by Rev. Irene Monroe
Most days when the weather permits my morning constitutional is a two mile walking loop around the Charles River. From my house I walk south toward Memorial Drive via Western Avenue. At the intersection of Western Avenue and Memorial Drive I turn right in the direction toward Harvard Square. Exactly one block from the intersection is Hingham Street and approximately fifteen feet from its curb stands one of the many blue and white Cambridge Historical Commission plagues you see throughout the city.
This one reads the following:
“888 Memorial Drive. Site of a Harvard building occupied by feminists who demanded affordable housing, child care and education, and founded the Cambridge Women’s Center, March 6-15, 1971.”
For years I’ve seen the sign, read it and wondered how the protest took place. This past International Women’s Day at a special sneak preview screening celebrating the completion of the documentary “Left on Pearl,” and the 45th anniversary commemorating the takeover of 888 Memorial Drive I learned the story behind the plague.
“Left on Pearl: Women Take Over 888 Memorial Drive” helps us celebrate, remember and cheer one of our most vilified heroes of the last century — the women’s movement.
The film vibrantly brings to life -through a multiplicity of women voices and across a spectrum of race, class, sexual orientation and gender expressions – archival images of the social and political context of the 60’s and 70’s, revealing the confluence of political struggles of the time – Vietnam War, Black Civil Rights, Black Power, and LGBT rights movements -which both informed and ignited the women’s movement known as Second Wave Feminism.
Zooming in on the ten-day occupation of 888 Memorial Drive “Left on Pearl,” a fifty-five minute documentary, narrates three interrelates stories: the need for a women’s space, the denunciation of the gentrification of the predominantly African American Riverside community, and Harvard University’s land grab into working class Cambridge communities.
888 Memorial Drive, a former knitting factory, was the Architectural Technology Workshop, a Harvard-owned building used by the design school. The building was slated for demolition to construct new graduate school housing and it was chosen for its proximity to Riverside.
Today graduate housing stands there and the address is 10 Akron Street, a side street of formerly 888 Memorial Drive – and a good distance from the commemorative plague.
“Left on Pearl” captures the high spirit, youthful exuberance, revolutionary furor of the time. It documents the hilarity, excitement and outright boldness (along with the scandalous moments) of the movement. If you thought for one moment these women lacked chutzpah, “Left on Pearl” quickly disabuses you of the notion.
For example, when Harvard turned the heat and electricity off in the building, the women broke into the basement and turned the electricity back on. And when a lone male representative of the Harvard Republican Club for Equality and Economic, Political, and Social Opportunities for Women came to criticized the women for their method of protest, the women drowned him out.
And who said feminists aren’t any fun?
The women had lots of fun, holding dance parties, and self-defense classes. And in defiance of the cult of domesticity and all of its requisite accoutrements of their time nearly 100 women cut off their hair.
Boston was once an intellectual haven with activist circles of feminism in its heyday. Today it is mostly a forgotten history, which is one of the reasons for “Left on Pearl” documentary.
In 1969 the first feminist conference was held at Emmanuel College spawning Bread and Roses, the first socialist women’s organization in the country, and one of the groups responsible for 888 Memorial Drive building takeover.
In 1971 in Cambridge, Female Liberation began publishing “The Second Wave Magazine: A Magazine for the New Feminism.
And, the most important book published during the Second Wave Women’s Movement, in my opinion, and also in the last century was “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (originally called the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective).
In 1974 the Combahee River Collective was founded in Boston by the bodacious act of several lesbians and feminists women of African descent. The Combahee River Collective was not only a response to the Black Nationalist and misogynistic politics of the Black Power Movement, but the Collective was also excoriating the exclusionary practice of feminism.
Protest marches abound with women of color and poor women publicly denouncing the political stronghold and exclusionary practices of the movement – especially in it’ s early years, which had primarily been an intentionally exclusive women’s country clubs that spoke to Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique of upper-crust “pumps and pearls”-wearing white women.
Black women — straight or LBT — had neither voice nor visibility in much of the movement, but not so in the 888 Memorial Drive building takeover.
Saundra Graham, an African American, former city councilwoman and then president of the Riverside Planning team had a pivotal role in protesting Harvard’s expansion into her community with rising rents. Good news is that Graham still resides in Riverside today thanks to the efforts of the protest.
“Left on Pearl” correctly highlights sexual orientation and gender identity issues as another fault line in the movement. One reason was that in 1969, Betty Friedan, then president of the National Organization for Women, called us “the Lavender Menace” stating that LBT women were a huge liability to the women’s movement.
“Left on Pearl” tells the story of a little-known but very important event in the social history of the Second Wave of the women’s movement.
On Sunday I took my spouse on my morning walk to see the plague commemorating the takeover. Having both seen the film we joyously recalled and shared our favorite moments. Before leaving the site I turned to Thea and said “Those were some badass sisters, wouldn’t you say?” She nodded in agreement as we continued on toward Harvard Square.
“Left on Pearl” is produced by the 888 Women’s History Project, whose members are Libby Bouvier, Susan Jacoby and Rochelle Ruthchild, executive producer. Susie Rivo is the director/filmmaker, and she and Iftach Shavit did the editing. The videographer is Lynn Weissman.
I thank them all for their labor of love in helping us to remember.