ORAL HISTORY OF HARRIET SHAPIRO
February 16, 2012
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of the
Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is Judy Feigin, Esquire,
and the interviewee is Harriet Shapiro, Esquire. The interview took place at Harriet’s apartment
in Rockville, Maryland, on Thursday, February 16, 2012. This is the second interview.
MS. FEIGIN: Good morning, Harriet.
MS. SHAPIRO: Good morning, Judy.
MS. FEIGIN: Before we move on with the next part of your life, I want to first give you
an opportunity to add anything you might want that we didn’t include last
MS. SHAPIRO: Okay. Well there are a couple of things. One is I wanted to fill in a little
more about my great-grandfather Julian Sturtevant who started Illinois
College. There were only men in the college at that stage, and during the
Civil War they went off to fight.
MS. FEIGIN: On the Union side?
MS. SHAPIRO: Of course, this was Illinois.
MS. FEIGIN: I just want it clear for the record [laughter].
MS. SHAPIRO: My great-grandfather, I’m not saying he was friends with Abraham
Lincoln, but on the other hand, they were both in Illinois in the early days
and they were kind of in the intellectual class. Anyway, Abraham Lincoln
sent Julian Sturtevant to England to help persuade the English not to join
the Southern side in the war, and he wrote letters back which are kicking
around somewhere. I’m not quite sure where they are at this point but I’ve
– 33 –
One of the things I hold against great-grandfather Sturtevant is that
he was kind of off-hand about his second wife in his absolutely unreadable
autobiography. He remarks that his first wife was an angel and that when
he decided to marry her sister, why this was a good choice, or something
like that. Argh! She, of course, was the mother of my ancestors. This
was Hannah Sturtevant, Hannah Fayerweather Sturtevant.
Her brothers went off on a whaling trip, must have been about
1812 or so, and Abraham, the older brother, got sick and was put ashore in
Hawaii, and his younger brother, Silas, jumped ship to take care of his
brother. Abraham stayed in Hawaii until he died in 1850, and he wrote
letters back to his sister. Bill and I got the originals of these letters and a
transcript of them that my cousin Hope had typed. I got Hope’s transcript
put in computerized form, but that process created many errors in reading
the faded typed transcript. I went through them to correct these mistakes,
using the original letters as my reference. That took quite a long time, but
the letters are interesting. Abraham was a merchant in Hawaii in the very
early days of American settlement there. These letters were sent home
when the whaling ships came through. They’re written in regular form,
and then they’re written cross-wise to conserve paper. Once a page was
complete in conventional form, the paper was turned 90 degrees and the
writing continued at right angles to the original writing. The letters are
also old, so they’re kind of hard to decipher. On the other hand, it is
possible to do it, and Hope did it first and then I did it using her version as
– 34 –
a guide. The letters are well written. Abraham was a nice guy, and he
was kind of funny. He didn’t like the missionaries. As a matter of fact, he
told his sister, “Don’t give any money to the missionaries because they
aren’t doing any good out here. They’re taking advantage of the natives.”
Eventually, he had a sugar plantation in Waimea, and he describes
a little bit about how that was run. At one point he said he was having
trouble with the bones in his liver [laughter]. You kind of forget that this
is before the Civil War until something like that comes up, and you think,
“Oh yes.” He also was I guess kind of sickly. Toward the end of his life,
he decided the way to get ahead was to go to California and be a merchant
in the Gold Rush. He started out, but he got sick on the way over so he
had to come back. His letters provide a view into what it was like in
Hawaii before the Civil War.
After I got a final version of the letters on the computer, I wrote
what I thought was a reasonable introduction to try to give some context
by explaining how these letters came to be in Kushla and how we got
them. I gave my version to Bill, who as an anthropologist was used to
writing scientific papers. He had a tremendous output of papers on the
American Indians. He gave the introduction back to me and said, “Why
did you put all the interesting stuff in the footnotes?” [Laughter]. I tried
to write it the way Bill thought it should be; it seemed to me he’d write
something and then he’d go off on a little bit of something else that
belonged in a footnote and then he’d come back to the main point. I was
– 35 –
used to writing briefs where you’d write it in a straight line to where you
were going and everything else would go in the footnotes. We couldn’t
resolve our different styles. I couldn’t write the introduction the way he
wanted it, and he was too busy to write it the way he wanted it, and we got
stuck. So after he died, I tried to pick it up, but I couldn’t really get back
into it. I gave the project to Bill’s son who is a real computer expert, and
he is carrying it on. It’s not at the top of his list of things to do, but
eventually it’ll be at least published on the internet so that you can go and
see it. And the originals will go to the archives in Hawaii.
