Remarks for "It’s Complicated: 375 Years of Women at Harvard"

Lecture on the History of Women at Harvard in Honor of Harvard’s 375th Anniversary
Text as prepared for delivery
April 23, 2012
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, PhD ’69, RI ’01, Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor of History and American Studies, Emerita, Smith College

I was once privileged to hear an older friend’s memories of the Harvard Tercentenary. A graduate of the class of 1933 and a writer without a day job, he was hired by Harvard president James Conant to help plan the great 300th celebration. My friend’s task was to manage the correspondence for the Tercentenary Conference. Throughout his long life, my friend was a mischievous person, and he took the 300th as a special opportunity. He created an elaborate hoax, a fictitious correspondence from an imaginary Russian delegate. His invented Russian worthy wrote he was bringing his mistress to this august setting. Not only did he want all her expenses to be paid, she must be invited to all events. The threatened scandal—remember this was Cambridge in the 1930s—sent the president’s office into a tizzy. Sixty years later, my friend enjoyed a riotous laugh about how he had hood-winked Harvard’s president into believing this hoax by using foreign paper rubbed with dirt. I like the story because it relates perhaps one of the few moments during this great event of institutional self-glorification when the Harvard administration had to consider entertaining the presence of a woman. 

The conference produced a book of its papers, Authority and the Individual. Its preface presented the goal of the gathering: to put on one platform “three groups of eminent men who contributed . . . to a common understanding of the vast problems of human behavior.” And men they were. And men they considered. Google books allows a word search of the book’s 371 pages. There are 75 mentions of  “men” and 55 of “man.” There are 2 mentions of “women,” and 1 of “woman.” 

The first mention of women is by Wesley Clair Mitchell, the great economist and husband of Radcliffe graduate Lucy Sprague Mitchell, the first dean of women at Berkeley and founder of the Bank Street School. In Wesley Mitchell’s lengthy paper, he spoke about liberty’s need to be tempered by justice. “Later revelations of the exploitation of child workers . . . , of young persons, and also of women, led to further protective legislation.” In this instance, women were classed with children as needing special state protection.

The second mention of women came in the lecture of Professor Corrado Gini of the University of Rome. He sought to promote a broader international outlook by suggesting relativism when it came to judging other societies. When authority achieves general consent, he stated, there is no conflict between authority and the individual. Although outsiders might “lament the condition of certain people whom we regard as crushed under the heel of authority—for example, this is frequently the attitude toward the position of women in many past and present societies—. . . they . . . accept their position without any feeling of sacrifice and regard themselves as completely free. Gini presented women as an example of a seemingly oppressed group who were not, by the standards they shared with others in their culture, oppressed. 

Finally, my favorite, the sole mention of woman in the singular. Robert McIver, the great Columbia University sociologist, gave her a passing mention in speaking of the way in primitive societies, objects, folklore, and practices are imbued with meaning. “The success of a fishing expedition is as much endangered by a woman’s touching the fishing tackle as by unfavorable weather.” This was an example of taboo. One might have suggested a corollary, the success of the Tercentenary Conference might have been thus endangered. Well, it didn’t happen. Except for contact with typewriter keys, no women’s touch was allowed. 

Moreover, women’s participation in the larger event seems distinctly segregated. Radcliffe mounted three exhibits in its buildings on the history of Radcliffe, the work of women in science, and the books written by Radcliffe alumnae. Three Radcliffe officers were allowed to attend as delegates. And Radcliffe gave a dinner for women’s college heads and representatives. The only direct, active participation of women was the inclusion of present and former female members of the Choral Society in the Tercentenary Chorus. It would seem the need to provide sopranos and altos without the ghastly 18th-century French solution overrode taboos in this particular instance. 

Times have changed. And I am here to recognize the sweep of this change and to try to understand resistances to it. I am an outsider, for with the exception of my one-year job at what is now the Schlesinger and my five years as a graduate student and teaching fellow in American Civilization, I have lived and worked outside of Harvard. But I’ve come back many times for research, was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, and I continue today my long and happy association with the Schlesinger as a reader. And, of course, I’ve studied and written about higher education and women’s colleges. 

