Harvard's First Woman President
As a student at a women’s college, walking into a library adorned with portraits of women didn’t feel refreshing or exceptional so much as it felt expected. But all those portraits of past presidents tended to make me forget that walls like this aren’t all that common. In truth, many institutions don’t even have one woman showcased.
Five days ago, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust was chosen as the 28th president of Harvard College, the first female leader in its 371-year history. As the successor to Larry Summers, whose tumultuous presidency ended abruptly (the shortest in Harvard’s history) as a result of his confrontational management style, his sexist remarks about women in the sciences, and numerous fall-outs with Black faculty members, Faust’s election is significant on many levels, and her gender does, indeed, matter.
Faust is one of the world’s leading historians on gender issues in 19th century America. After attending Bryn Mawr College -- a seven sister school and one of the few remaining women’s colleges in the country -- she earned a Ph.D. in American Civilization and became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She directed Penn’s Women’s Studies program and went on to serve as the dean of the Radcliffe Institute.
To many, like me, who grew up after the Feminist Revolution, the idea of a woman president of any institution (Harvard included) doesn’t seem so stunning. But for those of Faust’s generation, a woman as president of a traditionally male-dominated institution seemed unimaginable. For Faust herself, her own career trajectory alone has come as quite a surprise. In the NY Times, Faust explained: “I’ve always done more than I ever thought I would. Becoming a professor – I never would have imagined that. Writing books – I never would have imagined that. Getting a Ph.D – I’m not sure I would even have imagined that.”
Now that other Ivy League schools have chosen female presidents in recent years, why does the first woman president of Harvard still seem like such an historic occasion? Why does it merit so much marvel and attention? Perhaps it’s because Harvard is the oldest and wealthiest of major American universities, entrenched in a tradition that has been shaped by men. It’s also the university that has the most global power and garners more public attention than any other.
But it may also be that the big fuss made every time a woman breaks into a prominent role that had always been male arises because these breakthroughs come in a world that has changed radically while still seeming the same. Those pictures on the wall and a society shaped by male-centered expectations and dominance have not disappeared.
Whether or not the appointment of Harvard's first female president makes us marvel or makes us shrug, Faust has a unique opportunity to lead a 17th century institution facing 21st century problems and the potential to make bold changes for the future. But we have to wonder: what kind of difference will it make? Will women simply join men in looking down from the halls of power, or as Bella Abzug used to ask will they change the nature of power itself?