Harvard's Faust: Boundaries Remain for Women Drew Gilpin Faust is poised to become the first woman president of Harvard University in its 371-year history. The 59-year-old Radcliffe dean recalls being a "sort of a smart-aleck" girl growing up in a world dominated by men.
NPR logo

Harvard's Faust: Boundaries Remain for Women

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/7462561/7462788" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Harvard's Faust: Boundaries Remain for Women

Harvard's Faust: Boundaries Remain for Women

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/7462561/7462788" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Drew Gilpin Faust will be Harvard University's first female president in the school's 371-year history. She takes the job in July. She'll replace Lawrence Summers. His presidency was marked by controversy, notably his remarks that women might not have aptitude for the sciences.

Drew Gilpin Faust spoke to Steve Inskeep about Harvard, Summers and her own traditional upbringing.

STEVE INSKEEP: I want to begin with a quote that you've repeated to a number of people. You say that your mother told you long ago that it's a man's world, sweetie. What did she mean by that?

Ms. DREW GILPIN FAUST (President, Harvard University): Well, this was in the 1950s and early 1960s, and I think what she meant was that I needed to understand that my three brothers would have opportunities that I wouldn't. And she based that statement on her own experience as a woman growing up in the '20s and '30s.

INSKEEP: You mean, staying at home?

Ms. FAUST: Well, for her, definitely staying at home, having children, also having certain expectations of propriety when you had to wear a skirt. I remember one thing we fought a lot about was whether I was allowed to drive at night with either my brother or any of his friends or young men that I knew. She thought that was improper.

So it ranged from just how you lived your day-to-day life to what you might anticipate in your future and what you might aspire to.

INSKEEP: Why didn't you listen?

Ms. FAUST: Well, I think I didn't listen partly because the example of my brothers was so striking and it seemed to me unfair. Why should they be allowed to do things that I wasn't allowed to do? It was seen in some ways a disappointment that I was so bright and, I mean, I don't want to malign my brothers, they're plenty bright. But it seems somehow almost squandered to have me be talented in school. And that frustrated me.

INSKEEP: Who was disappointed?

Ms. FAUST: That I was bright or…

INSKEEP: Yeah. Who are you saying was disappointed or so as a squandered…

Ms. FAUST: Well, I think it was seen as something of a problem. What do we do with her? And I was something of a smart aleck, I suppose at times, and opined on a variety of subjects when it was more appropriate for a young woman of my generation and surroundings in Virginia to be a little more reticent, to let men take the lead.

INSKEEP: Do you mean your family or do you mean your teachers?

Ms. FAUST: Oh yes, oh yes, my family very much. I had a very powerful grandmother who lived in Virginia. And in essence she ran the whole family but she did it in a way that no one acknowledged. Everyone deferred to her sons, my father and my uncle, but she was really the one who ran it all.

So I had this bundle of contradictions before me, a very forceful, intelligent grandmother who pretended that she wasn't as forceful and intelligent as she actually was.

INSKEEP: It's fascinating to hear you say that some of the people who seemed to be drawing boundaries for you as a woman were other women.

Ms. FAUST: It's true. It's true. And I think my mother's comment was one of bitterness when she said it's a man's world. And it was also I think a little bit perhaps of resentment that I should push at boundaries that she had had to accept and live with. And who was I to say that things could be different?

INSKEEP: Do you think there still are boundaries for women?

Ms. FAUST: Yes. Of course there's still boundaries, but nothing like the kind of boundaries that existed as recently as a generation ago. In time we saw it by 2007, everything would have changed. We'd have the same number of women senior partners in law firms, we'd have the same number of women running Fortune 500 companies. That simply hasn't happened. And to ask why is a very interesting set of questions.

INSKEEP: Well, now your predecessor, Lawrence Summers, was asking that question why when he got in trouble, or at least for one of the occasions that he got in trouble. He was talking about women and their aptitude for the sciences. And after he got in trouble, he asked you to come in and oversee efforts to increase opportunities for women. Did you hesitate before taking that assignment from him?

Ms. FAUST: I didn't because I thought it was a moment of great openness at Harvard, a moment when we had a real chance to make changes and to ask very serious questions about the problems I just described to you. So I saw it as a real opportunity.

INSKEEP: As poorly as he says he expressed himself, was there a point in there somewhere that you would agree with?

Ms. FAUST: I think the point I'd agree with is that the differential in women's place is very significant and we need to look very hard at how to explain it. I think we as a university are committed to believing that everyone we bring into this community we judge on the basis of their extraordinary aptitude. And so we need to be thinking about breaking down all boundaries that might inhibit the full realization of that potential.

INSKEEP: When you worked in that area, did you come to suspect that women are still drawing boundaries for themselves and other women the same way that it happened in your family?

Ms. FAUST: I think everyone is inhibited to a certain degree by these beliefs. And that's why I've been so struck this week by the responses to the announcement of my presidency. People have written to me again and again saying this convinces both women and men that boundaries are breaking down. And so in that very way I think the symbolism and the reality of my appointment make a very important statement.

INSKEEP: I just want to come back and try to summarize on Lawrence Summers. When you look overall at the direction he was trying to move the university, do you think that in some ways he was trying to move it in the right way even if he used abrasive methods?

Ms. FAUST: Yes, I embrace many of the dreams that Larry had for Harvard: the improvement of undergraduate education, the enhancement of science by breaking down disciplinary boundaries. Those things were initiatives that he pushed while he was here, and those are agendas for Harvard going forward.

INSKEEP: When you hear about the insularity of the different parts of Harvard, it's tempting to ask if your long experience as a Civil War historian is going to pay off at all.

Ms. FAUST: You're thinking of secession or something of that sort?

INSKEEP: Or yeah, sectionalism, you know…

Ms. FAUST: Sectionalism.

INSKEEP: …war between colleges, departments. Have you found yourself in some meeting over recent years telling some story from the Civil War?

Ms. FAUST: I guess one of the stories I've told a lot is about the general interpretation in my book, "Mothers of Invention," which is a study of women of the slave-holding South in the Civil War. And if you look at that book, what you find is that these women really didn't want change. And this surprises many 21st and 20th century historians who think that, of course, these women would have seen opportunities for greater freedom for themselves, for more participation in a wider community and a wider life, more opportunities, and yet they were very fearful of it.

So I think what I learned from that and what I would communicate to others is that change is often frightening. And that doesn't mean that we shouldn't do it, it just means that we should recognize that it can be difficult and figure out the ways to make our way through it most successfully. Because we will be happy when we get to the other side if the change is well considered and necessary.

INSKEEP: Well, Drew Gilpin Faust, thanks very much.

Ms. FAUST: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Ms. Faust has been named the next president of Harvard University and takes over next July. Read about her background at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.