My talk today on Harvard and women will focus on these themes. Pay attention, for it is complicated.

Origins and Exclusion

History and Tradition

Prestige and Privilege



Accommodation and Invisibility

Struggle and Equity

Let me begin with Origins and Exclusion. I don’t think it began as a taboo, but rather as Professor Gini suggested, though perhaps exaggerated, as part of the social order of the time and generally unquestioned by women as well as men. But origins are critical, for they can have great sticking power. In considering Harvard, the question then becomes: What have been the lasting effects of Harvard’s founding in 1636 as an all-male institution of higher learning? 

In asking this, I don’t deny that women have always been at Harvard. As workers and donors. As invisible helpmeets to fathers, husbands, and sons—not only as life’s mainstays but also as intellectual collaborators. And yet, the heart of Harvard as an educational institution is the undergraduate college and a collection of post-graduate and professional schools. Students, faculty, deans, presidents, fellows, and overseers are at its center. So, my concern today will be with these. To the disappointment of some, my focus is on bodies, not minds, with women as presence, not with women as subjects of study; for though I’ve given much of my life to the study of women’s history and the development of women’s studies, I have only a short time with you this afternoon. The rich history of the entry of women into the curriculum at Harvard must be postponed until another time.

One cannot really think about Exclusion in the abstract. At Harvard the Exclusion of women at the founding didn’t act alone to shape its History. Connected to Exclusion by a silken cord were Tradition and Privilege. As we know from this very occasion, Harvard has a long history going back to 1636. Initially founded to educate an all-male clergy, by the 18th century Harvard was offering polish to the sons of the rising mercantile elite. Their worldly success meant that association with Harvard acquired an authority, a certain cachet. During the early industrial revolution in the 19th century, Boston “blue blood” and Harvard rose together. I remember, at a time when Leverett Saltonstall was Senator from Massachusetts and Leverett House acquired its new building, there was a marker in its library commemorating the ten generations of Saltonstalls who had matriculated at Harvard from the 1650s to the mid-20th century. This legacy from Harvard’s prestigious male past is perpetuated in the names of the houses on the river and continues to have cultural power. 

Harvard had other male students, serious ones from farming families and the lower ranks of the middle class. Unlike their elite peers, who were more interested in play and acquiring polish, these Outsiders studied hard and were generally despised by the wealthier College Men in the class. For the Outsiders, Harvard was a means to rise in the world, even to gain knowledge, not the way to confirm a given status. And when they graduated, they were typically grateful for the boost Harvard had given them. 

Of course, as well as Harvard-going sons, the Saltonstalls and Lowells had daughters. They were not able to enter Harvard, but they had what / they / had / been / told / to / value—position and Privilege. And this complicated bringing women into the core of Harvard. 

Access. The women who started knocking on the doors of Harvard were generally not Saltonstalls or Lowells. They were typically daughters of the struggling middle class, often school teachers, seeking instruction in science. They were thrown a few / crumbs, access to a lecture or a lab now and then. The demand was certainly there—when Harvard opened its University Lectures in 1863, women flocked to attend. By 1870, women were 72 percent of the students attending the lectures. But the lectures were suspended in 1872, when Harvard established its Graduate Department; and it was all male. 

Innovation. Perhaps you don’t know it, but a Harvard daughter was responsible for the first correspondence course in the US, and it focused on women as its faculty and student body. Here I draw on the wonderful work of Sally Schwager. Anna Ticknor was the essence of privilege as the daughter of George Ticknor, Harvard’s first professor of modern languages, and of Anna Eliot Ticknor, the sister of Charles William Eliot, Harvard’s president beginning in 1869. Anna Ticknor decided to act, and in 1873, with her mother, called together a group of prominent women to form the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. Many women with both Harvard and civic connections, including Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, became associated with the society, as supporters, teachers, and division heads. The goal was to educate those girls unable to attend college, due to lack of money or domestic duties. A secondary goal was to provide, as Schwager put it, “an outlet” for the instructors “for their own scholarly ambitions and social needs.” Each teacher provided assignments and corresponded monthly with students. The society began small, but within two years had 213 students from 24 states and Canada. At its peak in the early 1880s, over 1,000 students were enrolled. In history, for example, the reading came from Harvard courses; the work required monthly written reports that included memory notes, abstracts, and essays. In her tribute in 1897, Elizabeth Agassiz praised it as “the Silent University.” One of its students was Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Among its teachers was Alice James, the sister of William and Henry.

