By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—I would have bet big money that we’d have a female president of the United States before we had a female president of Harvard University. It’s not just that Harvard predates the United States by more than a century and half. There’s actually a higher percentage of women in the Bush Cabinet than in the tenured faculty ranks of Harvard.
But now comes Drew Gilpin Faust. The dean of the Radcliffe Institute has been chosen to take over the helm of what is often referred to—fondly, arrogantly and sarcastically—as the “world’s greatest university.’’ As she said, “I am the president of Harvard, not the woman president of Harvard. Nevertheless, people see this as part of a new day.’’
How fitting that this accomplished historian should find herself making history. How fitting that the scholar who has studied change and resistance, the interaction of individuals with the times they live in, should find herself at this moment.
In the double helix of social change, this is a story about Harvard and women. A college that once regarded itself as an “incubator for virility’’ had no place for women. As far back as 1869, Harvard President Charles Eliot expressed doubts about the “natural mental capacities of the female sex.’’ As recently as 2005, President Larry Summers suggested that a lack of “intrinsic aptitude’’ was partly why few women made it in academic science.
This is also a story about Radcliffe, founded as a “Harvard Annex,’’ then a women’s college, now an institute. It’s about the Annex Maidens who became Cliffies and then Harvard Women in the long coeducational courtship that ended in 1999 with a merger that many regarded as a “submerger.’’ Faust springs from that historical platform.
But it’s also a story of Faust herself, the rebellious daughter of a privileged Southern family, who raised a beef cow, joined the Brownies, wrote a letter to Eisenhower protesting segregation and fought continually against her mother’s teaching: “It’s a man’s world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better off you’ll be.’’
In a preface to a book, Faust wrote, “I have been luckier than she in that I have lived in a time when my society and culture have supported me in proving that statement wrong.’’ Just after becoming president, she mused, “One of the things that I think characterizes my generation—that characterizes me, anyway, and others of my generation—is that I’ve always been surprised by how my life turned out. I’ve always done more than I ever thought I would.’’
This success story came to my rescue in a news week that seemed like one long accident, a pileup on the highway of stories that came roaring and crashing out of old and new versions of women’s lives.
There was the last, gruesome news feast on Anna Nicole Smith, a woman who had made a name for herself the old-fashioned way, using the only thing she had: her body. There was the tragic story, far less heralded and far more heroic, of a trailblazer, Jennifer Harris, a graduate of the Naval Academy and a helicopter pilot shot down in Iraq. And there was Lisa Nowak, whose bizarre road trip was itself a collision course between two images: woman as astronaut and woman as love slave.
But Faust’s announcement also came when the story line about feminism itself has taken an odd turn. On college campuses where women take rights for granted, many shy away from the F-word as if it were a dangerous brand. A second narrative has taken hold in many parts of the culture that says one generation’s feminism made the next generation unhappy.
There is talk about too many pressures and too many choices. It’s as if the success of feminism was to blame rather than its unfinished work. Indeed it took Mary Cheney to offer bracing words at a recent Barnard College gathering: “This notion that women today are overwhelmed with choices, my God, my grandmother would have killed to have these choices.’‘
Faust’s appointment is a generational marker and a turning point. She replaces Summers, a man who suffered from what cell phone advertisers call “connectile dysfunction.’’ In contrast, she comes praised and perhaps patronized for her “people skills.’’ We don’t know yet whether her change will breed changes for the institution.
But as someone who spent four years here in the 1960s without a single female professor, I am eager to toast the “new day.’’ If a woman can make it here, maybe, just maybe, she can make it anywhere. Don’t bet against it.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)globe.com.