I'm Radcliffe! Fly Me!
For a woman reading Liva Baker’s new book I’m Radcliffe! Fly Me!, the pain outweighs the pleasure. To most college-bound women of this century, the Seven Sisters Colleges (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley) promised a superb education and, by implication, an equally superb introduction to the professional world beyond the campus. The subtitle of Baker’s book, The Seven Sisters and the Failure of Women’s Education, and the subsequent study puncture this myth. Essentially, Baker claims that the Seven Sisters Colleges were formed to provide a separate-but-equal education for women whose brothers might be studying at the Ivy League Schools. They were imitative from inception, patterning their curricula on Harvard’s or Yale’s and have remained elite, nonradical units during the first one hundred years of their existence. Instead of teaching women how to compete in the world, the schools have tended to maintain a traditional, noncompetitive environment and to breed intelligent wives for achieving men. The title of David Halberstam’s study of the Kennedy years comes to mind: The Seven Sisters were able to select “the best and the brightest” and to maintain an uncontested standard of academic excellence. However, the accomplishments of these women throughout this century have been astonishingly lower than would have been expected from the brain trusts assembled. I’m Radcliffe! Fly Me!, written by a graduate of one of these Seven Sisters (Smith College), is an unabashed chronicle of the ways in which the schools did not support the self-actualization of women. It is poignant social history which attacks the once-proud sanctuary of women’s education and sees mirrored in its inadequacies the failure of society as a whole to take women seriously and to provide an education which would facilitate a critical, creative life.
The occasion for Baker’s study is the centennial celebrations of the Seven Sisters Colleges. Mary Lyon opened her Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1837, making Mount Holyoke the second women’s college in the United States, and between 1865 and 1894 the remaining six (Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard, in order of their opening) were founded. The group of schools became known as the Seven College Conference after an initial meeting in 1915 which functioned to maintain a loose communication among the schools. Since that time, this confederation has been nicknamed the Women’s Ivy League or the Seven Sisters, and the ties among the presidents, alumnae, and administrative personnel have continued. Today, the Conference has actually been reduced to five colleges because Vassar has become coeducational and Radcliffe has merged its admissions offices with Harvard. Baker sees the centennial as a watershed for the viability of these institutions as women’s colleges and for the still unconquered challenge of women’s education. Her history is therefore a review of the premises upon which these schools were founded, the actions which carried out these founding ideals, and the results of such values and methods as expressed in actual accomplishments by women outside the classroom. By such a review, Baker tries to clarify the issues involved in women’s education and to move the debate into the arena of the social and political questions of the next century.
The Women’s Movement and the Civil Rights Movement have, not surprisingly, coincided twice during the past hundred years, and while there are qualitative differences in the economic exploitation of the black community and the female community, the focus on such oppression inevitably unsettles members of both groups. Thus, the roots of the Women’s Movement in America became entangled with the struggles of the Southern slaves, and as women began to understand the politics of slavery, they began to address their own forms of servitude. The pressure for equal education was, of course, only one sign of the social upheaval, and the founding of the women’s colleges, like the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, provided only a partial solution or compromise to the more revolutionary demand for full equality. Still, to the young women who contemplated college life in the nineteenth century, the prospect seemed...
(The entire section is 1764 words.)