Painting a New Path at the Kennedy School
Of the more than 60 figures portrayed in the art of Annenberg Hall, three are women—two of whom are tending to children, while the third welcomes her warrior husband home to a life of domestic tranquility.
The pattern is replicated throughout Harvard—of the approximately 750 oil paintings that hang throughout the campus, about 690 of them feature white males. From marble busts to stained glass, Harvard’s art collection is stunningly grand and yet remarkably homogenous.
However, the long reign of this patriarchal portraiture may now be in jeopardy, thanks to the efforts of a professor determined to shake up the composition of Harvard’s male-dominated collection.
Jane J. Mansbridge, who has been a professor at the Kennedy School since 1996, is intimately familiar with issues of gender disparity at the Kennedy School, and has been a staunch advocate for women over the years through groups such as the Women and Public Policy Program at HKS. Mansbridge will serve as president of the American Political Science Association this coming year, which is among the highest honors in her profession.
But more recently, she has spearheaded a movement to add female faces to Harvard’s extensive art collection.
Because of Mansbridge’s elbow grease, a portrait of Ida B. Wells—an African-American journalist and early civil rights activist—now hangs in the Fainsod Room at the Kennedy School.
The portrait was commissioned in 2006 and cost $20,000. Then-president Lawrence H. Summers approved the request to use the president’s fund to cover the expense.
“Things like portraits on a wall can have real effects on people’s behavior,” says Mansbridge. “John Bargh and other psychologists of automaticity show these effects can be unconscious—if you’re in a room where all the portraits are of white males, you’re being primed to think that white males run everything.”
At the Kennedy School in particular, the gender imbalance among the faculty has been extreme for some time. Women make up just 19 percent of the senior faculty and 27 percent of the junior faculty at HKS, according to the 2011 annual report by Office of Faculty Development and Diversity.
While initiatives such as WAPPP have encouraged female students to seek careers in politics and public service, the gender ratio of the faculty is indicative of deeply ingrained inequalities that have historically kept women out of both government and portrait halls alike.
In conjunction with Mansbridge’s presidency of APSA, and the increased emphasis on gender equality and education at the Kennedy School, the timely addition of these portraits marks a step toward healing the gender rift that has plagued women in politics for so long.
When painter Stephen E. Coit ’71 read a Harvard Gazette article in 2003 announcing the allocation of funds for new portraits, he jumped at the chance to contribute to the diversification of Harvard’s collection.
Since 2003, Coit has painted over a dozen portraits of underrepresented leaders throughout history.
“When I was in Lowell House back in the late sixties, diversity was whether a portrait showed one hand or two,” says Coit.