“Left on Pearl” – 1971 Feminist Takeover of a Harvard Building
So what’s funny about being in my 60s? It’s funny to be at an age where historical documentaries are being made about political actions I was involved in. Am I history?
Recently, on the exact fortieth anniversary of our takeover of a Harvard building, the final cut of “Left on Pearl” was shown to a sold-out crowd at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is a documentary about the 1971 feminist takeover of a Harvard University building – one of very few such incidents ever – leading to 10 days of occupation, political agitation, individual transformation and media hysteria. We activists were told to scurry back to our husbands’ kitchens. The press could not get enough of us, or rather of bashing us.
We occupied the building on March 6, 1971, by taking a “Left on Pearl” Street in Central Square in the aftermath of the downtown International Women’s Day rally when the police and the other marchers were both assuming we’d take the usual demonstration route, straight on Mass Ave, from Boston to Harvard Square.
Forty years ago?! Seems like only yesterday that a small group of Boston-based women began to pull together the take-over of this little-used warehouse-type Harvard building on 888 Memorial Drive in Cambridge. This University-to-the-bourgeoisie (some things never change) was then in the process of gobbling up and destroying the Riverside neighborhood of Cambridge, where a community movement resisted with wit and persistence.
No one had anticipated staying overnight, let alone for 10 days and nights, but as word got out (and it did so almost immediately despite this being a pre-cell phone, pre-Internet era), community folks brought us piles of blankets and casseroles. No one had anticipated bags of shorn hair as short haircuts once again became a symbol of defiance– as it had in the 1920s when women discarded corsets and long locks in favor of the bob. No one had planned on inspiring suburban women to rebelliously drop everything but the kids and come running for the first time in their lives. No one had anticipated how many ostensibly straight women would discover, in these close quarters, the irresistible charm of a woman comrade.
Like women everywhere who find themselves in crowded temporary quarters, we immediately built community, organized committees, established security rounds and began sharing skills. I taught self-defense and cut hair. Others displayed really amazing expertise: what pride we felt when our own members went right out and reconnected the electricity whenever Harvard turned it off.
What was the action about? We wanted a women’s center and we decided to wrest it from Harvard – and that was just one of the most immediate of our demands. Low cost housing for local residents was another, not the least because Riverside activists were contesting the University’s plans to build student housing on that very land. In fact, we frequently produced lists of demands during the takeover (such as free state-provided child care, an end to police brutality, legal aid, etc) – and the sad thing is how many of those demands/dreams remain unfulfilled to this day.
Of course those lists were the product of endless meetings in which the feminist goal of consensus led us to talk half through the night. There were the big issues and there were the process issues. I’m not sure if we ever fully resolved the conflict over whether or not necking during meetings was appropriate. Perhaps the most passionate exchanges were when/if/how to leave the building in the face of repeated threats of arrest and violence.
And now back to the present. This remarkable documentary, like the takeover plan back in the day, is a labor of love by a small group of unrelenting, committed feminists. It is produced by the 888 Women's History Project, whose members are Libby Bouvier, Susan Jacoby and Rochelle Ruthchild. Susie Rivo is the director/filmmaker, and she and Iftach Shavit are doing the editing. The videographer is Lynn Weissman.
As for those demands, while we still don’t have sufficient low-cost housing, accessible state child-care or most of the other things we sought, there is no denying that times have changed. “Left on Pearl” employs shocking archival material to provide the social and political context of the early 70s. To better serve their goal of producing something educational for young people, they reveal a 1971 environment that openly, enthusiastically and explicitly marginalized women. For example, we see the job “want ads” of those days – divided between jobs for women and jobs for men. Queerness was still listed as a psychological disorder; rape was considered something done by a complete stranger jumping from behind a bush; dress codes mandating traditional femininity were common at work and school.
The Brattle Theatre was buzzing before, during and after the show. Those who couldn’t get tickets to the sold-out show lingered outside just to be in the zone. Inside, when Susan Jacoby, one of the team doing this work, asked from the stage for everyone who had spent time at 888 to stand up, it was an amazing moment. Dozens and dozens of grey-haired participants saw each other. We recognized old friends and lovers and we discovered that contemporary friends had actually been there with us too. During the Q&A young women thanked us, their voices choking, and everyone asked how we could help this funny, exciting film about a unique revolutionary action cross the finish line. (They need about $100,000.)
By the way, what’s the craziest thing about this unique takeover? We actually got a women’s center out of it – still active just blocks away – and apparently it’s the longest existing such center in the country! Now that’s history that I’m talking about.
Check out the website (and not just because my picture is featured on the right column - in fact all of these photos are from there) to learn more.
This article was simultaneously published on the Sue Katz: Consenting Adult blog. To check out the blog post with images click here.