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“It Can Be Otherwise”

Cambridge, Mass.

Thank you, Liz, for those extremely generous words. And thank you Neil for re-telling the story of how difficult I was—I didn’t realize I was quite that difficult. But I did learn lessons from Neil about recruiting, and there are certain things he said to me—I had no intention of leaving Penn, by the way, when he first started talking to me about this. And five months later, it was over. I was gone. And so I use some of your words, Neil, when I’m recruiting people, and there are some people at Harvard now who never meant to be here and it’s all because of you and what I learned from you.

It’s marvelous to be celebrating Radcliffe Institute’s 15th birthday—I can’t quite believe it has been that long and I just want to mention a few people who are here today who did so much to make it possible. Neil, of course, and his deep commitment to the merger. And then efforts on the Radcliffe side—made by Linda Wilson, Nancy-Beth Scheerr, Susan Wallach—to make all of this happen. I also want to mention Mary Dunn, who was unable to be here, but she embodied, enabled, and smoothed the transition by serving as the last president of Radcliffe College for a very brief time and then the new Acting Dean of the Radcliffe Institute. I also want to thank Harvey Fineberg, who was unable to be here today. He (and Clayton Spencer, who is here) were in the kind of nitty-gritty and the weeds about the merger, making it happen, and that was before I arrived so I didn’t get to see that sausage being made. But I was very much the beneficiary of their support and of Clayton’s deployment to Radcliffe for the first years of my deanship, which was an extraordinarily generous gesture on Neil’s part. He said, “you’re taking my right arm” and then he said, “but take it.” So thank you all. And thanks especially to Barbara Grosz and Liz Cohen for carrying on in such a marvelous way. It’s just great to watch what you have done, are doing, and will do in the future. It has been a great ride. 

I found it very daunting to think about what I might say to you today, following on the heels of medalists like Toni Morrison and Billie Jean King and Sandra Day O’Connor—not to mention some of the medalists who are here—Margie Marshall, Linda Greenhouse. I do remember my first Radcliffe Day luncheon, in June 2001. I had almost just arrived—I’d come in January as a new dean, and there were more than 1,000 of us gathered for that lunch in Radcliffe Yard to welcome Madeleine Albright, and she was luminous. I remember she recalled her days at Wellesley by describing how the clicking sounds in the classroom didn’t come from laptops but knitting needles, and how she could never have imagined that she might become Secretary of State because, as she put it, she had never seen a “Secretary of State in a skirt.” Now here we are, thirteen years later and two female Secretaries of State later, happily taking that possibility for granted. And no one is talking about wearing, or not wearing, a skirt. 

So how good it is to be free to forget. And yet, how dangerous such forgetting can be. And that’s what I’d like to focus on in my few minutes here today. I worry that a complacency is emerging in our society about the place of women; a complacency that too easily forgets that things were once otherwise and there is still a considerable way to go in American society; a complacency that too easily assumes that where we have come was inevitable and that forgets the efforts and the individuals who struggled to bring us here; a complacency that too easily ignores that elsewhere in the world things are otherwise—that nearly 300 young girls were recently kidnapped just because they were seeking an education. 

The 15 years since the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study was founded represent a long time in our cultural memory. They span almost the entire existence of Google and they do span the entire life of the iPod and the iPad, and of Facebook, and of Twitter. Next year’s entering freshmen at the College—and I know one of them who is here today—the child of two Radcliffe Institute fellows—I think they were three years old when Harvard and Radcliffe merged. But the more than 40 years since I graduated from college represent a cultural eternity.

It shocks students when I tell them that in 1964, when I began college, I couldn’t wear pants to class or dinner; I could not have attended Yale or Princeton—or the University of Virginia in my own home state. I was under the rule of something called “parietal hours” that allowed men and women only briefly inside each other’s dorms. Strict curfews were intended to reinforce the notion of women as bearers of virtue. Who can recall the famous three feet on the floor rule? Now those of you who don’t already know what I’m talking about would not believe me if I told you. And I remember having to spell the word “parietal” to my incredulous daughter. 

Had I been a student at Radcliffe, I could not have used Lamont Library. Shortly after I became dean, I told an entering class of undergraduates about a Harvard president who turned down a young woman who was seeking admission to the College. He said she couldn’t possibly want to attend, in his words, as a “solitary female … mingling as she must do promiscuously with so large a number of the other sex.” That was 1849. I didn’t mention the Harvard Undergraduate Council that voted for Lamont to remain an all-male library because the presence of women, in their words, would make it “impossible to study.” That was 1967. In that year, there was one tenured woman in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Two years later, things had changed. There were none.

It’s become easy to forget that before flight attendants there were stewardesses, who were fired if they got married, as Gail Collins reminded us here in a talk a few months ago, and that female employees could be let go—or a junior faculty member barred from teaching—for becoming pregnant. A woman without a male co-signer was hard-pressed to get a loan or an apartment lease, a mortgage or a credit card. Not until 1975 was excluding women from jury service deemed unconstitutional.