The other Fayerweather brother, Silas, left Hawaii and went to
New Orleans in the early days, 1800-something-or-other. Both brothers
died in 1850 so this is all pre-1850. Silas wrote letters back to his sister
too. I think their father was living with Julian, so this was back to the
family, and his letters are absolutely full of “Be sure you get right with the
Lord.” Silas was a cotton broker in New Orleans, and while he was
writing all this stuff to his family, it turned out that he was cheating his
uncle, who was in New York and relying on Silas to act for him in
New Orleans. When Silas was found out, he said, “Oh yeah, I did cheat
you, but I can’t pay you back because I haven’t got any money.” He died
in 1850, and Julian Sturtevant was the executor of his estate. It turned out
that Silas had two slaves and a fair amount of property in New Orleans.
He just didn’t choose to repay his uncle. It was up to Julian to settle the
mess as his executor.
– 36 –
MS. FEIGIN: He’s the one who jumped ship to help his brother?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes. And there’s quite a lot of stuff in Silas’s letters about what it was
like before there was a national bank because he was sending money home
from time to time. You had to be careful about which checks you
accepted because if the bank on which it was drawn went bust, the check
was worthless. So there’s some stuff about that.
MS. FEIGIN: Does he talk about politics and Andrew Jackson and the national bank?
MS. SHAPIRO: Not really. There is stuff about what a mess it was before there was a
national bank, but I don’t think he talked about the larger issues. Bill the
anthropologist said he thought that the Abraham stuff was interesting and
should be preserved but not Silas’s. But I think both of them are worth
preserving [laughter]. So anyway, that’s the Fayerweather story.
MS. FEIGIN: Let me ask you a little bit more about your early days before we get on to
college which is where we were headed when we stopped last time.
MS. SHAPIRO: One of the other things, this is kind of about the early days, but I don’t
think I explained. I said that Father was a great man but not what he
actually did. I don’t even think I gave his name, Alfred Henry Sturtevant.
He was involved in the early study of genetics. Father’s contribution was
that he figured out the linear arrangement of the gene in the chromosome.
Let’s see if I can explain the way he figured it out. Starting from the
observable, in the early study of the drosophila, the first mutation they
discovered was a fly that had white rather than the regular red eyes. They
mated that fly and traced the occurrence of white eyes in the succeeding
– 37 –
generations. There were other observed anomalies, such as something to
do with the wings, that also were traced by breeding the flies and seeing
how the subsequent generations did or did not have this unique
characteristic. Certain characteristics in the flies tend to stick together in
individuals in succeeding generations more often than other
characteristics. Father figured out that since when the cell divides, the
genes split, the ones that the data shows usually go together must be closer
together on the gene; the ones that don’t usually go together are farther
apart. And using the data they had, he figured out the linear arrangement
of the genes. I think that’s the way it worked. My point really is that he
had a very mathematical mind. You asked me before what Henry got
from Father, and as I thought about it, Henry is an engineer, and he has
that same kind of mind that sees mathematical connections.
The other thing about Father was that when we were driving across
the country, we used to play games in the car, and one of the games we
played was “I packed my grandmother’s trunk,” where you list various
things you put in a grandmother’s trunk. First one puts in one thing, the
next one says the first thing and then the second thing and you go around
as far as you can get with packing your grandmother’s trunk, but each time
you have to repeat all the things that had been put in previously. And of
course Father always won that [laughter]. But my memory, and it may not
be an accurate memory, but my memory is that I tended to be the last one
in other than Father.
– 38 –
My mind is kind of a bathtub mind. That’s why the SG’s Office fit
so well. I can fill up my mind easily and quickly. When you’re preparing
for an oral argument, by the time you go in, you know as much as
anybody about this narrow subject, and the preparation is filling your mind
with absolutely everything there is to know about the subject, this little,
narrow subject, and what questions could they ask you and finding out
what the answers to those questions are, so you go in with your bathtub
mind full. But then when you finish, you pull the plug and it all goes
down the drain [laughter]. When you got an appeal recommendation, you
find out all you can do about this little narrow area, you make your appeal
recommendation, and then you go on to the next one. You don’t have to
retain any of the stuff [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: That’s how I felt about the Bar Exam.
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes. I’ve got a story about college.
MS. FEIGIN: Tell us.
