Drew Gilpin Faust: A Historian Making History

Historians in the News

[Laurel T. Ulrich, author of ‘Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History,’ is the 300th Anniversary University Professor.]

In the fall of 2001, shortly after she arrived at Harvard as Dean of the newly created Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Drew Gilpin Faust gave a speech to the entering class. She told the story of a young woman named Sarah Pellet who in 1850 had the audacity to ask for admission to Harvard University. In his rejection letter, President Jared Sparks, Class of 1815, assured her that the College was only acting in her best interest: “I should doubt whether a solitary female, mingling as she must do promiscuously with so large a number of the other sex, would find her situation either agreeable or advantageous.”

As the only female on Harvard’s ten-person Council of Deans, Faust knew what it meant to be a solitary female in a crowd of men. In her case, however, the situation proved both agreeable and advantageous. Within seven years, she was elected President of the University.

We like to think that in most things that matter, Harvard has been a leader. But on gender issues it has been astonishingly—even comically—backward. Although there have always been women at Harvard—sweeping floors, washing shirts, typing letters, caring for books in the library, serving tea in the President’s house, or donating large buildings in honor of their husbands or sons—the University has been slow to acknowledge their presence and even slower to admit them to the company of scholars.

In the 1870s, when Faust’s alma mater Bryn Mawr was pioneering in higher education for women, Harvard’s President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, doubted whether women’s “natural mental capacities” were up to the challenge. Co-education was, of course, unthinkable, even when bright young Bostonian women were pounding on the doors. Eliot could barely imagine the consequences of trying “…to teach together sets of persons, who like young men and young women, differ widely in regard to sensibility, quickness, docility, and conscientiousness.” Lesser institutions, like Boston University, might try “social experiments,” but Harvard knew better.

As Faust explained in that speech, the founding of Radcliffe College in 1894 represented “a compromise between what women wanted and what Harvard would give them.” Even when classrooms were integrated, Harvard imposed a rigid quota on Radcliffe admissions. ...
Read entire article at Laurel T. Ulrich in the Harvard Crimson

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