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'Left on Pearl': A remembrance

In recognition of International Women's Day, YourArlington is highlighting the following article published March 19, 2018:

As I entered Artbeat: The Creativity Store and Studio, in Capitol Square, to interview proprietor Jan Whitted, I suddenly felt like I was participating in the PBS documentary series, "We'll Meet Again." Like the participants in the PBS show, our lives intersected at an extraordinary moment in history:

888 Memorial Drive in 1971 from 'Left on Pearl.'
888 Memorial Drive in 1971 from 'Left on Pearl.'

For us, that moment was when women marched into a Harvard owned building in 1971 with the goals of establishing a women's center and securing affordable housing for people displaced by Harvard expansion. Although we were both among the hundreds of women who took part in the takeover of the Harvard building, we met face-to-face for the first time the day I interviewed her this month. 


More photos >>


That 1971 event is the subject of a new documentary, "Left on Pearl: Women Take Over 888 Memorial Drive," which Jan arranged to be shown at the Capitol Theater on March 17 and was sold out.

A second benefit showing is planned for Thursday, April 5, at 6:45 p.m. at the Capitol. Buy tickets at Artbeat, call 781-646-2200 or click here >>  

Proceeds from the film benefit the 888 Memorial Drive History Project, to pay for distribution costs.

Sort of joint memoir

After exchanging greetings, Jan and I decided to weave together our personal recollections –- a sort of joint memoir.

Both of us agreed that to understand the women's occupation of the building, one needed to understand the political climate. So we started there.

Jan Whitted, 2018
Whitted, 2018

This "takeover" was not the first time during the tumultuous 1960s and '70s that a group of movement activists had occupied a university building to further their goals. Many takeovers were related to the growing opposition to the Vietnam War. Harvard itself had experienced a student takeover of the administrative offices in 1969 to demand that a military-officers' training program be moved off campus; this led to a university-wide student strike.

Jo Anne Preston, 1971
Preston, 1971

As we reminisced about the early 1970s, we recounted some of the oppression women faced both on and off university campuses. Women in the United States earned only 59 percent of what men earned for full-time work; child care was unavailable to most women; a married women could not open a bank account without her husband's permission; battered wives and rape victims had nowhere to seek help; the professions of law and medicine heavily discriminated against women; women had little in the way of reproductive rights.

Even at Harvard, a bastion of privilege, I recalled how women suffered institutional discrimination of all kinds. Women composed only 8 percent of the law students and were not allowed to live in the dorms (women now make up 48 percent of the law-school student body). Women undergraduates, while taking exams in Lowell Hall, had to leave the building and cross the street to use the bathroom.

The march ended differently

Negative attitudes toward women and their abilities could be found everywhere. I remembered when the campus police found what looked to be a bomb in Harvard Yard with a note from a feminist collective attached. The police reported to the media that the bomb could not possibility have been built by women because it was too complicated.       

The accumulated frustration from a lack of change fueled the events on March 6, 1971. On a brisk, cloudy day, in celebration of International Women's Day, Jan and I joined thousands of women on a then annual and increasingly militant International Women's Day March from Cambridge to Boston and back to Cambridge again. As the women marchers filled Charles Street, I remembered a chant directed at those leaning out the windows that resonated loudly against the brick buildings. Or rather I remember the first line: "Out of the kitchens." Jan remembered the rest of the phrase: "And into the streets," followed by "Join us.

But this time the march ended differently. As women approached Central Square in Cambridge, the women in the lead of the march redirected the women to take a left on Pearl Street. As march neared Memorial Drive, the marchers entered a large brick building, apparently used from time to time by the Harvard School of Design. The goal was to establish a women's center. Neither Jan nor I recalled having any idea of what was to happen.

Once in the bulding, women organized

Once in the building, women went about making the place inhabitable. Next, they organized day care, instruction about car mechanics and carpentry, self-defense courses, classes on women's history and political discussion groups. When Jan mentioned taking the karate course, I remembered I was also in that class.

Soon, the occupants of the building became more diverse. After the initial occupation, the women were joined by the neighborhood group, the Riverside Planning Committee, many of whose members were African-American. This group had been protesting Harvard's expansion into their community and demanding compensatory affordable housing. Some lesbians found that the building was the first place they could openly express affection.

Not all organized activities were instructional. There was dancing every night, and potluck dinners. Women's groups throughout the Boston area felt a responsibility to support the women occupying the building. Shifts of supporters brought food and participated in work projects. Jan recalled the feelings of excitement and solidarity experienced by women of different sexual orientations, racial backgrounds and class origins.  

At the same time, the positive feelings were tempered by fear of what might happen to the women inside the building. I recalled how the Cambridge police drove by with bullhorns and flashing lights reading the court injunction obtained by Harvard to vacate the building. "Feeling terrified" is how Jan characterized how many women felt.

1969 Harvard protests

Only two years before, Cambridge police had beaten Harvard students when they occupied the administration building as part of antiwar protests. 

Some hostile groups also gathered outside, most notably members of the Harvard Republican Club. This gathering of members, all male, decried the taking of private property. Those inside leaned out the windows and yelled, "Any women down there?"