MS. SHAPIRO: I don’t even remember what kind of a math class it was. I took it because
I had to for the distribution requirement. Math you have to keep up with,
and I didn’t keep up with it. I was taking notes, but it kind of went over
my head. But before the final exam, there was a day, maybe two days,
between the last exam and the math exam, so I sat down and I learned that
whole course. I went through the book, and I just filled my mind up with
all that stuff, and I took the exam, and I did well enough so that the teacher
said, “Don’t you want to major in math?” [Laughter] “Huh? Absolutely
– 39 –
not.” But that’s the kind of mind that I had. I can fill it up, but I can’t
retain it. Or I don’t retain it. Howie remembers poetry he learned as a
child. I don’t remember any of that stuff.
MS. FEIGIN: We should say Howie is your husband.
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes.
MS. FEIGIN: Do you want to talk a little bit more about Mother?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes, I kind of thought I gave Mother short shrift. She idolized Father, and
she put him up on a pedestal. He didn’t sit on a pedestal because he
wasn’t that kind, but Mother tried to put him there. The other thing I kind
of wanted to emphasize is I was not a well-rounded child at all. I was – I
don’t want to say intellectual, but because of this kind of mind I have, I
did very well in school. I wasn’t like my son, who takes things and puts
them together in an interesting way, a different way than they’ve been
taught. I was one of these who was a sponge. I could soak things up and
then squeeze it out on the paper and then go on to something else. But
Mother really tried to make me, I guess all of us, into well-rounded
Three things she thought would be good for socializing. She knew
I wasn’t very good at socializing, and I think she thought these skills
would help. One was tennis. I hated tennis. I was awful at it. I was not
athletic at all, and I suffered through the tennis lessons. I certainly never
played tennis when I didn’t have to [laughter].
The next thing was ballroom dancing. At the time, okay, sure,
– 40 –
that’s what young ladies did, so I had ballroom dancing classes. They
were painful. Not only was I slow to pick up the steps, but also I was
among the last ones chosen as a partner. I wasn’t popular, I was taller
than most of the boys, I was awkward, and I wasn’t particularly pretty.
Mother never got anywhere on time, including never getting to pick me up
on time from dance classes, so I was always the last one hanging around
after the class ended. It was awful [laughter].
Her other failed attempt was music. I think Mother was kind of
musical. Anyway, she was determined that each of her children would
play an instrument. Bill, who was fairly musical, played the flute. I, who
have a total tin ear, played the piano, or at least a strong effort was made
to make me play the piano. The teacher wasn’t particularly good. She
was the wife of a graduate student who needed the money. She must have
had as awful a time as I did [laughter]. One struggle was over practicing.
The very valuable lesson I learned, though not the one being taught, was
that you cannot make somebody learn something they don’t want to. It’s
absolutely impossible, and you’d better give up.
I think I was a fairly docile child, but as punishment, if I absolutely
refused to take my lesson, I was sent to my room. Well, I knew that was a
punishment, but on the other hand, I would ever so much rather spend the
morning in my room [laughter]. I could read, I could do what I wanted in
my room, rather than taking this music lesson. I don’t play now. I
absolutely don’t. But Mother tried. She really did try.
– 41 –
The things that we did together, since I was the only girl, we
sewed, and I really quite enjoyed that and I still quilt. We cooked. I do
give her short shrift, and it’s a pity because she was a good mother. She
tried very hard, and she loved me, and I loved her. But it’s just Father was
the one. As I got older and had children of my own, I recognized she’d
shown me how to be a mother.
MS. FEIGIN: You said there were three things, the tennis, music, and ballroom dancing.
Would sewing be another?
MS. SHAPIRO: No, sewing was fine. The tennis, the ballroom dancing, and the music
were the three things that a well-rounded person should do, and I struggled
MS. FEIGIN: And in those days that was sort of the traditional view of a proper young
MS. SHAPIRO: Sort of, yes. My salvation, I’ve probably said this before, but my
salvation was that although certainly my maternal grandmother thought
that men were more important than women, and Mother kind of, I think,
had that view, but Father certainly did not, and I never felt it. It was
perfectly clear that I was going to go to college, and it was perfectly clear
that I was as smart as my brothers. I don’t think that this notion of a
woman’s place really ever was emphasized. On the other hand, when I
was little, I wanted to grow up to be a librarian. I certainly didn’t have
any idea of being a lawyer, partly because, although my maternal
– 42 –
grandfather was a lawyer, Father didn’t think much of lawyers. He had
kind of the same view of lawyers that maybe is prevalent today [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: Did you know any women lawyers?
