From the Harvard Annex to Radcliffe College

By Talia Weisberg

Although Harvard was established in 1636, women were not welcome to the college in any capacity until the 1870s. Most Harvard students today know that previous generations of Harvard women had to matriculate at Radcliffe, but few know about the efforts that nineteenth century feminists exerted to establish a women’s college at Harvard.

In 1879, advocates for women’s education opened a school for women at Harvard colloquially known as the Annex. Arthur Gilman, who spearheaded and financed the project, was inspired by the desire to give his daughter an education beyond what the women’s colleges or seminaries that had been recently established could offer. Several high-profile Cambridge women helped manage this new Annex, including women with familiar last names, such as Elizabeth Cary Agassiz and Mary B. Greenough.

And thus, Radcliffe’s precursor, the Harvard Annex, was established for 27 students in a building on Appian Way. Women who enrolled in the Annex were not given Harvard housing and therefore forced to find lodging with Cambridge families, but they did have access to Harvard libraries, were subject to the same admissions criteria as men, learned the same lessons from the same professors, and sat through the same exams. True to Gilman’s dream, the Annex curriculum covered a wider span than other women’s colleges of the era did, from languages to history to music to physics. Radcliffe distinguished itself from other women’s colleges because its students took classes with Harvard professors – Radcliffe did not actually have any of its own faculty. Fifty women were students at the Annex in 1885; by 1891, there were 172.

The women’s education advocates who created the Annex hoped that the success of the endeavor would encourage Harvard to admit women directly into the college. The president at the time, Eliot, did not share their progressive views on women’s education, and refused to merge the two schools. “The difficulties involved in a common residence of hundreds of young men and women of immature character and marriageable age are very grave. The necessary police regulations are exceedingly burdensome,” Eliot said.

Because Harvard refused to officially recognize the Annex, women who finished the four-year program only received a certificate of completion and not a degree. After intense negotiations between Annex and Harvard administrators, this injustice was finally rectified in 1894. It was agreed that the Annex would become Radcliffe College, a degree-granting institution for women under the auspices of Harvard.

When Radcliffe was established, the center of women’s education at Harvard moved out of the house on Appian Way and into what are now known as the Quad and Radcliffe Yard. Radcliffe and Harvard continued to have a complicated relationship throughout the twentieth century, but Radcliffe was able to maintain the reputation as one of the most preeminent institutions of higher learning for American women.

Although Harvard is now completely coeducational and neither the Annex nor Radcliffe confers degrees any longer, Harvard students who care about empowering women must not forget the history behind coeducation at Harvard. Women and men of the 1800s and 1900s worked tirelessly for our right to an equal education. Some people may think that the nineteenth century push for women’s education and twentieth century push for coeducation were the inevitable products of progress, but in reality, there is no such concept as “oh, it would have happened no matter what.” Activists had to actively work towards these goals. Had they not, the historical narrative would have read very differently. It is our duty to ensure that the legacy of the creators of the Annex and advocates of women’s education at Harvard is not forgotten.

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