To the Editor:
Ruth R. Wisse writes powerfully and passionately about the campaign against Harvard President Lawrence Summers; it has been, as she suggests, a shameless stampede [“‘Dear Ellen’; or, Sexual Correctness at Harvard,” April].
But her defense of Summers repeats the old canard about the incompatibility of motherhood and intellectual work. Summers asserted that employers want workers who will essentially be married to their jobs, and that “this is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men [than married women] have historically been prepared to make.” In other words, men are more likely than women to neglect family for the sake of work.
Until very recently, such assumptions were almost universally accepted. Academic committees openly rejected the applications of young married women, believing that motherhood would keep them from pulling their professional weight. I learned this in a very personal way while in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. As the dean of arts and sciences said of me to my department chairman in the early 1970’s, “She’s a married female with two children; you can’t give her a fellowship. Students in that demographic are not reliable.” It was only because I received a special fellowship for women that I was able to continue toward my Ph.D. and a career in the academy.
Statements like Summers’s have dramatically affected the reproductive decisions of talented and ambitious women who have not been as fortunate as I—or as Ruth Wisse. Facing environments that incorporate a mistrust of motherhood, many postpone childbearing because they do not want to be suspected of lacking commitment to their work. Sad to say, some of my sister feminists have also reinforced anti-motherhood messages by heaping scorn on those who say that fertility is not an even playing field stretching from the onset of menstruation until menopause. Many women, when they are finally established firmly enough at work to risk having a baby, encounter biological difficulties.
Ruth Wisse urges young women to understand that motherhood is on the whole a far more satisfying and important endeavor than any paid job. If employers discriminate against women because mothers are more devoted than fathers, so be it. But as women juggle demanding careers and family needs, they often discover a positive corollary: their husbands become more engaged, effective fathers. At afternoon faculty meetings, young male professors often plead for promptness so they can drive in carpools. Male colleagues bring sick children to the office to while away the hours on an unused computer. Many women—and apparently many men—are capable of the juggling act.
According to Ruth Wisse, fellowships awarded exclusively to women, or other special considerations in hiring, are unfair because they discriminate against men. But discrimination against women, while perhaps more subtle than in the past, remains pervasive in academic life. Many women candidates would not get to the “short list” if diversity officers did not insist on it. Women—especially mothers—need policies that will continue to open doors for them that others are anxious to close. They need people like Ruth Wisse to be an advocate is on their behalf.
Sylvia Barack Fishman
To the Editor:
I should like to add a somewhat different perspective to Ruth R. Wisse’s wise and thoughtful discussion of the debate about women and tenure at Harvard. When I was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1970’s, there were no more than four or five tenured women in the entire faculty of arts and sciences.
One, whom I knew personally, was for many years only a “lecturer.” She was finally granted tenure on the basis of a publication record that put many senior faculty to shame. This arrangement, in which she taught a full-time load for half-time pay, had advantages for her at a time when she was raising three young children. As she once put it to me, she felt that she could honorably cut back her full-time schedule if a family emergency ever required it (so far as I know, it never did). I suspect that her public expressions of contentment with this arrangement were not entirely sincere. In any case, the arrangement was most unusual, and would not have been feasible had her husband’s income been less generous.
A second vignette: as a high-school student in Seattle in the 60’s, I recall seeing, with a friend, a picture of the graduating class of the University of Washington medical school. It was a sea of men—around 250—among whom were sprinkled four women. You can imagine its effect upon my companion—a brilliant girl and until then an aspiring doctor. She decided on the spot that the odds were better in nursing.
A final story: I arrived in Buffalo, New York in the fall of 1974, where my husband, who was a year ahead of me in graduate school, had been hired as an assistant professor. When I sought employment, I encountered “anti-nepotism” rules that kept academically qualified wives (often with Ph.D’s from first-rate programs) from teaching at the university. I avoided the rule in question by agreeing to “teach for free” and off the books. I also encountered, I regret to say, many unhappy wives and failing marriages.