MS. SHAPIRO: No. That comes up later. That’s what I did between college and law
school. And although Father had big disagreements, public
disagreements, with the Atomic Energy Commission which at that time
was saying a little bit of radiation is okay, he didn’t have any problem
with my working for the AEC. One of the things that Bill said, and I think
I hadn’t realized it but it’s true: Father didn’t give advice to his children
about their careers. He would talk to you about your choices, but it was
your choice. What he wrote in my autograph book when I was about 9 or
10 was “Try all things and hold fast that which is good.” That was his
general attitude. Of course, try all things didn’t really mean that
[laughter]. In this day and age, I don’t think he would have written that
MS. FEIGIN: What kind of games did little girls play in Southern California?
MS. SHAPIRO: Well, we had flashlights, and we’d play hide-and-seek after it got dark.
That was fun. I don’t know about games. I read.
MS. FEIGIN: What kind of books did you read?
MS. SHAPIRO: Black Beauty, Wind in the Willows, a series of books about twins in
different countries. What other stuff did I read? Gosh, I don’t really
remember what I read. Whatever I could get my hands on basically. The
bookcase downstairs, I can still see it, and I would go through it to find
– 43 –
stuff. There was Thackeray, I don’t know that I really got very far in
Mother majored in art. In the bookcase was a wonderful picture
book of Mother’s. It wasn’t a children’s book, it was in French, about
Joan of Arc. It had the most lovely pictures of Joan of Arc. I particularly
liked the ones of her as a soldier and being burned at the stake. Father and
Mother, before we were born, when they were in New York, went to
plays. There were quite a few books of plays from the 1920s that were in
the bookcase that I read.
MS. FEIGIN: Did you go to movies?
MS. SHAPIRO: No. We went to Snow White which scared the knickers off my little
brother, who was Fritz at the time.
MS. FEIGIN: But now Henry?
MS. SHAPIRO: Now Henry. But no, we didn’t go to movies, in contrast to my husband
whose father managed a movie theater so they went to movies all the time.
We didn’t go to movies, we didn’t have a radio, because they didn’t want
those kinds of things in the house.
MS. FEIGIN: Really? So you didn’t listen to the Fireside Chats?
MS. SHAPIRO: No.
MS. FEIGIN: Why did they think a radio was a bad thing?
MS. SHAPIRO: Because anything could come into the house by the radio [laughter]. We
didn’t get a radio until Granny Reed came to live with us. After she got so
she couldn’t live in her own house, Granny spent a few months with each
– 44 –
of her children. She came out to California for the winters, and she had a
radio. I remember we used to sneak into her room to listen to her radio
[laughter]. I guess Mother and Father figured if Granny was listening to
it, it couldn’t be too bad. She had this Orson Welles War of the Worlds
thing on, and she didn’t get fooled. She knew it was fiction.
MS. FEIGIN: You heard the original playing?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes. But when she left, it must have been just when the war was coming
on, 1939, 1940, 1941. Anyway, she left her radio so we had a radio from
1940, 1941 on. I had a deprived childhood because I didn’t listen to
“Little Orphan Annie.”. They had The Secret Code, and I was the one that
was on the outside. It made it all worthwhile [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: Did magazines come into the house?
MS. SHAPIRO: The New Yorker. “Mother, what’s supposed to be funny about this?”
[Laughter] They still have things “What’s supposed to be funny about
this?” [Laughter]. The New Yorker was a staple.
MS. FEIGIN: What about newspapers?
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes. We had The Star News, which was the local one, and then we had
PM. I think it came from Chicago or New York. It was very liberal,
Democratic. But we certainly didn’t get The Los Angeles Times. That
wouldn’t be allowed in the door. It was much too Republican and awful
MS. FEIGIN: Were there magazines, like Good Housekeeping, those kinds of
– 45 –
MS. SHAPIRO: No. What Father did in the evening was read the encyclopedia. After
supper, he would find an article in the encyclopedia that was interesting to
MS. FEIGIN: Read it to you or to himself?
MS. SHAPIRO: He would just read it to himself. He would sit there smoking his pipe and
reading the encyclopedia. I have that encyclopedia in the other room
because I couldn’t bear to give it away.
MS. FEIGIN: Which encyclopedia?
