Last Word: My Barnard Brain At Seventy

Illustration by Mark Allen MillerThe brain I brought to Barnard was a sponge and a bird in a cage.

It was a sponge, yearning to know everything (except, maybe, math and science) and desperate to be in the presence of women whose lives were not mired in domesticity. I knew female intellectuals existed because I was a reader, but I had never met one. My own mother, smart and college-educated, able to quote Shakespeare by heart, was defeated by the social world Betty Friedan described in the The Feminine Mystique. My young brain craved more.

And got more. Barnard gave me a role model in an unmarried first-year English teacher hypnotized by the history of ideas, whose sustenance, as I saw it, was in reading, writing, and talking about books. It gave me poets and scholars, critics, art history, American studies, varieties of psychological theory, delivered by Colies, Ulanovs, Kowenhovens, and others in a veritable four-year flood.

But my brain was a bird in a cage, too. The puffy sponge of it had limits because it belonged to a female head, a female body, a woman’s life. In spite of the first-year English teacher, whose published work was about the Renaissance philosopher Erasmus, women were not the makers of these wonders of intellectual life, only teachers of them. You could go all the way to a PhD in literature at Columbia University and never read a woman writer. And “writer” was what my brain was whispering to me at night, flapping its wings against the bars.

Fast forward a decade. Ten years out of college and graduate school, a brainstorm swept me: Second Wave Feminism. The Women’s Movement. The storm, which became a hurricane, was so ferocious that it flung open the doors of my cage and I can still hear them banging in the whirlwind. And its eye, this liberating storm’s center, was right where I’d started—116th Street and Broadway.

At Columbia, Kate Millett exposed the woman-hating heart of some beloved male writers in her dissertation, sponsored there by two brave gentlemen on the English department faculty. The fact that sexual politics caused a great public stir was less meaningful to me than the very idea that one could think these thoughts, say and write these rebellious words, and still get a degree. On a rising tide, the Barnard Center for Research on Women won administrative support, after a hard-fought campaign—at a women’s college!

I sat in a room full of cigarette-smoking, energetic female intellectuals drafting a petition to Columbia to add a seminar on women to the prestigious roster of interdepartmental university seminars. In those rarefied meetings, experts met to discuss commas in Shakespeare or, I’m serious, “the nose in literature.” I couldn’t concentrate on the words for the petition, so loud was the babble in the room. “Quiet!” I said, ineffectually. “Did Virginia Woolf have to write under these conditions?” “No,” came the answer. “But Emma Goldman did.” And so opened yet another door, this one into the idea that my Barnard brain and the words it made had many kinds of uses.

By the time my unfettered brain turned 50, having absorbed a second flood of information and inspiration, it directed me to rid my bookshelves of anything purporting to be a complete survey—English literature, the colonial period in America—that did not include women. They simply no longer told the truth about the world. Piloted by that subversive organ in my head, I navigated onward, ’til my 50th Barnard reunion, a day of reckoning.

The thirsty brain I brought to campus is forced by time to acknowledge there are things I will never know, choose not to learn—the intricacies of Middle East politics, calculus. It tells me to start tap-dancing lessons, dig deeper into women’s history, and that, as a Barnard graduate, it matters much what I will do next. The cage is gone. As Dorothy Sayers wrote in her life’s last year: “Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.”

-by Louise Bernikow

Louise Bernikow has authored nine books and innumerable shorter pieces. Now at work on the history of the woman suffrage campaign in New York City, she will give a talk here next spring on sisters divided in that campaign—Annie Nathan Meyer and Maud Nathan.