I mention these episodes not to arouse indignation but to try to re-create the context out of which the current “feminist” movement emerged, and to suggest the intransigence of certain related trade-offs. It is important to keep in mind that the “prejudice” against women in the academy was not altogether unfounded. Why, after all, lavish an expensive graduate or professional education on a student who is likely to drop out (or only work part-time) in order to raise a family? Ruth Wisse would like to keep “legal equality” while at the same time urging a return to more traditional, family-centered roles for women. But, should young women heed such advice en masse, would it still be reasonable or fair to expect universities and employers to admit and hire them on an “equal” basis? In sum: what is needed is less anger and more serious thought about how we might more happily reconcile equality of opportunity with the having and rearing of children.
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
To the Editor:
The controversies swirling around Lawrence Summers are nothing new for Harvard presidents. But the particular controversy over women, which Ruth R. Wisse addresses in her brilliant article—well, that’s a different story. As she so eloquently notes, it was not that Summers was wrong in requesting a broad-based inquiry into women’s progress in scientific careers but that he did not go far enough. This inquiry should be expanded to other fields, including my own, business.
Charles Eliot, Harvard’s president from 1869 to 1909, was as quintessentially politically incorrect in his day as Summers is now. Eliot championed women’s education, elective courses, and clinical and case-based pedagogy, among many other radical reforms. None came easily: his move to rescind required attendance at chapel was adopted only after a decade of bitter debate.
Like Summers, Eliot believed in an equality based on merit, not on birth. Not surprisingly, he also championed tough grading. As a young professor of mathematics and chemistry, Eliot administered Harvard’s first written examinations. Small wonder his languid peers denied him tenure.
History does not always treat the politically-incorrect Harvard president kindly. James Conant, Harvard’s president from 1933 to 1952, was flayed during his tenure for his failure to damn the Nazis, his tacit support of a quota on Jewish students, and his advocacy of using the atomic bomb against civilian targets in Japan.
To me, Summers is clearly on the Eliot side of the politically incorrect—a person of great vision with the courage, guile, and charm needed to implement it.
I personally know that women are good at science. After all, it was the 99th-percentile scores I earned in my SAT’s that convinced MIT to admit me, the first enrollee from my obscure Yeshiva University High School for Girls. At that time, before coed dormitories, housing for MIT’s female students was so limited that their SAT scores and other admission criteria had to exceed substantially those of males. Yet nearly half of this extraordinarily talented group dropped out before graduation, and all too few progressed to significant careers.
Why? That is Summers’s very good question. And it applies elsewhere than in science. I have observed similar patterns among my brilliantly talented women students at the Harvard Business School. Women account for half or nearly half of medical and law students but only 30 percent of MBA enrollees, although the MBA degree is life-altering and women enjoy their MBA education and benefit from it as much as men.
My hypothesis about the relative paucity of women MBA’s and scientists is that they face unsatisfactory career paths. Some women have succeeded in big business. By 2004, sixteen women led Fortune 1000 companies and others headed large private firms, great universities, and nonprofits. They did good: the eight firms headed by female CEO’s posted a 52-percent return in 2004 versus 27 percent for all large companies. They did well, too: a 2003 report noted that Pat Russo, CEO of Lucent, pulled in $39 million.
But many women have rejected big-corporation careers, opting to become entrepreneurs instead. The women MBA’s of the class of 1992 were much more likely to be self-employed. Was this movement out of big corporations a push or a pull? Both; but the push was mighty powerful. One research group determined that corporate culture was the number-one reason why women left. They wanted greater job satisfaction. Those executive women who remained were often less assertive and more risk-averse than their male counterparts. They used their mentors more for protection than for advancement. Why were they hunkered down? Noted one corporate escapee: “the brass ring ends up thrust through your nose. . . . The possibility of being ousted not for performance but for politics is just too thick up there.”
The personal costs were substantial, too: 27 percent of these women did not marry, or postponed marriage. The children of the women CEO’s whom I know personally came from their husbands’ former marriages. Few have had and reared their own.
The young women who avoid MBA programs, and perhaps science too, may well view their degree as a ticket to an inflexible, political career in big bureaucratic organizations that will drain them of their capacities.
