Thursday, April 4, 2013

Judy Smith: We marched right into a little-used building that Harvard owned, and the rest is history

Welcome to the LEFT ON PEARL blog! We hope this will be a place to share ideas, memories, and reflections about the unfinished struggle for women's equality, both in the late 1960's/early 1970's and in the present.  

Our first post is from guest blogger, Judy Smith, a participant in the takeover of 888 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, which is depicted in the documentary, LEFT ON PEARL.

Judy Smith (left) with Noel Jette in 1970

In March 1971, I was excited to go downtown in Boston to a Saturday rally for International Women’s Day. I was a recent college grad working as a peer counselor in a drop-in center for street kids and runaways. I had learned about International Women's Day at a rally the year before, where I was thrilled to hear eighty-three year old Florence Luscomb, a progressive woman active in twentieth century social movements from suffrage and labor to civil rights and peace, who enthusiastically welcomed our new demands for women’s equality and exhorted us to join international calls to end the war in Vietnam. 

It felt great to be part of nearly five hundred women marching through Boston, with shout-outs to women prisoners at the Charles St. jail, secretaries working in the downtown office area; and protests directed at the selling of women’s image at high-end department stores and at the lack of women’s access to abortion and health care at the city's hospitals. 

The 1971 rally was just as compelling, featuring twenty-two year old Caroline Hunter, the Polaroid employee who discovered that Polaroid technology was producing the hated special identification cards black South Africans had to carry, calling for women to protest the apartheid regime. The big crowd of marchers again called out in solidarity to the women imprisoned in the Charles St. jail and booed the sexual exploitation of women as represented by the Boston Playboy club.

Then, after we crossed the river and headed back toward Cambridge, we heard an electrifying announcement– whoever wanted to could join in a sit-in at a Harvard owned building to demand that the university support a city wide Cambridge women’s center. Different groups had taken over a number of university buildings in the last couple of years—to protest university involvement in the war in Vietnam, to demand an end to university expansion into poor black neighborhoods, to call for the establishment of black studies programs, and later ethnic studies programs as part of university curricula. What an exhilarating idea, that the collective energy of the women marchers could turn into a fighting force demanding that Harvard fulfill its responsibility to its economically and racially diverse neighbors with special attention to the needs of WOMEN! 

We marched right into a little-used building that Harvard owned, and the rest is history, powerfully retold in the new film LEFT ON PEARL! I had to work alternating days and nights, so wasn’t able to be at the building throughout the eight days of occupation, but I was there enough to feel the strength of situational sisterhood, to listen to and be provoked by sometimes intimidating, but always intense and wide-ranging discussions on everything from strategy and tactics for defending the building to imagining blueprints for women’s liberation to creating the space for women loving women. The occupation ended with an anonymous contribution for a down payment on a house in the neighborhood to serve as a community-wide women’s center.

Fast forward to 1996, when several women who participated in the sit-in thought to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Cambridge Women’s Center with a video project reconstructing the now nearly-forgotten history of the march and building occupation. They began then to piece together the historical record and track down participants to interview, and I, now a historian teaching at a local university, began to be part of the discussions figuring out how to tell this story. 

Filmmaking is a collective enterprise, with little money, unequal filmmaking expertise, supported by day jobs, is a long SLOW process, but the ASTONISHING film, now nearly completed, miraculously manages to capture the fire, passion, and multiple voices of that important and transforming historical moment. In the winter of 2012, a group from Boston’s Occupy movement was amazed to see the connections between the 1971 building takeover and their recent experiences. Can you help us with the final finishing costs to get LEFT ON PEARL out to audiences???

Judith E. Smith

American Studies

University of Massachusetts Boston


  1. Have you started a KickStarter page for this project. I bet it would be very successful.

    As an eight-year-boy I was part of the occupation of 888 Memorial Drive at my mother's side. I'd love to see this film get finished and reach as many people as possible.

    -Caleb O.

  2. hank you so much, Caleb! Amazing that you were there. We will be setting up a KickStarter page very soon and will keep you posted on the launch date. We'd love for people to share the launch with their friends and personal networks. Also, we'd love to talk with you about your memories of the occupation. Our email address is leftonpearl AT gmail
    All the best, Susie Rivo

    1. Are you having any screenings this summer in Boston or near New York? Would love to talk to you about your work. spoke with rochelle a few weeks back via email but haven't been able to reach her. or