Sunday, June 16, 2024

A group of women look out of a window of the occupied Harvard building at 888 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, in March 1971. (Photo: Digital Commonwealth)

The Cambridge Women’s Center reopens this week after a multimillion-dollar renovation at its Pleasant Street headquarters. Given by an anonymous benefactor, this donation made possible the addition of a library, art room and kitchen, as well as renovated indoor and outdoor meeting spaces and greater building accessibility to those with mobility challenges. Currently serving more than 900 women every year, the Women’s Center has a rich history in the Cambridge community spanning more than 50 years and encompassing a variety of issues facing women in the city and beyond.

On March 6, 1971, a group of women took over a building owned by Harvard University. Formerly the site of Hingham Knitting (1914-1929), in 1971 it was used as a bookbindery by the Harvard School of Design. The large building was mostly unoccupied and slated for demolition. At the time, Saundra Graham was calling on Harvard to build affordable housing here, and the occupiers wanted to act in solidarity.

At noon on March 6, thousands of women marched from Boston Common carrying signs and banners demanding women’s liberation and singing anthems such as “Move on over, or we’ll move on over you.” In Central Square, the feminist socialist collective Bread and Roses led a contingent of marchers away from the main route. They turned left on Pearl Street and right on Putnam Avenue to 888 Memorial Drive. More than 100 marchers swarmed the building, demanding the creation of a “women’s space” as well as affordable child care and reproductive rights.

Inspired by Graham, the women proclaimed solidarity with the Riverside community in their demands for affordable housing. The women draped a giant banner proclaiming “Sisterhood is Powerful” out the second-floor window and painted “The Women’s Center” in bold block letters on the side of the building.

The occupation lasted 10 days, until March 15. Harvard wanted it over but was concerned about the optics of a powerful university bullying a group of women. At one point, Harvard turned off the heat and electricity. The women were able to turn the electricity back on, but not the heat. A judge issued a court-order for the women to leave and, in light of this order, a supporter of the women’s efforts offered $5,000 to support the creation of a women’s center in another location. The occupation came to a peaceful end and the Cambridge Women’s Center came into being.

The benefactor whose donation allowed for the creation of the Women’s Center was Susan Lyman. After getting married and having two children, Lyman decided at age 25 to attend Radcliffe. She had her third child during her junior year, graduated in 1949 and later worked in fundraising for Radcliffe. Lyman recognized that money was an issue for women; as recently as 1970, a married woman needed permission from her husband to open a bank account.

Her $5,000 donation became the down payment on a building at 46 Pleasant St. The Cambridge Women’s Center opened there in January 1972.

The Women’s Educational Center, as it was originally known, was “committed to the philosophy that women, empowered by taking responsibility for their lives, are able to help themselves and effect change in their communities.” To this end, there was a focus on activism and education from the start. Twenty volunteers created The Women’s School to teach classes in topics such as antiracism, auto mechanics, growing up female, lesbianism, Marxism, tenants rights and international women’s struggles, including population control in Latin America and women in China. In the 1970s, radical feminists increasingly recognized the intertwined nature of identity. Activists at the Women’s Center were active with other organizations such as Cell 16 and the Daughters of Bilitis. Many of the activists at the Women’s Center were lesbians who “recognized the inherent heterosexism embedded in patriarchy.” Of course, not all women at the Women’s Center were activists, and there were tensions between different interests.

Over the following decades, The Women’s Center has been at the forefront of many movements that have affected women’s lives directly and indirectly. Involvement with the Battered Women’s Movement, the Gay Rights Movement and efforts to advance racial, economic and climate justice have made the center a fixture in the lives of Cambridge women and have brought thousands of women through its doors. The recent expansion will allow the staff to serve an even greater number of women in the community, and to be important advocates for women’s issues in the decades to come.

For information about the history of The Women’s Center, see ““Left on Pearl,” a documentary about the center’s founding, as well as History Cambridge’s self-guided tour, “Women Activists of Riverside.”

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History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at historycambridge.org.

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Beth Folsom is programs manager for History Cambridge.