Regina E. Herzlinger
Harvard Business School
To the Editor:
Thank you for publishing Ruth R. Wisse’s wonderful essay. We are a hearty band, we few academic women who stand outside the feminist majority on our campuses, trying to talk common sense to both our male and female students. This includes trying to dispel the pernicious notion that women can “have it all,” which often obscures serious examination of what they most truly want.
For too many years, young women have been taught to think that the most difficult choice before them is deciding which profession to enter, and how to compete successfully with men once they are in it. The need to find a husband or to think about having and raising children often seems to be very far in the back of their minds. They blithely assume that these things will take care of themselves.
To the Editor:
I was puzzled by the reaction to Lawrence Summers’s remarks about women and careers in the sciences. I read the transcript and found nothing offensive. In particular, the reaction of Nancy Hopkins, the MIT biologist who walked out on Summers’s talk so as to avoid “throwing up,” struck me more as a testament to her insecurity than as a demonstration of principle. If she was confident that Summers was wrong, she could have simply disagreed.
I believe that Summers was genuinely trying to provoke a constructive dialogue about obstacles for women in the sciences. The hysteria of critics like Hopkins undermines the very cause that they purport to advance, and has no place in a climate of academic rigor and scientific development.
To the Editor:
Ruth R. Wisse is correct to describe perpetual discontent as feminism’s legacy to women. The initial meeting of Northwestern University Medical School’s equivalent of the Harvard Women’s Caucus featured a female physician from London who crossed the Atlantic in order to teach the women faculty how to recognize “microinequities.” Apparently, my colleagues at Northwestern could not see how silly it was to complain about inequities that they had thus far failed to recognize. The episode helped convince me that women with advanced graduate training in science join foolish clubs as readily as do junior-high-school girls, and with as little forethought. It obviously requires more than higher education to avoid following the madding crowd.
Carol K. Tharp
Northwestern University Medical School
To the Editor:
Ruth R. Wisse’s article is an island of sanity amid the teapot tempest created by the candid pronouncements of Lawrence Summers. That men and women’s brains differ in essential ways is not an opinion; it is a fact. As the neurobiologist Larry Cahill recently noted, “neuroscientists are uncovering anatomical, chemical, and functional differences between the brains of men and women,” and they are “working to determine how these sex-based variations relate to differences in male and female cognition and behavior.” Present knowledge perhaps does not allow us to determine in what way these inherent differences are reflected in the performance of complex tasks, but the point is that they exist—and vive la difference!
Universities should make sure that women who want to retain their nurturing roles while pursuing careers in the hard sciences are given all the necessary facilities for doing so, such as free child care. But that requires financial commitments from administrations typically strapped for funds. It is cheaper to subvert admissions and hiring processes, which is why that is normally done.
Didier de Fontaine
University of California
To the Editor:
Perhaps I am naïve, but I suspect that some of the heat of the controversy over the distribution of women in the elite precincts of math and science comes from ignorance of statistical relationships. I agree with Lawrence Summers and Ruth R. Wisse that women’s choices are probably the most important reason for their under-representation among researchers in, say, quantum mechanics. But what if women’s choices played no role?
It need hardly be said that if the statistical distribution of talent was precisely identical across the sexes, the relative frequencies of men and women with the talent to be on the science faculty at Harvard would be identical as well. But such a distribution is highly unlikely for any human characteristic, much less for mental acuity, which is a congeries of abilities.
A simple analysis of the properties of the “normal” distribution demonstrates that relatively small differences in either the dispersions or the means of mental acuity for men and women—differences that would be imperceptible in the normal activities of life—can reflect stark differences in the frequencies at the very “tails” of the distribution. And it is from the very tip of the right-hand tails that the science faculties at elite educational institutions are drawn.
To some, this will still be unacceptable. They demand that men and women be not merely approximately equal in intellectual endowments but identically so in every sub-category. I know of no ontology that commands this result, no ethics or politics that demands it, and no empirical evidence that suggests it. To insist that such a position is the only acceptable one to voice in public is an embarrassment to intelligent discourse in general and to the academy in particular.
