Drew Gilpin Faust

By Margaret Zierdt

Drew Gilpin FaustThe selection of Drew Gilpin Faust to be the twenty-eighth president of Harvard University has been headlined as “a historic first” by the Christian Science Monitor.  It is indeed a fitting reward and recognition of Dr. Faust’s scholarship and leadership by this prestigious institution founded in 1636, the first university in America. Its strict male-only environment broke in 1919 when it accepted the first woman faculty member.  Harvard began admitting women to graduate programs in the 1940s, although it did not admit women to its undergraduate program until 1973.  The irony is that Harvard has been aided by generous grants from women since its inception.  In 1641 Anne Radcliffe, later Lady Mowlson, bequeathed 100 pounds sterling to establish the first scholarship for poor boys.  Eleanor Elkins Widener contributed $3.5 millions for the Widener Library, but women could not use this fine building and its books until the end of the 1940s. Now committees have been formed to determine how to achieve parity.   

Drew Gilpin was born in New York City on September 18, 1947 and grew up with 3 brothers in Millwood, Virginia near the West Virginia border.  Although known as Drew, she was christened Catharine Drew and used this name on rare occasions.  One occasion was when, as a fifth grader in February 1957, she wanted President Eisenhower to know she was a white girl urging him to stop segregation in the public schools. She realized that segregation threatened her schooling.  In her letter she used biblical scripture which supports love for all people regardless of color. Apparently there was no reply. This was the beginning of her social activism. 

Drew Gilpin was educated at Concord Academy and then Bryn Mawr, graduating in 1968 magna cum laude. Many of her male relatives attended Princeton, but in the mid 1960s Princeton did not admit women.   In 1971, she earned an A.M. and in 1975, a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.  During her 25 years at the University of Pennsylvania she directed the Women’s Studies Program for 4 years and chaired the Department of American Civilization  In 2001, Dr. Faust was appointed dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study where she introduced programs with scholars from multiple disciplines which included investigations of war experiences of women and women’s contributions in science, music and math.  

Her appointment as Harvard’s head has received praise from colleagues who think she will inspire students.  Another colleague, Judith Singer, writes, “Drew Faust has all the qualities Harvard needs: a sharp analytic mind, a broad university-wide perspective, outstanding people skills and a deft administrative style. . .”  Other colleagues credit her ability to solve problems by building consensus and listening.

Dr. Faust has two daughters and is married to Charles Rosenberg who is a Harvard faculty member.  She is a trustee of Bryn Mawr College, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the National Humanities Center. Her field of study is the Civil War’s affect on Southern women.  The five books she has written include Women of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War for which she won the prestigious American Historians Francis Parkman Prize She is the third Harvard president with a history background

Dr. Faust’s appointment is a great step forward in the drive for educational opportunities for women, which can be traced with successes and set-backs almost to the beginning of western civilization.  In ancient Greece, some women studied and were able to found schools and academies.  Socrates attended salons led by Aspasia.  Theano became head of the Pythagorean institute of philosophy at Croton.  In the 7th century,  Hilda of Whitby founded a school for men and women.  Other nuns led classes in music and arts, sciences and medicine.  By the end of the middle ages most of the learning and teaching by women was stopped.  Still, the desire continued.  Mary Astell in England in the late 17th century and Margaret Winthrop in the American colonies a century later, both proposed educational facilities for women to study, but to no avail. 

Finally, in 1837 Mary Lyon opened Mount Holyoke, a work-study arrangement where young women could study the subjects their brothers were learning.  Now, 160 years later, Harvard has selected Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust to be president.


Sources used include:

  •       Davis, Elizabeth  The First Sex
  •       Chronicle of Higher Education, February 16, 2007, February 23, 2007
  •       The New York Times, February 12, 2007
  •       Contemporary Authors, Vol. 110
  •       Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 2007
  •       Washington Post, February 12, 2007