Want to know why Larry Summers was right about women and science? Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 has just the outing for you today.
The oft-controversial Government professor and author of the book “Manliness” is hosting, of all things, a feminism conference.
The poster for the event bills it as “The Conference the Radcliffe Institute Didn’t Want to Host” and, though the event is free, promises that “ladies receive an additional 50% off.”
Kicking off last night with a keynote address from conservative gender scholar Camille Paglia—who famously commented that “leaving sex to the feminists is like letting your dog vacation at the taxidermist”—the conference will run all day today, touching upon topics like “sex and the modern girl.”
The conference will provide a forum for feminists who have been ignored by the Radcliffe Institute in years past, Mansfield said.
“Over the years, the Radcliffe Institute has done very little to debate feminism,” he said. “They refuse to host conservative women. I’m trying to prick Harvard’s political correctness. It’s as if I have no other goal in life.”
NYU Professor Katie Roiphe ’90, a participant in the conference, agreed, saying she was sure she had been passed over for conferences by the Institute. “It’s okay,” she said. “I would definitely rather talk at a Harvey Mansfield conference.”
Interim Dean of the Radcliffe Institute Barbara J. Grosz confirmed that Radcliffe turned Mansfield’s offer down, but she said they the decision was made because of scheduling constraints.
Each group of speakers has “at least one woman that’s supposed to be on the other side,” Mansfield said, and some of the participants foresee potential conflict.
“We certainly have a lot of interesting people,” said participant Dan Kindlon, a lecturer in the School of Public Health. “There could be sparks flying.”
Mansfield will preside over what he said he hopes will be a “respectful debate” over the “legacy and future of feminism.”
One of the main discussions of the conference is entitled “What Larry Summers and Nancy Hopkins Didn’t Say: Women in Science.”
Mansfield himself has no qualms saying what former University President Lawrence H. Summers didn’t.
“On the whole, men are better in math, and therefore men are better in science,” Mansfield said.
At a 2005 economics conference, former University President Lawrence H. Summers said that “intrinsic aptitude” could partially account for the dearth of female scientists at elite universities.
Deborah Blum, a science journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin will address the controversy at the conference. She pointed out that men tend to be better at spatial reasoning, perhaps because “early in our history, men had to ramble around and make maps.”
Kindlon said that while some evidence exists in favor of Mansfield’s view, women today tend to do better in college than men, and that the biological data tends to be hazy as well.
“When you look at the people talking about biological differences between men and women [at the conference], you will notice none of them are biologists,” Kindlon said. “It’s much more complicated than social scientists make it out to be.”
WORK, SEX, AND RELIGION
When Stephen Colbert asked Mansfield if a woman’s role was to be family breadwinner in a recent appearance on his Comedy Central television show, Mansfield was taken aback.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” he said with shock and surprise. “I think it’s to have a career, which earns about one third of family income, and then go at home and do about two thirds of the housework.”
“Which is precisely what American women do now,” he closed, enunciating each syllable.
One participant in today’s conference disagreed with this assessment.
“I believe that healthy normal women should make a life for themselves in the public world, and it is therefore immoral to create circumstances where they cannot do that,” author Linda Hirshman said. “I certainly didn’t agree with his book,” referring to Mansfield’s “Manliness.”
Roiphe had another take on the roles of women and men at home.
“I do believe that magnification of the debates about motherhood where people get worked up about who’s changing diapers are sort of fundamentally whiny, and beside the point,” she said.
Roiphe is participating in a segment of the conference which explores the role of sex in women’s lives. She said that political terminology like “sexual harassment” and “date rape” are often used too loosely to describe complex situations.
“Every time a man flirts with a woman in the office it ends up as sexual harassment,” she said. “This ends up reinforcing the stereotype where the woman is the victim.”
A final part of the conference explores women and Islam, and will touch upon whether women’s rights are natural rights or a product of Western civilization, Mansfield said.
The discussion follows national attention surrounding the University’s decision to close an undergraduate gym to men for certain hours during the week at the request of a group of Muslim women.
While Mansfield said that the conference is meant to bring the underrepresented conservative viewpoint to Harvard, most of the attendees interviewed identified themselves as liberal or central.
“I don’t know if I’m on a side,” said Kindlon.
Blum vacillated between liberal and central when describing herself.
“Actually, when Harvey invited me, he said ‘we like you because no one can figure out what your point of view is,’” she said.
Mansfield said that Harvard professors were hesitant to speak at the conference.
“They might have thought I was lying in ambush for them,” he said, “I don’t blame them.”
—Staff writer Maxwell L. Child can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org