisy and different standards for people based on their sexual orientation. This report, possibly thanks to the extensive data included, was somewhat successful in motivating a change to rooming policy; it resulted in co-ed rooming groups being theoretically allowed, but only if approved by house masters, which allows for subjectiveness and unfair disparity in policy between the houses.

Flash forward to modern day and the war still rages on. Though co-ed rooming groups are allowed if approved by the house masters, many students want to eliminate any gender-based restrictions on rooming and equalize policy across the houses. In 2007, the Undergraduate Council passed the Rooming Choice Act, which resolved that students should be able to live with whomever they please, regardless of gender, except in cases of “compelling special circumstances” and that housing policy should be standardized across the houses rather than allowing house masters to determine the rules for their house. This act passed 31-1-2 (in favor-against-abstain/absent) but the administration has not acted on the recommendation.

In the past few years, Queer Students and Allies has called attention to the importance of gender-neutral housing for trans* students and students who may not feel comfortable living in a single-gender room. Yet many houses still have restrictions around mixed-gender housing. Despite all of the progress achieved over the past few decades in terms of moving toward co-ed dorms, there is still one more step before students have full freedom in choosing their roommates.


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