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Until recently, I thought that understanding the experience of women at Harvard was an exercise in understanding myself — an exercise in understanding students.
The first two installments of this column explored the College through this lens: I asked what it meant to be a female undergraduate at Radcliffe and Harvard. I explored how these women made space for themselves in their classes, their dorms, and their extracurriculars.
Some of the women I spoke to from the Class of 1973 highlighted how their trajectory at the College was immensely shaped not only by women they called their friends and peers, but often by those who advised and taught them — their graduate student mentors and teachers. They were women of Harvard, too.
To learn about the experiences of women at Harvard, we must explore both of these halves: the students and the faculty.
In her senior year at the college, Anna M. Wichanksy ’73 became acquainted with a female graduate student at the University who led some course sections in the Psychology department.
“She was definitely somebody I could relate to, that I looked up to, who was more like me. In the science classes in particular, they were very male-dominated,” she told me.
The graduate student, who Wichansky began to see as a mentor, introduced her to a field of Psychology called “Human Factors Engineering.”
“That's what I decided I wanted to do,” Wichanksy said. And she did. She got her masters and Ph.D. in Psychology and Engineering Design and continued working in the field for four decades.
Winifred M. Creamer ’73 shared a similar story of guidance from a graduate student. In Creamer’s sophomore year, her tutor helped her find a field school — an opportunity for archaeology students to gain hands-on experience at an excavation site or in labs — to work at over the summer break.
Creamer noted that this “wonderful experience” was made possible because of the female tutors that she had.
When I asked whether she had any female professors, Creamer could only recall one assistant professor in the Anthropology department — Professor Ruth E. Tringham.
“She was a good professor and very lively, so she was just what they needed. But I suspect she was the only one,” Creamer said.
“Maybe that’s how I managed in the Anthropology department — I worked with the small number of women who were there,” she later added.
As the women I interviewed recounted their time at Harvard, it became apparent that the women who made up Harvard’s other half were their trellis — the role models they could cling to, allowing them to grow upwards and reach new heights.
While many presidents at Radcliffe were women and most of the alumnae I spoke with were able to recall one or two women from their department’s graduate student population or faculty, a few could not recall any.
“I really don't think I could think of one. I mean, certainly not in the biological sciences,” Phyllis August ’73 told me.
Ruth B. Goldston ’73 similarly couldn’t recall any tenured women faculty from her time as an undergraduate — which, in her words, was “a loss.”
“It certainly prevented us from having any role models whatsoever,” Goldston said.
Today, data published by Harvard detailing faculty diversity demographics reflect that as of this year, men make up 71 percent of tenured faculty while women only make up 29 percent.
Comparing this ratio to that of Harvard’s undergraduate student population reveals a seeming disparity: While the increasing number of female-identifying undergraduates indicates ample access to and interest in higher education, these faculty diversity statistics suggest persistent barriers for women in academia.
Claudia D. Goldin, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics this month, was the first female tenured professor in Harvard’s Economics department in the early ’90s.
“I was the first in a number of places, and I came to Harvard as the first, and suddenly it was a big deal,” Goldin told me.
Still, the experience was not without its challenges — some of which persist today for female faculty.
“The real pressure was just sort of the day-to-day fact that the deans and chairs needed people to be on committees and you always wanted a woman on a committee,” Goldin told me. “It still happens. The few women who were around got put on these committees and, in some sense, were penalized for being women, in the sense that they were given a lot more to do.”
Though today I do not struggle to name female professors and graduate students who have shaped my educational trajectory, there are still gaps that need to be filled. Still, I have hope that the lopsided ratio of men to women in academia is the last vestige of the generations of women who could not access Harvard and other elite universities at the same rate as men.
While change is slow, things are certainly not stagnant. The numbers of tenured female faculty have steadily increased over the last 10 years; Hopi E. Hoesktra was named dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in June, the second woman to hold the role; and just three weeks ago, Harvard inaugurated its second female president, Claudine Gay.
But hoping and advocating for more women to be placed at the head of the University and its classrooms cannot be done in good faith if such efforts reduce the value of diversity to its visual merits.
“I had some really phenomenal women faculty. And it mattered,” Leslie P. Tolbert ’73 told me. “I don’t think I was explicitly looking at them as role models. I don’t like to have to think of myself as being female. I’m a person.”
There is more to the question of representation than gender parity — its value is two-fold. To have women at the helm or in the front of a classroom gives female identifying students someone to see themselves in, but — in being there — their necessary perspectives flow into their work. Goldin’s work in Economics reflects this.
While Economics can often feel like a male-dominated and finance-oriented field, Goldin’s study of women in the workplace and labor force are groundbreaking and can almost certainly be understood in the context of her identity.
Goldin shared that she received nearly 1,500 emails after it was announced that she won the Nobel Prize, many of which were messages from people who saw themselves in her work.
“‘I am similar to you and you have emboldened me. You have validated what I do,’” Goldin said, adopting the voice of many women who contacted her. “Well, that’s an honor.”
Just as undergraduate women have taken over campuses across the country, I soon hope that they will fill professorships at similar rates. We not only need role models to embolden us, but women whose perspectives will fundamentally shape the future.
McKenna E. McKrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Adams House. Her column, “Seven Sisters and the Old Boys’ Club,” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.
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