At the very same time, a group of women, including Agassiz, began to push back against Harvard’s exclusion of women. In 1872, some interesting and powerful women formed the Woman’s Educational Association of Boston. They included Zina Fay Peirce, the wife of a young philosopher at Harvard; Mary Hemenway, the generous donor of this very building; and Agassiz. As they sought entrance to Harvard by various means, they met resistance at every turn. As they reported, “We were told not to disturb the present system of education, which is the result of the wisdom and experience of the past, and bears so large a part in the molding of our republican life.” Although they began to get some support from Harvard professors—all male, of course—President Charles William Eliot was deeply opposed and so was the all-male Corporation. 

What was the objection? Here one must return to Origins, History, Tradition, and Privilege. As the women of the Educational Association learned, in the late 19th century Harvard saw itself as the nursery for the nation of leadership and scholarship. Although Harvard men were generally sympathetic to the idea of educated women, who as Mothers of the Republic and teachers bore great responsibility for the young, they did not want women to study at the sacred grove reserved for the future ruling elite and intelligentsia. The scarce precious resources of Harvard should not be dissipated. Moreover, with knowledge of the randy fellows under their charge, some worried about the moral harm of coeducation. Oddly, from today’s perspective, young college men agreed. This essentially came—from class biases. Elite men set the tone of undergraduate life at Harvard in the 19th century. The women seeking higher education generally came from modest backgrounds, bringing the serious approaches to college of the grinds, the despised Outsiders. In addition to these factors, we might remember Professor McIver’s example of taboo: the fishing expedition believed to be ruined by a woman’s touch. 

But gradually, by starts and stops, a way was found. Sheer Innovation. Create a new institution for women, place it near Harvard, and get Harvard professors to teach the female students the same courses they taught men in the Yard. In fall 1879, “The Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women,” opened with 27 students. Familiarly called the Annex, it was a curious institution. It was supported by women and men in awe of Harvard. As its opening circular announced, the university’s “relation to the intellectual world outside, its maturity of thought and methods, its claim on cultivated minds everywhere, give it a hold on our respect and affection which women share with men.” But Harvard as represented by its President and Corporation stood adamantly against bringing women into the university in all roles other than as donors, helpmeets, clerical and library assistants, and servants. So how were women to gain access?

Through Accommodation. The Annex was created in a manner calculated, so that, in the words of the Ladies of the Executive Committee, “it stirs no prejudices, excites no opposition, involves no change of policy for the University.” Which brings us to Elizabeth Agassiz, the woman who smoothed the way and, with others of the ladies committee, raised the money necessary for the Annex’s opening in 1879. 

The price was Invisibility. The Annex began with no building, only rented rooms on Appian Way, for classes taught by members of the Harvard faculty. The young women, according to an early brochure, “quietly pursue their occupations as unnoticed as the daughters of any Cambridge residents.” There were to be no dormitories, no college life. Agassiz did not want the Annex to become another women’s college. 

So the Annex began as a unique institution of higher learning for women. Unlike the other six of the Seven Sisters that it joined in the 1920s, Radcliffe had no separate faculty, but drew on the all-male instructors of Harvard: by the early 1890s, over 200 women students were taking courses taught by 70 men. Initially graduates received no AB; instead of a diploma, they got a certificate. Admittedly, association with Harvard carried great prestige. That was both an advantage and a curse.

For it made the Annex a hostage to Harvard. As early as 1883, the Society decided to raise $100,000 to induce Harvard to accept it as a branch of the university. Harvard refused. Harvard also refused to turn certificates into diplomas. In essence, Harvard refused to recognize the Annex in any official way. This meant it was free to forbid its faculty from teaching women on the side any time it chose. Harvard’s adamancy drove the Annex’s backers to seek a new contractual relation. 

