January 19, 2018

The Historic Harvard Campus Building That Once Housed a Feminist Takeover

888 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

photo by: Cambridge Historical Commission

888 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At the height of the women’s liberation movement, a rarely used Harvard University design school building on 888 Memorial Drive in Cambridge, Massachusetts, became the perfect site for a history-making occupation. Over 100 women took over the building on International Women’s Day in March 1971. Their goal? To live collectively in a “Liberated Women’s Center” until the city of Cambridge met their demands to house the community’s first official women’s center.

During a protest on International Women’s Day, the women—a coalition of several different groups and ideologies—broke off from their expected march route to downtown and, instead, barricaded themselves inside the 888 Building. The Liberated Women’s Center held out for 10 days, despite threats of a police bust from both Harvard and the local government.

During the occupation, 888 Memorial Drive transformed into a place where women from all walks of life could come together and find solidarity with each other. The Liberated Women’s Center housed self-defense classes and offered childcare services. Women danced, cooked, and talked about the goals of their movement. A number of LGBT women came out during the occupation, and were finally able to freely express their sexuality in a safe space.

Photo of International Women's Day, 1971.

photo by: Don Preston

Protest on International Women's Day in March 1971.

At the same time as the takeover, a group of activists called the Riverside Planning Committee were demanding that Harvard create more affordable housing options for residents of the nearby Riverside community. The university had been forcibly evicting Riverside residents from Cambridge for years in order to build more student and faculty housing.

The Riverside Planning Committee specifically demanded that Harvard redevelop the 888 building and nearby Treeland, a garden center also owned by the University, into low-income housing. Saundra Graham, the leader of the committee, had taken the stage at a Harvard commencement in 1970 to demand that Harvard give the Riverside community Treeland and the 888 building.

A year later, when the Liberated Women’s Center came to fruition, Graham met with the coalition of women to make them aware of the community’s struggle for housing. In response, the women added low-income housing for the Riverside community to their list of demands.

The Riverside community supported the takeover at first, even offering food and supplies to the women inside the building. But some members of the Riverside Planning Committee later opposed the occupation; as time went by, they grew worried that the university would refuse to develop the low-income housing on 888 Memorial Drive. Eventually, the community was offered some affordable housing, though it wasn’t enough to make up for what had been lost.

Thanks to a donation of $5,000 from Sue Lyman (then chair of the Harvard’s Radcliffe Board of Trustees) and other funds raised during the occupation, the women successfully purchased a residential building in downtown Cambridge that was converted into the Cambridge Women’s Center. The center went on to create Boston’s Rape Crisis Center, the first shelter for battered women in Cambridge. Today, it also provides free childcare and teaches self-defense and other classes. According to a 2012 story in the Harvard Crimson, it is the oldest still-operating women’s center in the country.

Although it is now demolished, the historic 888 Building can live on, in part thanks to the 2017 documentary Left on Pearl. The documentary explores the occupation and its implications for women’s liberations with the people who were present at this historic event. We interviewed producer and director Susie Rivo and executive producer Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild to learn more about the documentary and the 1971 occupation of 888 Memorial Drive.

Why did you choose to become involved with this documentary?

Ruthchild: I was part of the march and takeover, and wanted to document it while we still had our memories, and because this is a story that shows the ways in which the social movements of the time [the 1960s and ‘70s] interacted and intersected. The women’s movement is, of all the social movements of the 20th century, the least documented—in film especially.

Rivo: I was initially hired to do some interviews [for the film], and it just grew—it was a labor of love for many years. I’m interested in that period of time in general, and that experience of women’s protest in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Women began to talk to each other about the ways they were oppressed that hadn’t been verbalized, or even conceptualized, before.

It’s not the story of the building that interested me so much as the women’s stories. How did they get there? What motivated them? And so many people were involved from all different walks of life: People who weren’t political before, women living in the suburbs who heard about [the occupation] on the radio, and the women who were very much aware who organized it. And there were lesbians who hadn’t really come out yet, who finally could. So there were a lot of firsts happening in that building, in that takeover.

Why did women decide on 888 Memorial Drive for the occupation, rather than another building on Harvard’s campus?

Ruthchild: The 888 Memorial Drive building was ideal in that it was not well used, was away from the main Harvard campus, and had large open spaces. When the march took place, the police assumed we would march right into Harvard Square, and they were prepared for that. The taking of 888 Memorial Drive caught them by surprise. Why were the marchers marching down a side street in the middle of Cambridge? The police struggled to catch up.

Why was the 888 building demolished?

Rivo: Harvard had wanted to put student housing on that site. They had always planned on demolishing the building, but after this event, the police didn’t want these women coming back here, and they were worried that other groups might try to do the same thing. People were taking over buildings all the time [in the ‘60s and ‘70s]. It was major chaos—anti-war protests mostly—so the building seemed to be tempting for other similar activities.

Ruthchild: Harvard began demolition of the building on November 1, 1971. The official reasons [from a 1971 story in the1971 story in the Harvard Crimson] were: “The building is being torn down now because the Design School no longer uses it, and it is unsuitable for use. The vacant building is a maintenance problem and a blight on the landscape. The building is being fumigated before demolition ‘for sanitary reasons,’ said Joseph Stasa, Harvard’s Assistant director of Planning. ‘You know what happened there earlier in the spring. The building was invaded. Something might spread while it is being demolished.’ Stasa denied that the women’s occupation influenced the decision to tear it down, however.”

Photo of Hingham Knitting Factory sign.

photo by: Jeff Albertson, Special Collections, U Mass Amherst Library

The 888 building was a former knitting factory, owned by Harvard University.

Tell me about the history of the building that housed the Cambridge Women’s Center.

Rivo: It was built at the turn of the 19th century was owned by a doctor who had a private practice in his house. It’s in Center Square [in downtown Cambridge] so it’s convenient to public transportation. The women were looking for any kind of building they could possibly purchase with the $5,000 donation and the other money they had saved raised for a [$9,000] down payment. That building cost $28,000 at the time in 1971.

The takeover was in the same neighborhood, and it was meant to dramatize the need for a women’s center and other demands. But the building the women ended up in was the one they found on the market. They probably wouldn’t have easily been able to do that before the takeover, but they got the additional money from Sue Lyman, who was the head of the Radcliffe Board of Trustees at the time. She didn’t do that on behalf of Radcliffe, though—that was her own money.

This story hasn’t been widely publicized as a key moment in the women’s rights movement, even though it carries a lot of weight. Why do you think that is?

Ruthchild: Much of the history of the early second wave has not been publicized. Particularly notable is the lack of attention to the more radical segments of the women’s movement: those calling for women’s liberation, equality plus the transformation of society, and systems that support patriarchy and the inequities of capitalism. It is telling that the main demands of the International Women’s Day march [in 1971] were for affordable housing, 24-hour childcare, reproductive rights, and equal pay for equal work, which are still so timely today. And until recently, attention to the role of lesbians in the second wave has been lacking. The takeover was the first feminist action of the time when lesbians played an active and open role.

Rivo: I think that stories about women are just not considered very important to the historical record. This is a story about protest and activism, but because it was led by and for women exclusively, it has been dismissed. [The takeover] was well-known in Cambridge and got a lot of media attention at that time, but much of it was contemptuous and condescending: [People seemed to be asking], Who do these little girls think they are?

Left on Pearl is available at the following showings. The documentary is not yet available for purchase.

Carson Bear is an Editorial Assistant at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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