MS. SHAPIRO: Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s the 1929 edition. We were allowed to read
it or to use it but only very carefully sitting at a table. I still feel that it
must be treated respectfully. There’s one version, 1933 or something, that
is considered a classic. This is not that version, but if you want any
information about anything before 1929, that’s still a very good source. I
keep it mostly just because that’s my picture of Father, sitting there
reading the encyclopedia. Didn’t everybody’s father do that? [Laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: Did he and you interact with other celebrities on campus like Linus
MS. SHAPIRO: Oh yes. Linus Pauling lived across the street. His oldest son, also Linus,
was about the same age as Bill. They explored the underground storm
drains together. They got down into them through the large drain on our
MS. FEIGIN: What was Linus, Sr. like?
– 46 –
MS. SHAPIRO: He was kind of a kook [laughter]. Father didn’t think much of him.
Father thought that he lent his name to a lot of things that he didn’t know
much about, and he really shouldn’t have spread his name around so
much. He obviously was a very good chemist. We didn’t revere him in
any way. He was a little nutty, but he was okay I guess. I didn’t
particularly interact with him. He had a daughter, Linda, and Crellin, who
was much younger and was named after one of the buildings at Cal Tech.
MS. FEIGIN: As opposed to having the building named after her [laughter].
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes [laughter]. Linda was younger than me, and the main thing I
remember about her was that she had very thin hair [laughter]. And I
certainly remember Oppenheimer walking past the house.
MS. FEIGIN: Did your father know him?
MS. SHAPIRO: No, not really. Maybe in passing. I’m sure they knew each other to speak
to, but no. He wasn’t part of the group. Mostly the people they socialized
with were members of the biology department, which was fairly large at
that point. My best friend growing up was the daughter of another
geneticist, and her mother was Mother’s best friend.
MS. FEIGIN: Were there women students at Cal Tech?
MS. SHAPIRO: No. There weren’t women at Cal Tech until about five years ago. Very
recently. Maybe ten years ago, but certainly not until long after we
children left home. Henry, my younger brother, went to Cal Tech. He
majored in geology. Henry certainly is as bright as the other two of us,
but I guess he kind of figured that, in the family, the academic slots were
– 47 –
filled, and as a young boy, he was, and he still is, very handy. Whenever
anybody came – a plumber or anything like that – Fritz was at his elbow
watching what he was doing. He majored in geology at Cal Tech, then he
went down to Cerro de Pasco in Peru for his first job. He got on the
wrong side of them because he complained about the conditions in the
mines and how they were treating the natives, and so they said, “Okay,
well, you obviously don’t fit this organization. We can either fire you and
pay your way back to the United States, or you can quit and pay your own
way back.” So Henry, in what I always thought was a fairly brave choice,
said, “Fire me.” So they sent him back to the United States. He then went
back to Cal Tech and got his advanced degree in engineering. And what
he did for most of his life was design spectrophotometers. He once
explained to me that if he did a good job, his company made a profit for
the year. If he didn’t do such a good job, they lost money for the year.
These instruments are so complicated that you can’t really make a model
of them. You just have to do it by the seat of your pants and hope. He
used to tell his bosses that he could do it cutting edge, he could do it quick
and he could do it cheap. “Pick two” [laughter]. He ended up doing very
expensive, complicated machines having something to do with testing
hearts. Anyway, that’s Henry.
Bill was one of the leading experts on American Indians,
particularly the Seminole.
MS. FEIGIN: Tell us about him.
– 48 –
MS. SHAPIRO: Mother once said to us, “We expect good things of you children, but of
course you can never be as successful as your father.” All three of us
remember that because that’s the only time we ever heard Father criticize
Mother, and the criticism amounted only to his tone of voice in saying,
“Phoebe.” But when Henry’s daughter was in college, somebody asked
her if she was related to the Dr. Sturtevant, and it turned out that he meant
Bill, not Father. Mother didn’t like that.
MS. FEIGIN: Bill must have.
MS. SHAPIRO: Bill liked it I think, and all three of us are sure that Father would have
liked it too. That was sort of typical of the atmosphere when we were
little. Father was hot stuff.
MS. FEIGIN: Was it hard being the daughter of someone so prominent?
MS. SHAPIRO: No. It was great! He was a role model, and I was proud to be his
daughter. When I went to college, that was my first real experience of
being Harriet as opposed to a Sturtevant, and it was kind of odd. It was
okay. By that time I was willing to be on my own and be my own person.
But certainly while we were growing up, we were the Sturtevant children,
and that was plenty good enough.
Did I tell you before about how I got into Wellesley?
MS. FEIGIN: You told us you took a test.
MS. SHAPIRO: Yes. I think probably at that time, I’m pretty sure that it was an advantage
to be from the west. They were looking for diversity. I don’t think
California counts as diverse anymore. An eastern college certainly was
– 49 –
not what was expected in the public high school that I was going to.
