The history of women at Harvard is long, layered, nuanced, and complex. Although they did not have any academic opportunities until the late 19th century, women participated in the University community from its founding in 1636, as family members of faculty, administrators, and students. Women were also some of the University’s earliest donors.
In the 18th century, enslaved women, including Venus and Bilhah, worked and lived in the homes of Harvard presidents Wadsworth and Holyoke.
The College has also employed women from its founding, filling jobs as cooks, sweepers, librarians, and administrators; as early as the 1800s, the scrubwomen who cleaned students’ rooms and buildings were known as "Goodies," a term presumably derived from "Goodwife." Many Harvard students also interacted with women from the Cambridge community who ran boardinghouses and provided services as laundresses and seamstresses.
Additionally, many Harvard faculty wives have made significant intellectual contributions to their husbands’ work, rarely receiving recognition for their efforts. Once such early example of this occurred during the Revolutionary War, when Hannah Winthrop (1727-1790) collaborated with husband John Winthrop (1714-1779) on his astronomical observations. This tradition of spousal collaboration has spanned centuries and is documented in many of our archival collections.
Radcliffe College & Education for Women
As Harvard did not admit women as students, nor did it offer any other official academic status, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz founded the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, known colloquially as “the Harvard Annex,” in 1879. By 1890, more than 200 women were enrolled in the program, and in 1894, the newly named Radcliffe College was granted an official charter by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with Agassiz serving as its first president. Despite the establishment of multiple women’s colleges across New England during this period, Harvard continued to refuse the admission of women as students or to recognize them in any official academic roles.
In 1943, a donation of suffragist material assembled by Maud Wood Park established the Radcliffe Library, which is now known as the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.
During World War II, Harvard temporarily permitted Radcliffe students to enroll in all courses at Harvard College, allowing women students into Harvard classrooms for the first time.
In 1948, Helen Maud Cam became the first female faculty member to be tenured at Harvard. Astronomy professor Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin became the first woman member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to be promoted to full professor in 1956, and later became the first female to head a department at Harvard.
In 1963, Harvard degrees were awarded to Radcliffe students, and women were accepted into Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In 1967, Lamont Library allowed women access to its stacks for the first time.
In 1970, the first joint Harvard and Radcliffe commencement was held in Harvard Yard, and the following year, all Harvard and Radcliffe houses became coed. After many years of a gradually shifting relationship, Radcliffe and Harvard combined their admissions in 1975 (the class of 1979 was the last cohort accepted through a separate Radcliffe College admissions office), but were not completely merged until 1999, thus establishing the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
The Graduate Schools
Harvard’s graduate schools have their own gender histories. The Harvard Graduate School of Education was the first to admit women in 1920. The Harvard Medical School accepted its first female enrollees in 1945, although a woman had first applied almost 100 years earlier, in 1847. A special meeting of the President and Fellows of Harvard College on August 14 concluded that "the corporation do not deem it advisable to alter the existing regulations of the Medical School, which imply that the students are exclusively of the male sex." Women began petitioning the Harvard Law School for admittance in 1871, but were not admitted until 1950.
Important milestones for women at the college continue into the 21st century. Harvard College opened its Women’s Center in 2006. The following year, Drew Faust became Harvard’s first woman appointed to Harvard's Presidency, leading the University from 2007 to 2018. In 2018, Claudine Gay was appointed as the first woman and first Black person of color to be dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University. In 2023, she would later become the first person of color appointed as President of Harvard University.
For more information about the history of women at Harvard, please refer to the book Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.