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The Revenge of Ellen Swallow

Published: February 20, 2005

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Back 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 Jump.)

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.

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