It’s become easy to forget that there were no women bus drivers, bartenders, welders, miners, or firefighters in our neighborhoods and workplaces, and harder to conjure a world where reporters, professors, doctors, scientists, and lawyers were rarely women, and news anchors, CEOs, and Supreme Court Justices were all male. 

Yes, we have altered that world. But we must not forget that world—or the people who struggled and sacrificed to change it.

Today, as we celebrate Radcliffe, I think of Justice O’Connor, standing on this platform five years ago, telling us how she could not get a law firm to offer her a job except as a secretary, after she graduated 3rd in her class at Stanford Law School. She became the first female Supreme Court Justice despite, as she has called it, the “debilitating medical condition” of having two X chromosomes.

I can imagine the women from the Radcliffe Program in Business Administration, tired of earning certificates in Putnam House (just over here), studying the same curriculum as at Harvard Business School. In 1960 they crossed the river—in skirts, in the cold—to earn their MBAs. The Boston Globe noted that there were three of these pioneers, one married and two brunettes.

I remember Elizabeth Cary Agassiz and the first 27 women to attend the Harvard Annex, who stood up for the experiment that would become Radcliffe College—who, as Mrs. Agassiz put it, “began our institution simply, with the idea of [giving women] a share [in] the best education our country affords.” Because of that idea, because of all of those people and so many others like them, we are here today. The past century has brought extraordinary progress for American women, and Radcliffe has both represented and propelled that change.

About 50 yards from here, in the Schlesinger Library, is a remarkable record of that transformation, a way to help us remember. I like to think of Mary Beard, who said, “No documents, no history. Papers. Records. These we must have.” The Schlesinger has. Through its vast holdings, the past of American women comes alive: from collections on the suffrage movement to the records of the National Organization for Women, chronicling the women’s movement of the 1970s. From summer camp diaries and some 90 thousand photographs to a budding catalog of blogs.

— Where else could you find Julia Child’s 5,000 cookbooks and the papers in which Charlotte Perkins Gilman addressed economic discrimination by advocating kitchenless homes?

— Or the papers of Emma Goldman, rescued from the freezer of a New York delicatessen?

— The letters to Betty Friedan on 1960s stationery, where you can practically see the steam rising up from the neat handwriting about inappropriate bosses and ungrateful children and how The Feminine Mystique changed their lives?

— Or you can find the robin’s egg blue desk of Dorothy West? 

— Or the award ceremony program on which Adrienne Rich jotted the lines, “to know we are not alone … is the great force of art”?

What do these voices tell us? What do those decades of struggle, captured so vividly, mean today? They tell us that by remembering, we can see. We can see the past, the present, and the future.

First, we can see the past with greater clarity.

My own life unfolded as a series of surprises, because I was entering a world in which things were changing so rapidly for women. If I may echo Madeleine Albright—had I said when I was 10 years old that I wanted to be the president of Harvard people would’ve thought I was deranged. And I would have been. And yet, as I came up to each choice in my life, somehow a door seemed to open, and I would step through on a path that to a generation before would’ve been unimaginable.

But those open doors were not miracles, blown outward by a faceless wind. I knew it then. And I know it better now. Those doors were stormed and broken down by a lot of brave and determined and visionary people. 

By attending to the past we can see that the present is part of a story, beyond our shortsightedness and our immediate concerns. We arrive here, under these tents and these trees, because of those women—and men—who struggled for a more equal world. We can begin to understand our own responsibilities.

Understanding the past and how it created the present, we can see the future, the world we want to inhabit. By knowing that things could have been otherwise, we know that they can be otherwise—for good or for ill. It’s up to us. We see that our gifts are not given to us as permanent endowments. We must sustain them, and extend them.

I’m often asked what being a historian has to do with being president of Harvard. And the truth is, it has fundamental relevance, because history is about change, about how people create change, and how they embrace or resist it. And for women, I can say this: The result of greater equality must not be to take what has been given to us for granted or let our successes and opportunities blind us to realities sharply different from our own, to the contingencies that surround the progress we enjoy.

As I came to learn more about the histories of Harvard and Radcliffe after I arrived here in 2001, I was struck by how being on the margins had often allowed Radcliffe the freedom to experiment, to take risks—to bring iconoclastic scholars to the Bunting Institute who would not have been welcomed in the Yard, to embrace the arts at a time when Harvard insisted they had no place in the curriculum, to speak out for social justice in ways that many at the other end of Garden Street regarded as beyond the bounds of appropriately academic. Outsiders are emboldened to take chances, to dare to offend. They thrive on the paradoxical gift of having less to lose. Can the Radcliffe Institute, flush with its successes of the past 15 years, retain that critical and creative eye?

Can we women who are now so proud to be part of what we once disparaged as “The Establishment” sustain our commitment to fairness and justice for women here and around the world? Nora Ephron once said, and I quote her, “that one of the ways that women are secretly luckier than men” is that “women are willing to reinvent themselves.” Can we still claim that capacity? Will we let success strip us of the struggle, or can we reinvent the perspectives that drive insight, the questions that propel change? Here we are. Now what do we do?

