It is 17 years now since I graduated from college. Seventeen, I know, is an awkward age from retrospectives. We are supposed to look back at our lives by decades and go through rituals of reunions by fives.
But this week, I want to step out of place and back in time. You see, one of my younger "sisters," Diana Shaw, spoke at the Harvard commencement. There, she criticized her elders for adopting male values and pursuing male successes.
"Contemporary feminism," she said, "has taught us to reject the values conventionally associated with our sex." She went on to add, "We are expected to pursue the male standards of success, while remaining 'feminine' according to male standards."
It all sounded oddly familiar, at least to this elder. Seventeen years ago, I was at this campus when the women still had a separate college called Radcliffe. When we were undergraduates, my classmates and I were told that we were in the vanguard women.
Our new college president, Mary Bunting, had great expectations of us. We were the women who would -- in fact, should -- have dazzling carreers and brilliant, satisfied husbands and remarkable, well-adjusted children.
To state that this was elitist is to understate it. But we were assigned by virtue of our diplomas to a place at the cutting edge of change. We were to be the first generation of superwomen.
Well by our 5th reunion, our 10th renion, surely by our 15th, the class of 1963 began to see how conservative that "radical" idea was. We had been urged to change ourselves, but not very much else. We had moved out beyond the old structures of the "female" world to a wider one, but we hadn't changed that world very much.
The half-formed feminism of the early 1960s had, in fact taught us that if we wanted to have it all, we would have to do it all by ourselves. It taught us that to find "fulfillment" we would have to fit in -- fit in a family life . . . fit in to career ladders . . . fit in to our husband's goals . . . fit in to the basic ideas of womanhood.
In our young "radicalism," we were remarkably accommodating.
But eventually, we bagan struggling with the deeper questions Shaw raises: "making it" versus changing it, the relative worth of "male" and "female" values, the need for men to change as well as women.
Through the 1970s, we argued about what kind of equality we wanted. Did we want equal access to the same system or the power to change it? Can you change the system only by becoming a part of it? Once you are in it, does it change instead?
We discovered that it is easier to fit in than to restructure. When the "male" standard is regarded as the "higher" one, the one with the most tangible rewards, it is easier for women to reach "up" than to convince men of the virtues of simultaneously reaching "down."
It has proved simpler -- though not simple, Lord knows -- for women to begin traveling traditional routes than to change those routes. It is simpler to dress for success than to change the definition of success.
In the years between our graduations from the same campus, our alma mater exchanged its name in return for promises of equality. I am a Radcliffe graduate; Shaw is a Harvard woman. The name Radcliffe lingers on now like an appendix.
My college was coed in class and single sex in name and living arrangements. Hers is virtually integrated, or is it absorbed?
You see, in Cambridge, too, women have given up something exclusively their own, to gain places and privileges that were largely male. But in Cambridge, too, women have adjusted to the institution more than they have altered it. There are more undergraduate women on campus now, but they are Harvard women.
Perhaps that is the way it always is with the "new" people.
It is not feminist ideology that is the problem, but the sheer difficulty of moving the system. The new Harvard graduate cites her goals earnestly:" "It is our challenge to move this virtually intractable society to incorporate both men and women into both the domestic and worldly spheres without demeaning either in either place."
As I absorb my younger "sister's" words, 17 years doesn't seem as long a time as it once did.