The F-Word

Fact and fiction on Faust's feminism

In the week since Drew Gilpin Faust’s appointment was first reported in the pages of The Crimson, conservatives inside and beyond Harvard’s gates have demonstrated a peculiar tendency to blurt out the F-word: feminist.

“The feminist takeover of Harvard is imminent,” cries Heather MacDonald of the right-leaning Manhattan Institute. The conservative National Association of Scholars charges that Faust comes to the presidency “out of a career whose foremost characteristic has been its strong feminist bent,” while The Crimson’s own Christopher B. Lacaria ’09 has called Faust “a career academic and mid-level administrator culled from the women’s studies henhouse.”

Forget, for a moment, that most intelligent people believe in equal rights for women and, like Faust, technically fall under the rubric of “feminist.” Faust has been branded with the F-word by writers who have clearly never read her work.

Her 1990 journal article “Altars of Sacrifice” debunks the “the story of Confederate women’s unflinching loyalty” to the South in the Civil War. The story, she acknowledges, “fit neatly with an emergent twentieth-century feminist historiography.” But it fit poorly with reality. Faust found that women were more subversive than supportive in the Civil War South. In the process, she fastidiously picked apart a fish story that had so-called “feminist" scholars hooked.

Likewise, Faust broke from previous feminist historians in her 1996 book “Mothers of Invention.” Faust examined white society in the Civil War South by poring through primary-source documents—including the letters and diaries of more than 500 Confederate women. In an interview after the book’s publication, Faust summarized her conclusions: “It was not women embracing the possibility of liberation. It was women being forced into taking up new roles…That’s very different from the message of much of feminist scholarship.”

Speaking of primary sources, perhaps Faust could teach her critics a thing or two about checking their facts.

Meanwhile, much of Faust’s scholarship has little to do with the fairer sex. She has written four full-length nonfiction books featuring dead white male protagonists. One of her more recent journal articles is about the “The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying”—a topic so masculine it gives Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 a run for his money.

Admittedly, it’s not just her academic work that has elicited F-word attacks. At the Radcliffe Institute, MacDonald says, “Faust runs one of the most powerful incubators of feminist complaint…in the country.” But in fact, Faust has steered Radcliffe away from an exclusive focus on gender studies. The number of men in the institute’s Fellows program has increased more than six-fold since 2000, the year Faust arrived. And the program now includes natural scientists and engineers who are conducting cutting-edge research that has nothing to do with “feminist complaint.” By the way, her role at Radcliffe is a more significant administrative post than either former University Presidents Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, or James B. Conant ’14 held prior to their appointment.

Finally, even Faust’s oversight of two diversity task forces in early 2005 has been misinterpreted by her critics. Included in the task forces’ $50 million proposal were tutoring centers and summer research programs for female and male undergraduates interested in the hard sciences. When Summers’ ill-considered remarks created the opportunity for task force members to advance their own prerogatives, Faust shrewdly seized the moment to invest heavily in undergrad education for both sexes.

In short, Faust is a visionary administrator who has steered the units under her command away from exclusively gender-related endeavors. And she is an incisive historian who has dismantled many of the very myths that feminists had previously embraced. If that’s what MacDonald calls a “feminist takeover,” then I say bring it on.


Daniel J. Hemel ’07 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House and was The Crimson’s managing editor from February 2006 until last month.