Again, Innovation. Agassiz negotiated with President Eliot an agreement that turned the Annex into Radcliffe College. Harvard oversaw the Annex, countersigned its degrees, and described its offerings in the university catalogue. Harvard’s president and its Fellows became Visitors of the Annex, responsible for appointing instructors and examiners. In 1893, Agassiz persuaded the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women to vote for the agreement, take the name Radcliffe College, and, in return, gain full ability to grant degrees. Chartered by the Massachusetts legislature, Radcliffe College came into being in 1894. 

In time, under effective leadership, Radcliffe emerged as a strong institution, with a firm material base. We know of the brilliant students it attracted and the fine education they received. But there may have been costs of which we do not know. What did it mean that all the faculty were men? What can we learn from this statement by a Radcliffe alumna who had transferred from Smith? She wrote about her feeling that at Radcliffe she “had somehow entered into the great company of scholars. . . . You felt how infinitely much there was to learn and how little you could ever attain to. It was humbling and inspiring.” So, did the fact that the “great company of scholars” was all male deter her from becoming one herself? For better or worse, professors are models as well as inspirers. What does it mean to a woman student that there are no female models? Did that make learning “humbling,” rather than empowering?

But to Harvard faculty all seemed perfectly normal. Even as wise a man as the psychologist Gordon Allport, known for his studies of prejudice, could write as late as 1940, to a woman academic seeking employment in the summer school: “Radcliffe has no faculty and no summer school. Only Harvard teachers teach there, and Harvard has no women teachers. Silly? Perhaps, but traditional and unexceptionable!”

I’d like to dwell for a moment on the story of Mary Calkins, a member of the Wellesley faculty. I do so because it allows us some insight into the range of forces operating at Harvard and the adamancy of its presidents and governing bodies. A young and talented Smith graduate, Calkins was hired by Wellesley in 1887 to teach Greek; but Wellesley’s head professor in Philosophy was seeking someone to introduce the new field of Psychology and saw Calkins’s potential. She offered Calkins the position on condition she take graduate work in psychology. Here was a dilemma. German universities were the mecca, but they either refused to educate women or made life very difficult for them. Yale and Michigan accepted Calkins, but they lacked what she regarded as essential, a psychology laboratory. Harvard had a famous one, and William James and Josiah Royce requested Calkins be admitted into their seminar. Eliot refused their request outright. Then Calkins’s father, a prominent Newton Presbyterian minister, wrote in her behalf.  He stated, using the rules of Accommodation, his daughter’s admission to the seminar did “not involve the question of co-education in general, and cannot fairly be quoted as an embarrassing precedent. For we ask only post-graduate and professional instruction for one who is already a member of a college faculty.” Only by going to Harvard would she be able to live at home and attend seminars in her instructors’ parlors where “a lady may be received with propriety.” 

Harvard agreed on these terms, but it was officially noted, “by accepting this privilege Miss Calkins does not become a student of the University entitled to registration.” In the fall of 1890, just as James’s great book Principles of Psychology came out, Calkins began working with him. She turned out to be the only student in his course. As she put it, they were left “quite literally at either side of a library fire.” She also began to study at Clark University. When she returned to teach psychology at Wellesley in the fall of 1891, she set up a psychological laboratory at the college, one of the first dozen in the country. When she inquired about further study, she learned that Hugo Münsterberg was moving from the University of Freiberg to Harvard and would conduct its psychology lab. Beginning in 1892, she studied with Münsterberg for three years, and from the outset published in important psychological journals. Münsterberg sought her admission to the PhD program, writing to Eliot and the governing board, “Her publications and her work here do not let any doubt to me that she is superior . . . to all candidates of the philosophical PhD during the last years. More than that: she is surely one of the strongest professors of psychology in this country.” The records for the Harvard Corporation, October 29, 1894, noted that Münsterberg’s request was considered—and refused. 

Nonetheless, Calkins submitted her thesis on “Association of Ideas” to the department, and was examined by its members. The report read she was examined before Professors James, Royce, Palmer, Münsterberg, Harris, and Santayana, and they “unanimously voted” she satisfied the requirements of the PhD. This, too, was noted in the Harvard Corporation records. 

