Look! A woman!
It's a 140-year-old Harvard club. When you join, they give you a rose to press and return in your first book. Among my proudest accomplishments: I made it co-ed. Here's what I wrote about it as a curtain-raiser to this year's annual Signet Society dinner, which honors its female alumni.
If you don't count the 'Cliffies serving lunch - one of whom later headed a major Hollywood studio - there were no women in the Signet when I became president in 1970.
Actually there were almost no undergraduate members at all. The war in Vietnam cast a shadow on Cambridge. Automatic student deferments had been abolished, and only a lucky lottery number stood between Harvard men and the draft. Storybook life in the Yard had given way to a stormy succession of protests, strikes, occupations, busts, tear gas, wrenching debates, bitter confrontations with university leadership, trashed and boarded-up windows on Mass. Ave. and Mount Auburn Street: hardly a friendly climate for sherry sipping, lit'ry lunches and aspirational roses. The number of incoming Signet members in each new cohort skittered close to zero. At one dismal election, I recall someone asking, "What is the point?" Recourse to answers like Shelley's - "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" - seemed haplessly inadequate.
Not only did the Signet appear to be blithely irrelevant to the moral churning in the larger world; it seemed out of touch even with the change occurring at Harvard. In my freshman year, we Harvard men had to wear coats and ties to meals. When women came as dinner guests to the Freshman Union (now the Barker Center), a wave of fork-on-water-glass clinking - Look! A woman! - would sweep the room. When women visited us in our dorm rooms, it was only during strict "parietal hours," a few days a week, doors open - and keep three feet on the floor, please. The Houses were all all-male. [Below: From Allen Ginsberg, at a Signet dinner]