That Abrupt and Truncated Animal

by Mia You


When A. BRADSTREET interviewed Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg last year, we concluded by talking about motherhood and activism. Zucker observed, “It’s hard, though, because the people that are the best to advocate for women with very young children are women with very young children, but it’s not the right time for them to advocate… I think that, realistically, it’s very hard.”

It’s not just the lack of time or energy that hinders young mothers from acting as advocates—it is also the immense upheaval in expectations, sense of self and confidence that comes with realizing that now you are a mother first and foremost. You may have been a writer. Or you may have been a scholar. But then you have a baby, and everyone, yourself included, forgets for a while that you are and were anything other than the baby’s mother. You know you are not the same, you will never be the same, so you forget that your former strengths, your pre-motherhood strengths, are still there. Even standing up for yourself can make you feel too vulnerable and exposed.

But this is just my preface. Now comes the story.

I spent several months last year—working in sporadic pockets of time while caring for my infant—researching and writing a review of Little Women: An Annotated Edition (Belknap Press, 2013) while on break from my dissertation work. This was amidst the Lean In media storm, and I decided to focus my review on Little Women’s relationship with 20th-century feminism. If you were a bookworm growing up, there’s a good chance you read and loved Louisa May Alcott’s story of the four March sisters—as Simone de Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich and Gloria Steinem certainly did.

The annotated Little Women’s preface boasts that Gertrude Stein did as well. I’m now writing my doctoral dissertation on Stein at UC Berkeley, but because of my family I live in Cambridge, MA. I have my own history with this area, however, and with its most famous school. I have been a graduate student at Harvard. I even won my department’s thesis prize. I have taught here and subjected numerous Harvard degree-holders to unnecessary Stein allusions. For over a decade, I have been using Harvard’s libraries.

Harvard is just 14 miles from Alcott’s home in Concord. The university makes a brief appearance in Little Women as the place where fancy young men such as Laurie go to school. However Jo, the passionate reader and writer among the March sisters, can only lament, “How I wish I was going to college!” Alcott wrote Little Women in 1868; Harvard finally became co-ed in 1977.

But this was 2013. During Harvard’s spring break, I decided to get out of the house with my daughter, just a year old then, and pick up the books I needed for my review. It was mid-week, Wednesday morning. Most students and faculty were out of town; I counted on this. I used a new feature advertised on the library website to text myself—on my new iPhone—the books’ call numbers. In advance I looked up on the library’s floor plan where the books would be shelved. The whole operation shouldn’t have taken more than 10 minutes inside the building.

For a brief moment I felt remarkably organized and in control of my ability to work. It was a feeling I had very much missed. I can’t even begin to describe that. I strapped my infant daughter onto my chest with a Baby Bjorn and walked to Widener Library, with the call numbers ready in one pocket and my library card in the other.

As I tried to swipe my card to get into Widener’s stacks, a young, college-aged man stopped me and told me I couldn’t come in. I couldn’t bring in my daughter. “But I am just picking up a few books,” I said. “I’m sorry, but those are the library rules. No children. It’s a security issue,” he replied. I pointed out that my daughter was quiet and confined on my chest. The young man then helpfully suggested that I give him my call numbers and wait in the lobby while he fetched my books.

This is preposterous as an alternative. As anyone who has used a library for research knows, one often encounters important but unfamiliar sources from scanning the shelves. Or within seconds realizes that the sought-out source is unnecessary. Or recalls with passion why this kind of work is indeed necessary. There are numerous reasons why a scholar should go into the stacks herself.

Instead I stood there, bouncing my daughter, repeating each title, each letter and each number—so smartly and efficiently displayed on my phone—as this young man slowly transcribed them by hand onto an index card: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Little Women and the Feminist Imagination. Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing. Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women. “You have to admit it’s pretty ironic,” I said to the young man. He smiled awkwardly, inflexibly, “It’s the university’s policy.” Then he disappeared into the stacks.

For half an hour I paced around the lobby, avoiding the perplexed stares of the few library patrons passing by, trying to placate my now impatient daughter, having nothing I could do but wait, and growing gradually more humiliated, discouraged, disempowered.