George Mason University
To the Editor:
I am often appalled by what I see and hear from our elite universities. Ruth R. Wisse’s article has made me feel that, if someone like her is teaching at a place like Harvard, perhaps all is not lost. Our most prestigious universities may not be completely devoid of common sense and rational thought after all.
Shamong, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Though I do not agree with everything in Ruth R. Wisse’s article, I admire the clarity of her argument, the force of her prose, and her uncanny ability to cut to the bone. I have followed the Lawrence Summers controversy for weeks, and hers was the first article that made me rethink some of my own suppositions. Thank you.
Ruth R. Wisse writes:
The anecdotal evidence supplied by my correspondents is a reminder of how dramatically women’s expectations have changed since the 1960’s, when many stormed the workforce hoping, as Jean Yarbrough says, that they could “have it all.” Beneficiaries of developments in science and technology, women gained control over their reproductive systems, enjoyed medical advances that almost eliminated infant mortality, and profited from an array of products and services that facilitated every aspect of raising children.
I would have expected the response to all this bounty to be gratitude—thanksgiving for lengthening lifespans and multiplying opportunities in a land of plenty. Instead, there arose a culture of grievance that has poisoned the very freedoms that women won.
Admittedly the culture of grievance embraces far more than feminism. Every living soul who has ever made a career in a university has tales to tell of discrimination leveled against his or her person or group. At the very first departmental meeting I attended at Harvard, my new colleagues were lamenting the barriers their graduate students faced in a national competition because of widspread resentment of the “Harvard name.”
The question, as always, is what should be done. The prejudice that Jews experienced during their entry into the sciences was far harsher than that felt by women since the 1960’s. This did not prevent Jews from becoming leading scientists, or from winning over 40 percent of U.S. Nobel prizes in medicine. Will women accomplish the same? Jews excelled by driving themselves very hard, as if harkening to the grandmother’s advice in Isaac Babel’s story, “You Must Know Everything.” Modern feminism, when it tries to win advantages under the motto, “You Must Have Everything,” demeans the women it pretends to champion, and corrupts the institutions where it presses its demands.
Sylvia Barack Fishman believes I should be joining her in promoting group preferences for women. But why should she or I advocate discriminatory favoritism on behalf of the most privileged group ever to emerge in this or any other society? We are certainly obliged to ensure equal opportunity for all who want to compete on equal terms, but not at the expense of measurable standards of merit.
If women are not advancing in some areas as far or as fast as men, that is most likely because they have more choices than men. As Susan Shell and Regina E. Herzlinger attest in different ways, the desire of most women to reconcile work with family must necessarily complicate professional performance and the workplaces that try to accommodate their needs. The more competitive a workplace, the less allowance it can afford to make for extraneous considerations. Men and women who want to compete at the highest levels in the most demanding tasks have always had to sacrifice other goals to that end. If the competition slackens in one place, we may be sure that it will pick up in another.
I am unqualified to comment on findings cited by Didier de Fontaine and Lloyd Cohen that identify innate differences between men and women as contributing factors to differentials of talent. But watching the recent Ultimate Tournament of Champions on Jeopardy!, I was struck by how honestly this television game show has been forced to confront sexual differences.
Closely self-monitored to permit no bias, the program tries to include as many female contestants as it can. But by the time we got to the semifinals, all had been eliminated; in this kind of competition, men clearly prevail. Were Jeopardy! a university, my female colleagues would be forming a caucus either to shut down the program or to demand changes in the rules so as to render it “kinder” to women. And the administration, just like Harvard’s now, would be creating six task forces to correct the imbalance.
Far from influencing impressionable young women to curtail their ambitions, as Sylvia Barack Fishman fears they did, the remarks by Lawrence Summers were exploited by feminists to press for advantage. Their strategy of intimidation—in the event, highly successful—was a substitute for the “serious thought” that Susan Shell encourages. I am therefore all the more grateful for the thoughtful comments offered here by academic colleagues who have witnessed similar episodes on their own campuses. I am also very happy to have confirmed some readers in their sanity, and to have provoked others to second thoughts.