Her thesis became published articles and her work in Wellesley’s lab became published studies. In 1901 appeared her first book, An Introduction to Psychology. In 1902 Radcliffe offered her the PhD, but Calkins famously did not accept. She continued to teach at Wellesley and served as president both of the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association. She wrote four books and over a hundred articles, evenly divided between psychology and philosophy. In 1927, a group of philosophers and psychologists, Harvard graduates all, sent a petition to Harvard’s president to grant her the Harvard PhD. It outlined her achievements and testified to her international reputation. The university concluded, “there was no adequate reason” for granting the degree to Calkins. Case closed. There is nothing rational to be argued here. I think it is simply a case of Exclusion, History, Tradition, and Privilege, now being joined by Taboo. 

Looked at another way, it is clear from this account that Radcliffe became the side door opening graduate education in Arts and Sciences to women. In 1894 President Eliot responded to a powerful alumnus on the question of Harvard’s giving PhD’s to women. No, he insisted, with paternalistic fervor, the doctoral degree grantor must be Radcliffe, otherwise the fledgling college would lose legitimacy. Radcliffe offered Masters degrees from the beginning, the PhD from 1902. Oddly, given the difficulties Calkins faced, Harvard graduate courses were declared open to women as early as Radcliffe’s 1894 charter. By 1962 when Radcliffe ceased to admit women or grant degrees, 784 PhDs had been granted to women.  

You should know I have my own history, both as a Wellesley graduate and a Harvard PhD. Little did I know in fall 1962 when I first applied to Harvard Graduate School in history, that I was stepping on new ground. When I didn’t get accepted, I knew I had been discriminated against and in spring 1963 went to protest my rejection to Dean Kirby-Miller, the recently displaced dean of Radcliffe Graduate School who was trying to act as the advocate for women. She looked at my record and told me, I was right. Yes, I clearly had been discriminated against. She then informed me she would not take my case. Why? Because she had lost two better ones in the last week. I did not know then the full meaning of what she was probably telling me. That she now no longer had control over or voice in graduate admissions, that Harvard was now free to discriminate against women. In the year following, I was instructed by a member of the history faculty at Harvard not to apply in History but in American Civilization because it did not discriminate. Minor Accommodation. 

If one steps away from Harvard College and The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) a more complex picture emerges. Access seems not so freighted; Accommodation not so mandated. Perhaps the Prestige factor weighs less heavily here. Or perhaps we might express it in this formula: the less the prestige, the easier the access. By the way, I don’t regard prestige as bearing any real relation to quality. 

The Harvard Graduate School of Education became the first of the post-graduate schools to take in women—in 1920. Its graduates were the first women to receive Harvard degrees; its dean, the first female dean at the University. [Acknowledge Patricia Graham]

Harvard Medical School is very interesting. Medicine is one of the first professions in which women, who had long been health practitioners as midwives, nurses, and family members, sought entry. In 1847, Harriot Hunt wrote to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes to ask for permission to attend medical lectures. Although Dr. Holmes supported this, the Harvard Corporation denied the request. In 1850 Hunt applied again. This time the male medical students protested her admission, along with that of three/male African Americans.  During World War I’s shortage of physicians, a plan emerged for women to study medicine at Radcliffe, but it was not realized. A later plan allowed women to study at the Harvard Medical School for a Radcliffe PhD in medical sciences. The first real admission came in 1945, graduating its first MDs in 1949. The Medical School was distinctive in one regard: in 1919 it appointed Dr. Alice Hamilton to a professorial position in industrial medicine.  She later taught at the School of Public Health. 

At the Harvard Law School, petitions by women to enter began as early as 1871 and continued. Their numbers included Inez Milholland, Vassar graduate and suffragist. In 1915, 15 women petitioned and were denied. In a letter to Harvard graduate Walter Lippmann, then of the New Republic, President Lowell said, “Harvard is one of the very few institutions for men alone, and in our opinion had better remain so, for the present at least.”  The Law School was successful, but “the admission of women might affect it injuriously.” It should be noted—in 1915, women were still a small minority in the profession, but the number of female lawyers was growing exponentially. Most major law schools were open to women by 1930. The Harvard Law School admitted its first women in 1950. 

