ack in the post-Civil War era, Ellen Swallow
yearned to get a graduate degree in chemistry from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, which did not admit women. She wangled her
way into classes by doing housework for her professors. "Perhaps the
fact that I am not a Radical," she optimistically wrote to her
parents, "and that I do not scorn womanly duties but claim it as a
privilege to clean up and sort of supervise the room and sew things
is winning me stronger allies than anything else." Faculty members,
it turned out, were happy to let her keep darning their socks but
not to give her an advanced degree. Eventually, thwarted in her
attempts to get a job in chemistry, she married a metallurgy
professor and invented home economics.
Generations of women with a bent for science managed to get
college teaching jobs because Ellen Swallow Richards figured out a
way to connect their field to the analysis of cleaning products. It
was something, but not exactly ideal. Today - after another century
of discrimination and sexual harassment in the laboratory - female
scientists are getting an increasingly large percentage of all
undergraduate degrees and they get a little prickly if an extremely
powerful man raises the question of whether their field has an
inherent sexual divide.
All of which, of course, takes us to Lawrence Summers and his
china-smashing remarks on gender and academia. Back in January, the
president of Harvard shared his thoughts on why so few women get
tenure at the best schools at a conference on "Diversifying the
Science and Engineering Workforce." His conclusion - couched in many
assurances that the jury was still out - was that female scientists
are distracted by the demands of family, and that "there are issues
of intrinsic aptitude."
Dr. Summers told his audience that he wanted to be controversial,
and if that's so he must be extremely gratified by the results.
Several apologies and clarifications later, Harvard now has two
brand-new task forces on recruitment of women and a restive faculty
that seems to be teetering on the verge of revolt. Last week's
release of the long-sought transcript of his remarks is not likely
to improve things much. Dr. Summers compared the shortage of female
scientists at the highest ranks of academia to, among other things,
the shortage of Jewish farmers, and white men in the National
Basketball Association. (Coming soon: Female Biologists Can't
Dr. Summers's defenders say he is being tarred for the very
intellectual openness that places like Harvard are supposed to
encourage. Even in the best of circumstances, it's questionable
whether the head of an institution that has a bad reputation when it
comes to promoting female scientists was the perfect person to
free-associate on why women have trouble getting tenure. However,
the transcript provides the best possible refutation of the charge
of political correctness. Whatever Dr. Summers was doing at the
conference, it had nothing to do with serious intellectual inquiry.
"I don't think anybody actually has a clue" was one operative
phrase. "I don't remember who had told me" was another. It was every
woman's nightmare of what a university president thinks privately
about equal opportunity.
We have been informed many, many times in the past that Dr.
Summers likes to make waves, and who could blame him? It's fun to
toss out provocative ideas and watch as everyone's ears redden and
all eyes turn to the daring speaker who started the hubbub. But it's
an exercise better restricted to radio talk show hosts than the
heads of major academic institutions. Harvard is supposed to be
teaching its students not just how to start a controversy, but also
how to have an intelligent conversation.