For 10 cold days and dark nights (Harvard had turned off the heat and electricity), the women persevered. While a core of more than 100 women remained in the building full time, many more continued on a daily basis to bring in food, take classes and attend to the children in the day-care room. Jan recalled how she prepared and delivered meals.

Repeatedly, the women voiced their demands for a women's center. They envisioned that would offer services for battered wives and rape victims, sponsor self-defense classes and child care, provide a meeting place for gay women and give classes in birth control. In addition, they wanted Harvard to construct affordable housing in the Riverside neighborhood.

Negotiations resisted

Negotiations met strong resistance from Harvard, and there were many misunderstandings. For instance, I remembered how campus police surrounded the main Harvard School of Design building, a long distance from the occupied building on Memorial Drive, because Harvard feared that the women's goal was to take over the entire architectural school.

Finally, an anonymous donor, now known to have been Sue Lyman, the chair of Harvard's Radcliffe Board of Trustees, offered a significant amount of money for a down payment for a building. Harvard also agreed to build affordable housing. The women left the building.

What immediate demands were fulfilled? A house just off Central Square was soon purchased and became the oldest still operating women's center in the country. Soon after, women purchased the new building; they organized services for women, among them a rape crisis center, a shelter for battered women and their children, and a women’s school offering instruction in self-defense, women's history and auto mechanics. Harvard built some affordable housing for the Riverside neighborhood.

The occupation had even greater significance. At a time when women in large numbers participated in many social movements, this was one of the first times a building occupation led by women and for the women had been carried out. The popular slogan of the day, "Sisterhood is Powerful," stood for what women could accomplish together for the good of all women.

Differences do not rule out change

"Women do not have to be exactly alike to work together to make change happen," commented Jan, when we reflected on what was learned from the takeover. We observed that women from diverse backgrounds, political views and sexual orientations worked productively together in the occupied building.

Not everyone thought the takeover was a positive event. Seven months later, Harvard tore down the building at 888 Memorial Drive. Before that happened, it was thoroughly fumigated. Joseph Stasa, assistant director of planning, explained the need for it as follows: "You know what happened there earlier in the spring. The building was invaded. Something might spread while it is being demolished."

However, if one walks down Memorial Drive to the intersection with Western Avenue, and takes a left to Hingham Street, she will find a plaque placed by the Cambridge Historical Commission. It reads:

"888 Memorial Drive. Site of a Harvard Building occupied by feminists who demanded affordable housing, childcare, and education, and founded the Cambridge Women’s Center, March 6-15, 1971."


This news summary, which includes opinion, was published Monday, March 19, 2018, and updated March 7, 2019.

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Comments

Guest - kathleen McLeod on Saturday, 06 March 2021 10:22
Left on Pearl

I saw the film in Harvard Square Film Archives a few years ago,
and some there were part of this incredible movement.

I was having to adjust to Motherhood then, but it was in l976-77
I joined a Women's Center at UNH and some political work was
evident that women could not be empowered with their own building (we were used an abandoned chicken coop!) and have
any influence on campus. Of course, this was what we expected.

thank you for this invitation to see the film and it is quite a piece of history.

kathleen McLeod

I saw the film in Harvard Square Film Archives a few years ago, and some there were part of this incredible movement. I was having to adjust to Motherhood then, but it was in l976-77 I joined a Women's Center at UNH and some political work was evident that women could not be empowered with their own building (we were used an abandoned chicken coop!) and have any influence on campus. Of course, this was what we expected. thank you for this invitation to see the film and it is quite a piece of history. kathleen McLeod
Guest - Mary Fusoni on Monday, 19 March 2018 13:50
Thanks for more context on this great film!

I too was part of that march that went "Left on Pearl" and took over the building, but until I first saw the film I didn't know how the women who organized the takeover managed to pull it off. At the time I was working just a few blocks away as the office manager for Cambridge Legal Services, so I came by often to see what was happening in the building (and a lot was happening, as this article makes clear). The only woman lawyer in our office, Sarah Rainey, helped with legal strategizing for the occupying women. I appreciate that both the film and this article highlight the concrete outcome of the takeover: the establishment of the still-thriving Cambridge Women's Center, as well as some affordable housing. I've seen the film 3 times—twice while it was in progress and finally last year in finished form. It is both informative and highly entertaining—really well made. I hope to get to the next showing on April 5 and I will definitely check out that commemorative plaque. Thank you, Jo Anne and Jan (and Bob for publishing).

I too was part of that march that went "Left on Pearl" and took over the building, but until I first saw the film I didn't know how the women who organized the takeover managed to pull it off. At the time I was working just a few blocks away as the office manager for Cambridge Legal Services, so I came by often to see what was happening in the building (and a lot was happening, as this article makes clear). The only woman lawyer in our office, Sarah Rainey, helped with legal strategizing for the occupying women. I appreciate that both the film and this article highlight the concrete outcome of the takeover: the establishment of the still-thriving Cambridge Women's Center, as well as some affordable housing. I've seen the film 3 times—twice while it was in progress and finally last year in finished form. It is both informative and highly entertaining—really well made. I hope to get to the next showing on April 5 and I will definitely check out that commemorative plaque. Thank you, Jo Anne and Jan (and Bob for publishing).
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