In 1893, the Harvard Divinity School denied the petition of its alumni to admit women. It was only opened to women for graduate study in 1955. Parenthetically, 1955 was the first year women were granted access to morning services at Appleton Chapel. 

The Business School worked out an arrangement with Radcliffe in the late 1930s to build a Program in Business Administration, again with a Radcliffe degree. Beginning in 1959, graduates of the program were admitted to the second year of the MBA program at Harvard Business School. 

Finally, Arts and Sciences. It took first a father’s desire to honor his late son and distinguished anthropologist daughter, and then a genius to break the lock keeping women out of the faculty. The Samuel Zemurray, Jr. and Doris Zemurray-Stone Radcliffe Professorship was established at FAS in 1948 for a distinguished woman scholar. The first woman to hold the chair was Helen Maud Cam, a constitutional historian, followed in 1954 by anthropologist Cora du Bois. Its current holder is Katharine Park in history of science. [Acknowledge]

Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin, whose 1925 Radcliffe thesis was declared “undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy” was the first woman to rise through the ranks to become in 1956 full professor in Arts and Sciences.  

Which leads us to Equity, the campaign of the last forty years. It has been a long and complicated Struggle and it is still going on. To get there has required protest and Innovation. Many of the changes came from Mary Bunting’s years as Radcliffe’s President, 1959–1972. Facing what she called “climate of unexpectation” for girls, which resulted in “the waste of highly talented educated womanpower,” Bunting fought it.  Many of the changes moving women into the center of Harvard’s life came in her administration. A key one was pure Innovation, the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, later the Bunting—the origin of the institution sponsoring this lecture. 

Beginning at the end of Bunting’s Radcliffe years, the women’s movement brought to the fore issues she had begun to address. And with this, the fight at the undergraduate level became open, sparked by key reports on the status of women beginning in 1971. You, my audience, are likely more familiar with the milestones than I, but certain moments are key: 

1967: when Lamont opened to women; 

1971: the non-merger merger, leading to the gender integration of the Houses in the Yard and the Quadrangle. It is striking to me that this agreement came just as radical women ended their celebration of International Women’s Day with a week-long building takeover. 

1975: the merger of Radcliffe and Harvard admissions; 

*1977: when the 4-to-1 ratio of men to women ended. With Sex-blind admissions, women’s numbers gradually were allowed to increase to reach parity finally in 2007. 

In 1999 came the agreement ending Radcliffe as a degree-granting body and bringing into being the Radcliffe Institute as we know it today. 

And in 2007 its first dean, Drew Gilpin Faust, became president of Harvard University. We are honored to have her with us today. [Acknowledge]

FAS in its undergraduate and graduate admissions set a pattern for increasing proportions of women in the student bodies of the professional schools. All this came at a time of commitment not just to women as a category but to women in all their racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual diversity. During these very same years, the numbers of African American and Latino students grew apace.  And these were intertwined in an essential way. It has been argued that while women were emboldened by the movement for women’s liberation, the men making the decisions were likely persuaded by the power of the Civil Rights Movement’s arguments for equity. Once you reject a quota for Jews, and attempt to remove the barriers that have discriminated against African Americans, how can you justify a quota for women or bar them from a library? 

The struggle wasn’t easy nor was the outcome necessarily assured. What raised the fiercest opposition was the fight waged at the turn of the 1970s by students and NOW to attain a 1-to-1 male/female ratio. Listen to powerful Harvard dean of freshmen F. Skiddy von Stade: “When I see bright, well-educated, but relatively dull housewives who attended the Seven Sisters, I honestly shudder at the thought of changing the balance of males versus females at Harvard . . . Quite simply, I do not see highly educated women making startling strides in contributing to our society in the foreseeable future. They are not, in my opinion, going to stop getting married and/or having children. They will fail in their present role as women if they do.” (I’m sure his niece, the great mezzo Frederica von Stade would have shaken her head at this, if her schedule permitted.) Moreover, within his official Peterson Report of 1970, Harvard admissions dean Chase Peterson opposed changing the 4-to-1 ratio with all the vigor of his strong rhetoric. But the 1975 Strauch Committee Report in favor of sex-blind admissions gave Harvard’s president the needed ammunition to gain faculty support. 