Taking the SATs was very unusual.
MS. FEIGIN: What was expected to happen?
MS. SHAPIRO: You would probably go to Berkeley or maybe Occidental. Maybe it was
somewhat unusual to be going to college. Certainly it was not unusual in
our family, nor in our circle. I had no doubt that I wanted to go east to
college. After I took that exam, my choice was between Mt. Holyoke,
which was where Mother went, or Wellesley, where ‘Becca went.
Swarthmore offered me a partial scholarship, and I considered that college
too. Maybe I should have gone there, I don’t know. It’s one of these lifechanging choices; if I had chosen Swarthmore, I think my life would have
been very different. But Wellesley was comfortable because in spite of
having two brothers, men were a strange country. I had never dated. I
didn’t date all through college. This was part of my image of myself as a
student. That was what I was.
I enjoyed my college years. I had a small group of maybe four or
five close friends. Part of why I didn’t have more, aside from my social
inabilities, was that the college had an experiment my freshman year.
Usually, the freshmen lived off campus in designated freshman houses.
Depending on the size of the house, there were anywhere from a dozen to
twenty or so girls in the same house, so you bonded with your housemates.
But in our year, they experimented, and a small group of us were placed in
four upper class dorms. Maybe a dozen of us, maybe not that many, were
– 50 –
in each dorm. The ones in Cazenove were split into two groups, one on
each end of the hall. I was unfortunately on the end with the social group.
But pretty soon I clearly was the odd one out there. The group on the
other end of the hall were much more my kind of people, so I changed
rooms with someone on the other end of the hall, and that worked out
better. One of the women who was on that end of the hall ended up being
my roommate for junior and senior years.
MS. FEIGIN: I’m curious what a women’s college was like in those days, even on the
superficial level. Did you have to wear dresses to school?
MS. SHAPIRO: No. You didn’t wear dresses to school, but we were supposed to wear a
skirt to dinner. But what we did was we had an all-purpose skirt, and we
rolled up our blue jeans under the skirt so you just put your skirt on over it
and went to dinner [laughter].
There was a movie that came out about twenty years ago or so
called “The Mona Lisa Smile,” which was shot at Wellesley, and it was
about a women’s college which obviously was Wellesley, although it
wasn’t called that. The point of the movie was that the teacher who was
the star of the movie was teaching these girls that they had minds and that
they should think of something besides just being housewives. And all the
Wellesley alums were outraged at this. The notion that we were a
finishing school or that we didn’t have these high intellectual standards
from the get-go. Oh! Outrageous! How did Wellesley permit them to
– 51 –
shoot this movie? [Laughter] So it was a serious place. On the other
hand, there were mixers which were again agony. So I only went to one.
MS. FEIGIN: You’d mix with what schools?
MS. SHAPIRO: Harvard mostly I guess. Maybe MIT. I don’t remember. But I wasn’t
part of that so I don’t know. I don’t think many people married before
they graduated, but the standard operation was you graduated and then you
got married that same spring. That was certainly what most women did in
MS. FEIGIN: Were there strict social rules? Curfews?
MS. SHAPIRO: Oh yes. A couple of years before I went, there was a terrible fire in
Boston in a nightclub, so all the parents were calling Wellesley, “Where is
my daughter?” and they sometimes didn’t really know. So that after that,
they really clamped down, and yes, by gum if you were going to be out
after whatever it was, 9:00 or so, you had to tell the house mother where
you were going to be and when you were going to be back, and you signed
out and you signed in. It was a serious infraction if you didn’t. I don’t
know exactly what happened to you, but one just didn’t do that.
When I came home after my freshman year, I informed my mother
that when you had a dessert dish on the table, it had to have an underliner
under it [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: So there was a bit of finishing school touch.
MS. SHAPIRO: A little bit of that. We waited on tables. Everybody had to either wait on
tables, once a week probably, or sit on bells. There weren’t any
– 52 –
cell phones or phones in the rooms so that when anybody called they got
the dorm, and the student who was sitting on bells would take a message.
MS. FEIGIN: What exactly is bells? Was it like a switchboard? What does it mean to
sit on bells?
MS. SHAPIRO: You just answered the phone and took a message and greeted visitors.
There was also the call. Men could come upstairs because there was this
call that went out, “Man on the floor.” [Laughter] That was only during
very restricted hours. I guess you had to leave the door open, I don’t
The classes were serious. I was – and I guess I am still – a little
ashamed that I majored in sociology, which wasn’t really serious. As Bill
said, “Anthropology, yes. Sociology, for heaven’s sake, no.”
