Harvard, Thy Name is Woman

10/29/2007 10:06 pm 22:06:50 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What was surprising about the inauguration, I guess, is that there was something surprising about a ceremonial, hoary event dating back to 1640 (and whose 3rd office holder was actually Leonard Hoar, I don't know if the words are related.) Around, above and between the symbols, the symposia, the ringing of the bell, the procession of be-robed dignitaries and the benediction was the fun part, at least for me.

From the perspective of a Western, feminist rube (my background is public and Catholic schools, state colleges, all in unelite areas of the West and heartfelt feminism and respect for learning earned at my immigrant mother's knee) and a tiny bit of insider status in several years service on boards at Radcliffe, (I mean I love Harvard but I'm not of Harvard) I couldn't stop smiling.

For the first time in 371 years, announced University of Pennsylvania President, Amy Gutmann, Harvard has chosen as its president, a Southerner. After the laughter (her timing was pitch perfect), she added "who is also a woman." Audience members, of which I was one, were ready to laugh, we were practically giddy, for even people who get their news from network television are aware that Harvard presidents are always male and an outsider is someone like Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary (the very one who got in all that trouble for saying there must be a reason there weren't more women scientists and maybe it's chromosomal.)

The historicity of the event was nearly upstaged by Mother Nature's alternating bursts of sun and stormy, cold rain, bonding our section by sharing paper towels, umbrellas and chocolate. I discovered early that I was among feminist fellow travelers -- behind me exuberant students from the Women's Center; beside me, an Indian couple, both graduate students, she offering smiling approval when I changed a word in the anthem from brotherhood to sisterhood; in front of us were supporters of Radcliffe, the college which morphed into the Institute, whose first dean was in moments to become Harvard's first woman president.

It began with the academic procession, a very long line of gowned older people, (a reasonably diverse representation of ethnicities), none apparently embarrassed by silly hats. Among them were 200-something delegates from academic establishments, mostly college presidents, many of whom (70 plus by my count) were women. Even hoary places like Princeton, Colgate, Indiana, Tulane, MIT and the aforementioned U of Penn have women leading them these days.

Then drum beats announced the pan-African dance ensemble, which looked like a National-Geographic-gets-street-cred, followed thereafter by the new president. The crowd got boisterous, for Boston anyway, (pre-Red Sox World Series win by 16 days), standing, cheering, whistling, laughing, hooting.

We sang America the Beautiful (words by Katherine Lee Bates, Wellesley, 1893). We were officially greeted by six officials, including Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts, four of whom were either female or African-American. The violinist who played the Bach piece was a woman. Then we got ready for the transfer of some really old stuff (some more than 300 years old, older than our country, I notice) - keys, official seals, parchment papers -- by the Presidents Past and to hear Drew Gilpin Faust's speech.

She did not disappoint. Faust emphasized that in the past, universities, even great ones, served only an elite, but today they must serve a democracy. She argued that the purpose of education is not to make us competitors in a global market but to make us human and to give meaning to being human.

Faust is a renowned historian, a graduate of single sex schools (Concord Academy, Bryn Mawr), a former director of Women's Studies at U Penn, a beloved professor. "We are all teachers and we are all learners," she told new students on September 9. She embodies all these perspectives but most especially women's leadership, just as it is described in the research: inclusive, innovative, co-operative, creative, connected.

At last.