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“Showing Us How to Do It”: Remarks by Drew Gilpin Faust for the inauguration of Paula A. Johnson as president of Wellesley College

Wellesley College

As delivered.

Thank you faculty, students, staff, distinguished guests, and friends.

What an honor and a personal pleasure it is to be here today, to extend to Dr. Paula Johnson the greetings of her fellow college and university presidents. When Paula Johnson was a girl in Brooklyn dreaming of becoming a doctor, she could not have envisioned this day. And yet there are times and places when the stars align, and for all of us who care about higher education, today is such a time and place. For my small part in today’s events, that alignment is especially meaningful. You see, I am not the first Harvard president to welcome an extraordinary woman to the helm of this remarkable institution. In fact, I believe Wellesley was brave enough to invite me only because you have had 117 years to recover from the first time. 

Imagine, for a moment, the very first inaugural ceremony of this kind at Wellesley. It is 1899, a clear day in October. And standing just across the way inside brand-new Houghton Chapel is Harvard President Charles William Eliot, who for 30 years had been shaping the evolution of the modern research university, a model that would transform higher education. And on this day President Eliot is speaking to a crowd full of dignitaries in dark robes, including representatives of more than 30 colleges and universities, welcoming Caroline Hazard, the college’s fifth president, to the company of educational leaders. 

The crowd that day does not have all of the Wellesley touchstones so familiar to us today: They have never heard Nora Ephron skewer a platitude, or watched Diane Sawyer interview 38 rival gang members on Chicago’s South Side, or seen Madeleine Albright face off with Vladimir Putin, using jewelry as a tool of foreign diplomacy. No alumna had yet appeared on the ballot for president of the United States. And no African-American girl with a dream from Brooklyn had vaulted through medical school to help transform women’s health care and now take up this podium. But, even in 1899, there is an atmosphere of hope — a movement, vibrating with the promise of higher education for women. 

Then President Eliot begins to speak. “Be of good courage,” he tells the new president, because your work is an experiment, viewed by most, and I quote him there, as a “luxur[y],” a “superfluit[y],” with no clear goal in sight, and by the way, he observes, the tradition of male education is irrelevant to you — including most professional training, and what he calls the “strenuous exertion” of “grades … prizes, and competitive scholarships.” He wonders out loud if women’s “intellectual capacities,” in his words, are “as unlike those of men” as their “bodily capacities.” Colleges for women, he continues, could perhaps excel at teaching manners — and, as he puts it, “show the men’s colleges how to do it.” But, he continues, “It remains to prove that the higher education of women … will be as profitable to society as the higher education of men.”

Now, in the audience that day among the dark-robed dignitaries was another powerful figure, who is not unrelated to my being here today — M. Carey Thomas, the Charles William Eliot of Bryn Mawr, a women’s college that would one day become my alma mater. She believed, in the words of Wellesley co-founder Henry Fowle Durant, that “[t]he higher education of women is the assertion of absolute equality.” It was no secret that this news had not quite reached Harvard, where Radcliffe was established as an “annex” and a Harvard medical school professor had advised that higher education for women diverted too much energy to their brains, ruining them, as he put it, by “blight[ing] their vital organs.” On that cold day in October, President M. Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr found Eliot’s speech, and I quote her, “so brutal,” she wrote to a friend, that “it made me hot from head to foot.” In a blistering rebuttal the next week at Bryn Mawr she said a “gauntlet” had been “thrown deliberately by the president of one of the greatest … American universities … in the face of an immense audience … directly interested in the education of women.” And she then referred to that “dark spot of mediaevalism, in President Eliot’s otherwise luminous intelligence.”

I hope you won’t mind if I offer my remarks today as a kind of “do-over.” 

Wellesley took up that gauntlet with a combination of grace and ferocity. It took up that gauntlet when Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex, visited Wellesley students in 1947 — and found them, as she said, “preoccupied,” not with thoughts of marriage, but in her words, “with the ardor of their good intentions … [to address] economic and social problems … to do work that serves some purpose.” Wellesley continues that work in a world where girls still get shot or kidnapped for trying to go to school, where much female talent still remains untapped from laboratories to boardrooms, where equal work still chases equal pay. And today, brilliantly, it renews that commitment to make a difference in the world, with this inauguration. I would like nothing more than to introduce to President Eliot, President Paula Johnson.

And I’ll just point out that she is wearing Harvard robes.

Paula Johnson, the Harvard-Radcliffe student in the first class to admit men and women in equal numbers from a single pool of applicants. It was there, as an undergraduate, that her early mentor, Harvard’s first tenured female biology professor, introduced her to the new field of women’s health, encouraging her to ask new questions from new points of view.

Paula Johnson, the young, clinically trained cardiologist who became the first female chief resident at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and dared to explore how gender affects the expression of diseases.

Paula Johnson, a leader in health care, inspired by a higher degree in public health, and by physicians who aided Civil Rights workers on the long march to Selma. In that same undaunted spirit, she created paths to better health for women and the underserved, in Boston and around the world.

Sandra Day O’Connor once quipped that many of the toughest challenges in her legal career came from what she called the “debilitating medical condition” of having two X chromosomes. Paula Johnson has shown us that having two X chromosomes actually can be a debilitating medical condition, if you have a heart attack and your doctors don’t know that women’s heart disease is different from men’s. She has shown us that treating people equally sometimes means paying close attention to their differences. And she has done so using the evidence-based scientific approach that Charles William Eliot, in his more enlightened moments, strove to establish as the hallmark of American higher education. 

Welcome, Dr. Paula Johnson. What a gift you and your presidency are to all of higher education. What a happy fusion day this is — a reply to the past, a call to the future. President Caroline Hazard said in her own inauguration speech: “To bear fruit, learning must pass into life.” Today, we sometimes call it “The Wellesley Effect” — the capacity of higher education to touch the world. Congratulations, Wellesley — brava! — for once again “showing us how to do it.”