MS. FEIGIN: What made you choose that?
MS. SHAPIRO: Although I keep telling you I was a student, I didn’t really have any
overriding particular intellectual interests. For a while, I thought about
majoring in German, but that was largely because I’d had two years of
German in high school so that as a freshman I had this very small – I think
maybe there were three or four of us – class in German, and all the other
classes, of course, were quite large. But I guess I took sociology because I
liked the teacher. There was also a really good philosophy teacher, but I
don’t know why I majored in sociology. It was easy I guess. It wasn’t
any overriding intellectual interest, that’s for sure.
– 53 –
MS. FEIGIN: When you speak about the teachers, this was a women’s college. Were
most of the teachers men or women?
MS. SHAPIRO: There were certainly a goodly number of men. I suppose most of them
were women. The philosophy teacher was a man. One of the sociology
teachers was a man. There were a good sprinkling of men. Wellesley has
never had a male president. It’s always been a woman. The president
while I was there was Mrs. Horton who was really remarkable. She was
the first head of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency
MS. FEIGIN: That was after she was president of Wellesley?
MS. SHAPIRO: Before. I think before. She was president when I was there, which was
from 1946 to 1950, so that was after she had headed the WAVES. She
was really a wonderful person.
MS. FEIGIN: You said when you were young you thought you would be a librarian.
When you were at Wellesley, was that still your goal?
MS. SHAPIRO: I guess. I just was going to college because that’s what one did, and it was
fun. I enjoyed the classes. But come senior year, I realized, as did a lot of
others of us, I had no marketable skills. I didn’t want more education; I
wanted a job. So what the heck am I going to do? The summer before my
senior year I spent trying to learn how to take shorthand, and I couldn’t do
it. I just couldn’t do it. I had some typing. I typed most of my papers, but
my typing was so rotten that once, when for some reason, instead of
typing the paper, I wrote it out in longhand, the teacher’s comment was, “I
– 54 –
thought it was just that your typing was so bad, but it turns out you really
don’t know how to spell” [laughter]. So I guess at one point I thought,
“Well sure I probably will be a secretary.” But after that summer, I clearly
was not going to be a secretary.
At that time, the federal government was giving a test designed for
people like me who had a college education but no real marketable skills.
The test was used to hire people for jobs not requiring specialized
preexisting skills. What I ended up doing was being an interviewer for the
Social Security Administration. I can take exams, and I did well enough
on that exam to get a score that put me quite high on the resulting job
register. But in 1950, veterans not only got their test scores jacked up
10 points or so, they got a hiring preference. The employer hiring off the
register had to pick from the three applicants who had gotten the highest
scores on the exam, and if there was a veteran in those three, he had to
justify hiring one of the other two. So what that meant was that I wasn’t
likely to get a job in a big city. By that time I was ready to do something
other than studying. I was 21 years old and had done nothing except go to
school. Time to get out into the real world, but I wasn’t quite ready.
Anyway, I wanted to go home, so I went home. But I didn’t really want to
stay at home. A friend of mine was working in Oakland, so I went up and
stayed with her for a while while I looked for a job in Northern California.
There must have been some kind of a brochure or something that
told you where the federal jobs were that were hiring off the register.
– 55 –
There was a job opening for a Claims Examiner for the Social Security
Administration up in Santa Rosa, California, which is in Sonoma County.
It’s now a fairly big town, but then it was just the seat of an agricultural
county. I went up and applied, and I got that job, which was great. This
was a small town, which I had never lived in before. That was kind of
nice. That’s where my two years between college and law school were
MS. FEIGIN: What exactly did you do?
MS. SHAPIRO: I interviewed applicants for Social Security benefits, collecting the
information from applicants to determine their eligibility for Social
Security benefits. The Claims Examiner made the initial determination of
eligibility. The file was then sent to Baltimore where it was reviewed and
a final eligibility determination made. The same procedure was followed
in determining whether a retiree lost his benefits because he was working.
A self-employed retiree can make a certain amount of money a year and
still get benefits. But if you’re an employee, then you can only make a
certain amount of money a month without losing benefits. So if you work
sporadically, you’re better off if you’re self-employed.
There were quite a few retirees working sporadically as handymen.
For them, the line between being self-employed or working as an
employee of the person using their services was often really indistinct. In
those cases, you conducted a careful interview, marshaled the facts,
compared them with the criteria established for distinguishing between
– 56 –
self-employment and employee status, and made the initial determination
(with a slight bias toward self-employment). You then wrote a report to
Baltimore explaining your decision and waited for Baltimore’s decision.
