President Eisenhower received a letter from a girl that began with the words “Dear Mr. Eisenhower, I am nine years old” and went on to speak about racial justice. The girl was to become one of America’s leading historians on the Civil War. She was Drew Gilpin Faust.
The life story of Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard, offers a panoramic view of the progress of women from the traditional roles of the past centuries to high offices in what can be called bastions of male power.
Faust’s interest in the Civil War had a personal angle too. In her book “Mothers of Invention: Women of the slave holding South” Faust traced how the war upended centuries of traditions in gender relationships. With the men folk off to war front women stepped out into roles hitherto no one had ventured into.
Time magazine’s choice for “Person of the year” for 2002 were three women that they called “women of ordinary demeanor but exceptional guts”. Sherron Watkins of Enron, Coleen Rowley of FBI and Cynthia Cooper of Worldcom were honored, in a year when public confidence in the probity of corporations and public institutions reached a record low, for being courageous whistleblowers and for ‘speaking truth to power’. The cover story noted that all three were from humble backgrounds and breadwinners for their families and thus their acts of courage really placed their livelihoods in jeopardy.
While this year may see the hardest glass ceiling of American politics being shattered we should not fail to note other important historical changes in America with regard to women. The US army now permits women in combat roles. Detailed studies prior to that decision showed that many concerns about women not being able to carry out the training or tasks were unfounded. More importantly the studies revealed that many requirements were geared towards men and carried little relevance to modern day battlefield requirements, which women could easily fulfill like any man.
Women should constantly question the assumptions and paradigms that have become ingrained in the subliminal conscience of society over centuries. More often than not the assumptions are just that, assumptions.
Oscar winning actress Jennifer Lawrence has spoken at length about how women, including a famous star like her, shy away from bargaining hard for salaries. An article in the British newspaper The Guardian wrote that Lawrence felt the “need ‘to be liked’ and the fear of seeming ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled’ kept her from demanding more money”. Lawrence added “based on statistics, I don’t think I’m the only woman with this issue…Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn’t ‘offend’ or ‘scare’ men?”
Dr. Faust became Harvard’s first woman president and told, at a press conference “I am not the woman president of Harvard, I’m the president of Harvard”. Quite a triumph for a girl whose mother once admonished her that “It’s a man’s world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that better off you will be”.
The lives of the Time magazine trio, Faust and Lawrence offer important glimpses into the value of a diverse and egalitarian world and more importantly underscores the importance of standing up for one’s rights and merits. Dr. Faust refused to learn the lesson her mother wanted her to learn and the world is a better place today.