“Never will I ask for that hospitality again,” declares Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, in that famous scene when she is turned away from the Oxbridge library. The problem is, I need that hospitality. I don’t have a choice. I am a graduate student. I am a young scholar and writer. For my family, I have to live in Cambridge, and I have to be part of the Harvard community. I don’t have the luxury to turn my back on the university’s resources. And even though I don’t make any money, now I have to pay $15-20/hour to a babysitter just to find a few books. This is my reality.

So why does Harvard insist on turning its back on its own reality? Why does it not see that supporting and encouraging young female scholars, many of whom who are either mothers or considering becoming mothers, will only benefit the university and the academy in the long run, that it has nothing to gain from making them or their children feel unwelcome to its resources? Why does it persist in acting like the most fictional, hyperbolic version of itself—the looming, conservative institution that only knows its real power from keeping anything it deems “un-Harvard” out?

A university is not just a workplace. We’re certainly not paid like it is. It is not a factory that stamps each product as “Future Leader.” It is the center of a community. It is a place one must make one’s home in order to be part of it. It is, above all, a place of learning, which we hope indicates the potential for growth and change, not just for the tuition-paying students but for the institution itself. We expect, or at least I do, that our universities will think forward in ways that the rest of our society does or will not.

Yet in this instance, Harvard fell back into the most dully predictable storyline it could. I was stunned, in fact, by how true-to-cliché this was.

I was dismayed enough to ask a few administrators in Widener about the policy prohibiting infants accompanying their mothers. Some were sympathetic, even perplexed, but ultimately continued to repeat verbatim the Harvard Libraries’ policy or directed me into the deep maze of their website, which offers the blanket policy that no one under 16 may be permitted.

This is an institution that likes to follow the rules. I suppose you could say that. Or you could consider this: in the past year, while telling a few people this story, I’ve collected some appalling—or more dully predictable—anecdotes in return.

* A tenured professor, a woman, at Harvard told me that she was once forbidden from using her own department’s library—by people she knew and saw on a daily basis—because her young daughter was with her. She confessed she went back to her office in tears.

* The wife of another tenured professor expressed surprise at my story, because her husband brings both their children to the library all the time.

* And a month ago, my own husband brought our daughter, now talking and running, to Widener. I wouldn’t do this at her current age, but he makes his own judgments, so he walked right into the stacks with our toddler on the loose next to him. No one stopped him and asked him to wait in the lobby with his child. No one told him that the only way he could get his books was if they transcribed each and every one of his call numbers and then fetched them for him. In their eyes, he was still a responsible and productive citizen of the university, who happened to be caring for his daughter as well. He was still someone they could trust.

Do you see a pattern here?

Never will I ask for this hospitality again, because the right for a young parent to enter the university library with his or her baby should not be left to hospitality, just as the right for a woman to enter a university library without a male chaperone shouldn’t have been considered hospitality in Woolf’s day. It should be policy. It should be a standard. It should be the only decent thing to do. And clearly leaving it to hospitality permits an even more regressive form of discrimination and exclusion to occur.

I write this story now not because I didn’t have the time or energy to do so earlier. I write this story now, a year after the fact, not because it didn’t really matter to me. I write this story now because it has mattered too much. Because after all the years I’d spent within the university—not just this one, but all before and after it—I found myself wondering, now that I had to be a mother first and a writer and scholar later, if even hospitality was something a university would no longer want to give me.

Perhaps this seems like a small incident—as time progresses, as I recollect my old self and feel a bit stronger on my feet, it can feel smaller and further away to me too—but it hit me at a time when I wasn’t strong and wasn’t sure if I could ever again do the work I did before. It would have helped just to know that if I found any way I could, I would have been welcome and would still have a home.

* UPDATE * The same day this essay was posted, Sarah Thomas, the VP of the Harvard Library, and a scholar and mother herself, sent us a sympathetic email stating that the admittance policy would be revisited. Two days later, the policy was officially revised. ] 

Mia You is a doctoral student in English at UC Berkeley but lives with her family in Cambridge, MA. She is the co-editor of A. BRADSTREET.