This process of collecting the facts, analyzing them and justifying my
decision was the best part of my job.
The other thing that made me think maybe I could be a lawyer was
working with Ruth Bates. She was a lawyer in Santa Rosa, and I worked
with her to set up a League of Women Voters in Santa Rosa which hadn’t
had one before. And I decided if Ruth can do it, I can do it. And Ruth
promised that when I got out of law school, I could come and work with
her. I think she had a hard life, and I would have been rotten at it. She
belonged to all the organizations in town, and she was always beating the
bushes to get contacts to get work. Being a small town lawyer is the
furthest away from what I would have been good at. Joining all these
clubs and making contacts. Argh!
MS. FEIGIN: Harriet, you’re very self-effacing. I want to go back for a minute. In your
college years, though you described it rather blithely, I know you did
really well, and I know you were Phi Beta Kappa.
MS. SHAPIRO: I like to study, and I know how to take exams. That’s what I do. I kind of
dominated poor Joanne, my roommate, I think. She struggled. She really
had a hard time academically. I didn’t have a hard time. As I look back, I
wish I had been nicer to her, although we remained friends until she died
not too long ago; we really were friends. She came to college as a devout
– 57 –
Catholic, and I think I had something of a hand in her losing her religion
MS. FEIGIN: Your academic and your professional arc is extraordinary, and we need to
establish how it got to be such.
MS. SHAPIRO: It’s serendipity. It’s all serendipity. It really is. I got to law school just as
the barriers to women were starting to crumble. It’s serendipity, but it’s
being prepared when the chance comes. Of course you have to be
prepared for the chance.
MS. FEIGIN: Here you were in Northern California. Where did you live?
MS. SHAPIRO: Oakland wasn’t within commuting distance, so I moved up to Santa Rosa
and got a room in a house belonging to an elderly couple who really kind
of adopted me because I obviously needed somebody to do so [laughter].
My job was a very good job. There were two other interviewers and then
there was a field representative who went out and took interviews. He was
on the road most of the time within the service area. Those were the first
men outside the family about whom I really felt, “Oh, they’re humans,
they’re just like us, sort of” [laughter], but that was the first time, as part
of my maturing process, that I got comfortable with the opposite sex. As a
matter of fact, one of them drove me down to San Francisco to take the
LSAT when I decided I would like to go to law school. We were buddies.
MS. FEIGIN: You said it was kind of expected that by the time you graduated college
you’d be married, and you weren’t.
MS. SHAPIRO: No, and there wasn’t anybody on the horizon.
– 58 –
MS. FEIGIN: Was that worrisome?
MS. SHAPIRO: Sort of. Slightly. It certainly worried Joanne.
MS. FEIGIN: She wasn’t married either by graduation?
MS. SHAPIRO: No, but she had a boyfriend, I guess he was a Harvard man. Before she
went out on a date, I think all week long, she kept a little notebook, and
she would write down topics of conversation [laughter]. I thought that
was a little odd. She worried very much that I didn’t date. “This is all
right now but what is going to happen to you?” [Laughter]. She didn’t
marry her college boyfriend. Instead, she married someone from her
hometown a couple of years after we graduated.
MS. FEIGIN: What did your parents think of your taking the LSAT?
MS. SHAPIRO: I don’t know that I consulted them. I didn’t consult them. I’m sure it was
fine with them. It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be. I do
remember Mother warning me not to be disappointed if I didn’t get into
Columbia. So that’s basically the two years between college and law
school. But the pause was very useful. When I got out of college, I was
not ready to go on to graduate school. “No, I don’t want to do that.” And
law school wasn’t on the horizon. I didn’t want to be a doctor, for
heaven’s sake. I was through. I had had enough of education. I wanted to
get out and be in the “real world,” and it was the right choice too. I’m
sure that that two years working for the Social Security Administration
was important in my development. The notion that (a) law school was a
possibility, and (b) the things that I liked about the job fit with what law
– 59 –
school would be about – that kind of came to my mind at that point.
When I went to law school, I didn’t expect to be such a grind as I turned
out to be [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: Law school is probably a huge topic that we should save and do next
week. So unless there’s anything else you want to add about these early
MS. SHAPIRO: No, I don’t think so. I think we’ve covered them in exhaustive detail.
MS. FEIGIN: Okay, then next week we will start with law school.
Thank you so much.
MS. SHAPIRO: You’re very welcome.
ORAL HISTORY OF HARRIET SHAPIRO