We don’t have to look very hard or very far. Despite remarkable progress, limits for women in the workplace, and politics, and even in the academy, persist. Here at Harvard, and at campuses around the country, we are deeply concerned about the issue of sexual assault, about how to ensure the fundamental safety that is the necessary foundation for inclusion and justice and equality. In the workplace, do women need to do more leaning in, or do institutional leaders need to change the 80-hour workweeks that are pushing back? We know that boardrooms and high-tech teams and political bodies that include women tend to produce superior results. Yet a huge reservoir of female talent remains untapped.

At Fortune 500 companies, 4 percent of CEOs are female. The number of women on corporate boards is just above 10 percent. Women occupy only 20 percent of seats in the U.S. Senate; they are less than 30 percent of full professors across all academic fields. Males still dominate media bylines and quotations, and in recent days Radcliffe alumna Jill Abramson has been at the center of a firestorm of controversy about the place of women in journalism. In the STEM fields, women make up less than a quarter of the workforce, and even though they earn 41 percent of science and engineering degrees, only 20 percent of computer science degree recipients are female, a number that has declined since 1985. So in so many places, women still don’t seem to be welcome or seen as belonging in the proportion of their talents and their achievements. 

The U.S. pay gap between women and men endures. And it is not there just because more women choose to be teachers or social workers—it is widest within occupations, according to economist and former Radcliffe Fellow Claudia Goldin. Women doctors and surgeons earn 71 percent of men’s wages; financial specialists, 66 percent; lawyers and judges, 82 percent. Recent Kennedy School research shows that women have lower expectations regarding long-term pay, and when they negotiate assertively for a higher salary, they suffer more for it socially than men do. A survey of Harvard College seniors undertaken this spring by The Crimson reported that among yesterday’s graduates 19% of the men and only 4% of the women indicated that they would earn a starting salary of $90,000 or more. And lest you think this is because men and women graduates are choosing different sorts of jobs, listen to the differences they report within fields: a plurality of our women graduates going into technology or engineering fields indicate they will make less than $70,000, while their male counterparts said they will make between $90,000 and $109,000. Of graduates going into finance, this survey reports, none of the women said they would make more than $90,000; 29% of the men going into finance will make more than $90,000. I find these numbers stunning.

Worldwide, the past 15 years have created at best a mixed legacy for women: landmark international agreements on women’s rights have caused a backlash in many countries or may be totally ignored. The facts are grim. Approximately one in three women will be beaten or raped during her lifetime, over 3 million are enslaved in the sex trade, and 125 million have undergone genital mutilation. The New York Times reported just this week that in Pakistan 1,000 women annually die in honor killings.

Establishing education for girls has become a global cause, not only because it is fair but because it is smart—boosting everything from agricultural production and human health to corporate profits and GDPs. Yet more than 60 million girls are being kept out of school—by poverty, forced labor, natural disasters, restrictive governments. For daring to attend school, thousands of girls around the world face shootings, poisonings, acid attacks, and kidnappings. When I had the privilege of meeting Malala Yousafzai, who spoke this fall in Sanders Theatre to a rapt audience, she said she was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen because they feared “the power of education.”

In her Commencement address to the Radcliffe Class of 1899, Elizabeth Agassiz described Williamina Fleming, one of the brilliant “stars” then working at the Harvard Observatory. She had been a maid until the director brought her in, telling his bungling male assistant that his housekeeper could do a better job. She ended up making major discoveries. Mrs. Agassiz had come upon her showing a group of Radcliffe students, as Mrs. Agassiz put it, the “image of a star, which, until recently revealed by the photographic telescope, had never been seen by the human eye.” That star, she added, “characterized the whole subject of enlarged education for girls and women … the doors and windows so recently thrown open wide to them … multiplying … their chances in life.” 

Thank you, Radcliffe, for opening those doors and windows for so many. And thank you for this honor, one that in reality belongs to every person who has touched this place on behalf of women and for the greater good of humanity. But as we celebrate 15 years of the Institute, building on 120 years of Radcliffe College and The Annex that preceded it, let us not forget the work still to be done, the responsibility that we have inherited. Helen Keller, who graduated from Radcliffe exactly 11 decades ago, put it this way: “Like all human institutions Radcliffe falls short of her ideals, and her students, who are also human, do not always achieve theirs.” She added wryly, “I am acquainted with one who did not.” I think she knew how some of us feel. But she knew that this incompleteness, this constant struggle, was precisely the point. She went on, “to have knowledge … is to feel the heart-throbs of humanity through the centuries … th[e] pulsations of a heavenward striving.” It is, she said, “to know that the darkness everywhere may hold possibilities better even than [our] hopes.” Those possibilities, those hopes, those responsibilities, are now in our hands.

Thank you very much.