Some decades linger. The calendar read 1971, but Boston and Cambridge were still in the thick of the 1960s. Protest marches regularly snaked through the streets and rallies were held under a purple haze on Boston Common.
On Saturday, March 6, 1971, International Women’s Day, when Beacon Hill residents heard the amplified voices of another rally on Boston Common, it seemed business as usual. But it wasn’t. The rally and subsequent march ended in a takeover by women of a Harvard-owned building at 888 Memorial Drive in Cambridge. The women remained in the drafty building for 10 days under threat of arrest and forcible eviction by police. The action led to the establishment of the Women’s Center in Cambridge, which exists to this day and is the oldest continuously operating community women’s center in the United States.
Local women’s groups had discussed issues and possible actions for several months leading up to March 6. One group, Bread and Roses, discussed taking over a building and turning it into a women’s center. The discussions led to a list of demands: safe spaces for women, reproductive rights, equal pay, an end to incarceration of non-violent offenders, universal, free, community-controlled childcare, universal, free medical care, and ending corporate exploitation of women’s bodies.
In 1971, abortion was illegal, newspaper employment ads were separated by gender, divorced women lost access to credit, and there was no place for a woman to go to escape her batterer. Lesbians were all but invisible and trans-people and bisexuals had yet to be included in the gay and lesbian movement.
The morning of March 6, began chilly, in the low 40s, but the uniform of the day, lumberjack shirts and jeans under parkas and overcoats kept many of the women warm. Still, most were not prepared for a long stay in a cold building. When the speakers had concluded, they marched past the Playboy Club, booing and chanting. As they approached the bridge to Cambridge, they shouted words of solidarity to the women prisoners at the Charles Street Jail, who responded in kind.
When they arrived in Cambridge, Judy Smith, a participant, recalled in a blog post, hearing an “electrifying announcement… whoever wanted to, could join in a sit-in at a Harvard-owned building to demand that the University support a citywide Cambridge women’s center.” The marchers were buzzing about the takeover as they continued down Massachusetts Avenue. But then to the surprise of the police who attempted to corral them, the marchers took a left on Pearl Street, and marched into history.
A small group of women had snuck into 888 Memorial Drive that morning to prepare for the arrival of the marchers. The building was used by Harvard’s graduate design school. When they came upon a male graduate student, they told him it was time for him to leave and he did.
It seems likely that the evicted graduate student was the first person to inform Harvard officialdom about the takeover. Before long, Mary Bunting, president of Radcliffe College, and Harvard Crisis Manager, Archibald Cox, (later of Watergate fame) became involved. Harvard had just come through a tumultuous period of demonstrations and the administration wanted to avoid violence and the media coverage that accompanied it. Cox was in sympathy with some of the goals, if not the methods, of the protestors.
Although counts are never easily verified, about 150 women entered the building. As they gazed around the large, open space they felt exhilarated. Laura Whitehorn, one of the women occupying the building, later recalled in a blog post that the first hours were exciting but tense. “We expected to be arrested by police just hours after claiming the building…” At one point, the police approached the front door. The women fell silent and to their surprise the police departed.
As the hours went by, the women organized working groups for planning, cleaning, skills-building, and so forth. According to Libby Bovier, a member of the 888 Memorial Drive Women’s History Project, the Harvard police may been reluctant to use force as Radcliffe students may have been inside. They also may have deferred to the Cambridge police, waiting for them to act. But the Cambridge police were loath to get involved in a Harvard-owned property dispute. In general, everyone was looking for a way to avoid a confrontation. This was after all, a building full of women and neither police force wanted to be on the news bashing through the front door.
Harvard was not making it easy for the occupiers, however. Archibald Cox reminded them via bullhorn that they were trespassing and that they risked arrest. The electricity was turned off. Friends brought space heaters and food. Harvard-associated women, such as Susan Story Lyman, visited the building, seeking common ground. The University sought and was given an injunction ordering the women to leave but they refused.
Inside the building, an alliance between a local housing rights group was forged and a party for local children brought the women closer to the surrounding community. Decisions were reached by consensus, which took time but spread power to more than the loudest participants. For the first time in their lives, lesbian women expressed affection openly.
After 10 days of attempted negotiation, freezing temperatures and exhilarating solidarity, the women left the building. A donation, anonymous at the time, by Susan Storey Lyman, was offered to the women for a down payment on a house for a women’s center Cambridge. Added to the money the women already had raised, they were soon able to open the Center, which is on Pleasant Street in Cambridge.
A documentary film of the action, Left On Pearl, is being produced and several early versions were shown at venues in the Boston area and elsewhere. A recent successful, online fundraising effort will allow the producers to raise the production to PBS standards, where they would like it shown. Clips of the film are on the website, leftonpearl.org.
In looking back, Rochelle Ruthchild, a participant, is not looking for icon status for the women in the building in 1971. “We want people to know that they can do it too. This was part of a long struggle and the struggle continues.”