Take Back the Night

Peggy S. Mason ’82 says she saw Harvard’s need for the march, which could serve as a space for women and targets of sexual assault to find empowerment and support.

On the evening of Saturday, November 8, 1980, about 70 women gathered at Harvard, carrying signs and chanting, “Women unite, take back the night.” They were readying themselves to participate in Harvard’s first Take Back the Night march, a rally that would become an annual tradition on campus.

“The unending challenges to woman’s self endangers her ability to achieve and function on an equal level with men at any institution of learning,” wrote Elisabeth Einaudi ’83 and Peggy S. Mason ’82, two organizers of the event, in an op-ed preceding the march. “Fighting back is not easy. For, it is not clear on which level women should fight: on the level of the specific attack or on the level of the cultural structure that perpetuates it.”

Mason now describes that first 1980 march at Harvard as “one of those things that I did and I’m glad I did it. I’m really proud of it.”

Take Back the Night was a movement that originated in Philadelphia in 1975. It sought to provide a venue for women to speak out against sexual violence. The march itself first premiered in Boston in 1978 as a demonstration organized by women from numerous community groups, including the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, where a number of Radcliffe feminists worked part-time.

Before moving off-campus in the fall of 1980 and taking a year off to “basically come out,” Mason says, she became “very involved with the women’s community in Cambridge”—particularly with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. She says she saw Harvard’s need for the march, which could serve as a space for women and targets of sexual assault to find empowerment and support.

Einaudi, who served as president of both the Radcliffe Union of Students and Harvard-Radcliffe Students Organized for Security, worked on spreading word of the march. “Liz Einaudi reached out to the local press and got cameras there,” Mary S. Holland ’81, one of Einaudi’s classmates, says. “Then it started to be taken more seriously.”

Bringing the march to campus took on additional importance after an assault that took place at the Radcliffe Quad, Holland says. “We wanted more safety and wanted to be supported,” she says.

The assault Holland remembers took place on September 20, 1980 when a Harvard student was dragged into the bushes near her dorm and raped. According to an article published in The Crimson, incidents like this one sparked a wider discussion of women’s safety on and around campus.

Then-Master of Quad residence North House Hanna Hastings noted that there was a disparity between the lone guard that patrolled the Quad Houses compared to the multiple guards responsible for patrolling the river Houses and the Yard.

On Harvard’s campus, which had only recently become co-ed, sexual assault issues such as these were not uncommon. Even though the seven years leading up to the first march included the University’s establishment of the blue light phone system, the creation of the double-locked door policy, and other precautionary measures, fears of rape and sexual assault persisted.

In their op-ed, Einaudi and Mason commented on how “late-night studying, early-morning jobs, odd-houred athletic workouts and rehearsals characterize student life at Harvard/Radcliffe.” It’s a Harvard routine students today know all too well and, as they argued, “for a woman to limit her participation because of the threat of rape or assault is to restrict her education.”

Even though Mason wasn’t involved in the march again after 1980, the tradition had been set. Although fewer than 100 people attended the march in its first iteration, more than 400 protesters attended the group’s candlelit rally in 1986, just six years later.

Over a few years, the movement itself faced issues and changes. For one, male involvement in the march, which was originally deemed a female-only space for support, sparked much controversy.

In 1988, Anna V.E. Forrester ’88-’89 revealed grievances in a Crimson article titled “Take Back the Podium.” In her op-ed, she insisted that Take Back the Night is not the place for male leadership or spokesmanship. While she applauded the Harvard men who participated in the 1988 march in solidarity with their female peers, she insisted that their role in the march, if any, must be one of bystanding support.

“Women marching separately is an affirmation of women’s power and not a rejection of men,” she wrote. “Organizers did ask men to walk at the back of the procession so that women could lead the march alone. But several men disregarded that request and walked directly behind the leading banner.”

She insisted that such behavior was a hindrance to “true equality of the sexes,” and that before this equality can be reached, “men need to learn what it means to follow the lead of women.”

Iterations of the original Take Back the Night march have continued to take place at Harvard up through the present. Today, campus groups including RESPONSE, the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, and Harvard Consent Advocates and Relationship Educators put on a version of the event during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. The name was changed from Take Back the Night to Hear Me Now in 2016.

“We think that’s a more suitable title for the event because not all sexual assault happens at night,” Ege Yumusak ’16 said in a 2016 Crimson article, “and you could not take it back.”