The university saw other real and symbolic changes during that time and the years following. To name just a few: 

1968: saw the first time a woman could walk into the front door of the Faculty Club. 

1970: the first woman elected to the Board of Overseers. 

1987: the first woman to attain high office in University administration. 

1989: the entry of the first woman onto the Harvard Corporation. 

2007: the first woman to serve as president of the University.  

Moving an institution towards equity turns out to be very hard work. President Faust has stated that it is easier to change an administration than a faculty, and in the recent period there has been real success at the administrative level. Of the 16 members of the Harvard Council of Deans, seven are women, and these include the deans of the Law School and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. What is impressive is not just those who are at the top, but also those at the next levels, seeing to the hard work of running the university. For example, of the 15 associates and assistants in the Provost Office, eight are women. 

Opening the faculty to women has proved the most difficult nut to crack. Harvard got a boost, for the demand for more female professors came during a period of rapid growth in the faculty, allowing the number of women to rise. By 2001 there were 134 women; and in 2008, the high point, 185, comprising roughly a quarter of the faculty. Women remain more heavily bunched in the ranks of the tenure-track, rather than tenured. But what is important is that there is now a clear tenure-track system in place, which means promoting from within. But as Senior Vice Provost Judith Singer admitted to a New York Times reporter, “Senior faculty is hard to change, because 95 percent of them were here last year, so it’s mostly a function of who you bring in. And there is still an old guard, to be honest, for whom this [i.e., gender equity] is not a priority.” Barriers seem especially high in mathematics and the sciences, which largely remain male domains. The math department’s first tenured woman, Sophie Morel, arrived just two years ago.  About the same time the earth and planetary sciences department tenured its first woman. In physics and chemistry, female professors remain few in number. 

As the hard-hitting 1991 report on the natural sciences, chaired by Barbara Grosz, stated, the issues go beyond tenure to engage the whole pipeline that feeds women into the sciences, all of which pose special difficulties for women. Further reports made it clear that changes are necessary in departments such as government and economics, to keep young faculty women from leaving Harvard prior to the tenure decisions they believe are stacked against them. 

Although each professional school has great autonomy, all seem to be moving in the same direction, with varying degrees of fits and starts. Yet the gap between proportions in student bodies and faculties remain significant. This is important not just for equity for the women seeking professorial positions, but also because of the way the imbalance may work in many students’ minds. I’m haunted by Ruth Hubbard’s statement about the impact on her generation of Radcliffe students of not being taught by women. Sitting “at the feet of Harvard’s Great Men” may mean students do not awaken to the “expectation that we might someday be Great Women.”

I am also haunted by what we are not seeing, what we are not able to see. As a historian, I am aware of the traps of present consciousness. Slaves were granted freedom, citizenship, and suffrage at the close of the Civil War . . . The passage of the Amendment for women’s suffrage meant the struggle for freedom for women was unstoppable . . . World War I was the war to end all wars . . .

As I read the more recent reports dealing with attaining faculty and graduate student equity, I became aware once again of the unresolved issues linked to family formation and caregiving. I am reminded of Arlie Hochschild’s “Inside the Clockwork of Male Careers.” Women and men have different biological clocks and different experiences as spouses and parents. This poses for women a special set of problems as they negotiate their lives in their adult years. To achieve equity requires that educational institutions provide women with a wide range of services and a flexible career-clock enabling them to balance work and caregiving. To be gender-blind about this is to be blind to the reality of most women’s lives. 

What else do I worry about? Right now it’s the drumbeat of popular culture’s hyper-sexuality with its impact on high school students and undergraduates. It is the new “Mommy culture” with its impossible demands that now pull women out of the still-inflexible work force. Will the loss of distinctive women’s institutions, such as Radcliffe College and the Bunting, leave women more vulnerable in the future?  

What else is out there? Put in the context of women and Harvard, now 375 years in existence—what bars to true equity are now hiding in plain sight? Today, compared with 25, 50, or 75 years ago, there is a lot to celebrate. But there is a lot to try and change, and a lot to worry about, too. Yes, the history of women at Harvard is complicated. 

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