Left on Pearl: A feminist takeover remembered

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 plaques 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 plaque.

“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’s 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 – the 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 interrelated 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 criticize the women for their method of protest, the women drowned him out.

And who said feminists aren’t any fun?

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