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Facing a room full of flashing cameras on Feb. 11, Drew G. Faust—dean of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study and soon to be the 28th University president—said, “I am not the woman president of Harvard. I am the president of Harvard.” A quarter-century ago, another historian and female dean stood ready to achieve a milestone. On the last day of November 1981, then-University President Derek C. Bok announced that Patricia A. Graham would serve as the next dean of the Graduate School of Education (GSE), making the historian of education Harvard’s first female dean.
Bok praised Graham for possessing “a combination of qualities you look for in a dean,” and a “very varied range of experience,” adding that it was “high time” for Harvard to have a female dean, The Crimson reported at the time.
As Graham led the Appian Way institution, undergraduate Lisa M. Henson ’82 ruled over Sorrento Square from the Lampoon castle as the first female president of the semi-secret social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. Classmate Natasha P. Stowe ’82, known at the time as Natasha P. Pearl, oversaw the Student Assembly (the predecessor to the Undergraduate Council) as its third female president.
Years before Harvard would be headed by its first female leader, these women were already taking steps towards positions of leadership, despite a less-than-encouraging atmosphere.
When Patricia A. Graham first arrived at Harvard in 1974, women made up around 3 percent of tenured faculty and could not eat in the main dining room of the Faculty Club or sit with tenured male faculty.
“The idea that tenured women faculty should be excluded from the main dining room is now just laughable,” says Graham, who had previously served as vice-president of Radcliffe College and dean of the Radcliffe Institute from 1974 to 1977. “But within my professional lifetime that’s been the case and symbolically that has been a huge change.”
According to Victoria A. Budson, the founding executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School of Government, there was a great deal of pressure and sincere interest in adding more women to Harvard’s faculties. However, there was still a stigma against bringing women in on a more permanent basis, and so recruitment efforts were directed towards untenured women.
“They were known nationally as the ‘flushable bottom’ because they did not get tenure. They came and at the end of a certain number of years, they were out,” Budson says. “Women were an anomaly, they didn’t fit in to the ‘old boys culture.’”
Indeed, Graham said that she “definitely stood out” in her new position.
“By the time I was named dean, I was treated very fairly, but it was also the case that there hadn’t been any women deans before,” Graham remembers. “I looked different from everyone else.”
When Bok began searching for a successor to Paul N. Ylvisaker, who announced his resignation as dean of the School of Education in June of 1981, he named a five-person advisory committee, which included Bigelow Professor of Education and Developmental Psychology Gerald S. Lesser.
“There were professors in the field of education but nobody or very few who would assume the post of dean,” Lesser recollects. Of the female professors who fit the task, Lesser says that “there was literally a handful of women, if that many, back in 1982.”
Both Budson and Graham pegged the dearth of women in prominent positions in higher education to the fact that many administrators at the time simply did not believe that women could make “first-class competent scholars.”
“It seemed to me there were an awful lot of able women who had not been given opportunities,” Graham says. “Twenty to 30 years ago, women might make good teachers, but really make a contribution to knowledge? It is only today that most people realize that.”
“When Pat was appointed, [women] began to emerge with the ability to represent the professional background and the administrative background in a very effective combination and it just took a while for that to emerge,” says Lesser, who years earlier had been involved in the appointment of the first female professor at the University, when Beatrice B. Whiting was tenured at the School of Education.
In Graham’s years at the helm of GSE, the school made a number of professorial appointments, acquiring many women scholars.
“We were able to promote and hire a number of very able women and rank among the highest of all schools of education in the U.S.,” Graham says.
Stowe, the student government leader, says that while the pressure of tenure loomed large among female faculty, women at the undergraduate level were not similarly affected.
“I don’t think we perceived those sorts of challenges facing us as students trying to achieve leadership positions in student organizations,” Stowe says. “I think what we did perceive though is the sense of a historically male dominated institution where the best funded extracurricular activities were the ones who had wealthy male alums.”
Both Stowe and former Lampoon president Henson, however, agree that they did not experience any discrimination on a personal level.
“Harvard was a very meritocratic place on an undergraduate level as far as seeking leadership positions,” Henson says.
According to Henson, the Lampoon’s move to becoming coed was a bigger milestone at Harvard than was her appointment as first female head of the magazine.
“Some many years before I joined the Lampoon, two women were first admitted to the Lampoon, which was a more dramatic move because of the final club element of the magazine,” Henson says. “By the time I was there, there were a lot of women on the Lampoon.”
Although Henson’s pioneering promotion did not spark great interest on campus, national media outlets covered the transitions extensively, the former Lampoon president says.
“There was this strange dichotomy between what was happening on the Lampoon and campus, where it was a non-event, and then, the next day after it happened, it was national news,” Henson says.
Today’s women face fewer obstacles in the workplace than did the women of even 25 years ago. However, one big point of contention remains—the matter of balancing motherhood with a professional career.
“If you look at women who are not married or don’t have kids, they can do extremely well in terms of their professions,” Budson says.
Stowe has gone on to have a successful corporate career as the founder and CEO of Aston Pearl, a “lifestyle management” firm.
According to Stowe, even though the percentage of women in corporate America has increased since her time as an undergraduate, the disparity in terms of absolute numbers of women who end up in the workplace is still cause for concern.
Graham agrees, saying that while some men see the tension between work and family life as a concern for themselves as well, the burden usually falls to women.
“It is still considered that women have a greater responsibility for [their children’s lives] than men do,” she says. “So it is still a challenge for women to mix a supportive family life with an elegant career.”
Henson has not found the balancing act as difficult to perform in Hollywood.
“The higher up women get in the company, the more they make their own rules. They don’t take meetings after six at night and they take children to school before office,” says Henson, who ran Columbia Pictures before becoming co-CEO of the Jim Henson Company—named for her father—after taking top billing at the Lampoon.
Henson adds that the women who came right before her in executive or producing positions in Hollywood, even just 10 years ago, faced a greater challenge than she did.
“The execs a bit older than me have horror stories of how difficult it was,” Henson says. “I didn’t have that experience. A lot of the women who came into the industry at the same time as me didn’t really struggle with the same issues and didn’t hit a glass ceiling. It was a better time for us.”
Back at Harvard, the number of female tenured faculty has increased tenfold in the past 25 years, an accomplishment that Budson attributes to the success of pioneers such as Graham.
“She’s absolutely first-rate and we were very fortunate that someone that good was in that position,” Budson says of the former dean. “If she had failed miserably, it would’ve made it harder for more women administrators to come along.”
In the past, female pioneers in any professional field were seen as representing all women and their views.
“When I would go to meetings and I was the only woman in a meeting, whenever an issue of anything came up about a woman, everybody looked at me. And then all of a sudden you represented all women,” Budson says.
In the decade since Graham took the reins at the School of Education, the institution’s senior female faculty has risen to nearly 40 percent.
Anthropologist Sally Falk Moore arrived in Cambridge as a tenured professor the year that Graham’s appointment was announced. In 1985, she was one of 21 tenured women in the University and become the second woman to serve as a Harvard dean when she was picked as the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
With the increase in female ranks in academia Budson says there is less pressure on individual women to be representatives of their sex.
“That’s a tremendous difference and that’s what happens when the numbers build up,” she says.
And from one first woman to another, Graham sees promise in Faust’s appointment.
“It is a wonderful thing for Harvard that it is willing to look at the whole human race for its candidate instead of just half,” Graham says.
—Staff writer Aditi Banga can be reached at email@example.com.
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