In 1950, The Crimson ran a story on seventeen-year-old Lois L. Ebeling ’54, a “cute brown-eyed brunette” with “a twinge of [a] southern accent.” According to the article, she was “5 feet 3 ½ inches and 132 pounds of Social Relations concentrator.”
Four years later, The Boston Globe reported on Marie Winn ’58, a “pint-sized Audrey Hepburn” with “pixie-like bangs” and “a certain Old World Charm.”
These young women were both crowned “Miss Radcliffe” in their day, a title that The Harvard Crimson bestowed upon the prettiest, most charming Radcliffe freshman from 1947 until 1956, when the contest was discontinued.
During the years of the contest, Crimson photographers would scout out Miss Radcliffe candidates at the early fall dances, inviting 25 to 30 semifinalists to attend a dinner where the girls’ looks and manners were assessed. The Crimeds narrowed this group down to a cohort of six finalists, who were judged by editors, faculty members, fashion experts, and in 1953, even Miss United States. The winner was crowned at the first home football dance.
In 1949, near the pageant’s inception, J. Anthony Lewis wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “Everyone agrees that Radcliffe girls are prettier than they used to be.”
At the start of the 20th century, Harvard men had little interest in the ladies on Garden Street. “By reputation, Radcliffe was a nest of over-intellectualized young women,” Lewis wrote. “The popular story of the era ended with the line: ‘Is she a Radcliffe girl, or did a horse step on her face?’”
This image of the “unattractive, unfeminine, and unmarriageable” college-girl was firmly established, according to Deirdre Clemente, a historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. So, to destigmatize educated woman, Radcliffe launched a PR campaign. It created a press board composed of administrators and students, who funneled stories to Boston papers that promoted the image of the attractive, educated ‘Cliffite.
Much of this revolution was staged in the fashion world. Retailers understood that they needed to cater to the styles college women wore. To tap into that market, designers and retailers partnered with students, especially those from premier schools like Radcliffe, who served as consultants and models for the businesses.
The Radcliffe press board strategically selected undergraduates to represent the school in the world of fashion: at shows, in print publications, or on the corporate side.
Thus, each year’s Miss Radcliffe represented exactly the type of “cute ‘Cliffite” that the school wished to flaunt. The modeling deals that came with the prize only further cemented that image.
As Radcliffe was redefining its reputation, another cultural shift was taking place: Harvard and Radcliffe were moving toward “Joint Instruction”; the term “coeducation” was still “spoken only in dark places and sotto voce,” according to Lewis.
Radcliffe women were first permitted to attend classes with Harvard boys in 1943, a “wartime measure” that relieved professors of having to teach the same class twice. Up until then, the schools had largely occupied separate social and academic realms.
A couple years later, the arrival of the Miss Radcliffe pageant set the stage for an unprecedented degree of social integration between the schools. However, while attention was called to the girls in the pageant, they were not valued in an academic setting. At Widener, women were required to work in a separate room—the site of today’s public elevator—so as to not interrupt the mens’ studying. When Lamont Library opened in 1949, female access was limited to Saturday afternoons.
“There are far too many corridors and alcoves,” the head librarian at the time explained. “Why, if we let girls in we should have to hire a force of patrolmen to watch the dark corners, at enormous expense.”
So even as the pageant improved Radcliffe’s public appearance, administrators worried that it might undermine the core values of the school.
It was ultimately a Radcliffe-led initiative that brought around the competition’s demise. It was banned less than a decade after its birth by Radcliffe College President Wilbur K. Jordan, upon the recommendation of the Student Council and the Board of Deans. The official grounds for its discontinuation was that it violated a policy forbidding “one girl [to] represent the entire college.”
To Karen A. Goukassow ’57, President of the Radcliffe Student Government Association, the contest was furthermore “inconsistent with Radcliffe’s pride in the individuality and diversity of its students.”
“I didn't feel any harm from the contest itself,” Anne Baker ’59, a finalist in 1955, told a Crimson reporter after the pageant’s ban. “But the pressure from the faculty and upperclassmen made some of us feel doubtful about entering.”
Indeed, The Crimson reported that many dormitory presidents had discouraged freshmen from participating, and those who did were occasionally stigmatized.
“One of the deans did say to me, 'I'm surprised to see you in this,'” Margot Dennes ’57, a finalist in 1953, noted.
Although the competition helped redefine the Radcliffe woman, it also created an unwelcome environment of frivolity. Winn, the “pint-sized Audrey Hepburn” of 1954, found herself besieged by Harvard suitors, and refused to answer her many calls. “This [was] fun but school comes first,” she told the Globe. (She went on to become a prolific author and journalist.)
The Miss Radcliffe pageant was short-lived, the product of confusion in a cultural moment. But the 'Cliffites had proven that they possessed, as one Harvard senior reflected, “more to them than the society ‘fluffy ruffle.’”
As “The Cherry Ribbon,” a popular song of the time, declared:
They said to her “Who may you be?”
She answered up right saucily,
“Why I’m from Radcliffe, can’t you see?
And I’m as smart as I am fair.”
—Magazine writer Sonia F. Epstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sonia_epstein.
— Magazine writer Rachel H. Janfaza can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @racheljanfaza