Recalling her coming of age as the only girl in a privileged, tradition-bound family in Virginia horse country, Drew Gilpin Faust, 59, has often spoken of her “continued confrontations” with her mother “about the requirements of what she usually called femininity.” Her mother, Catharine, she has said, told her repeatedly, “It’s a man’s world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that the better off you’ll be.”
Instead, Dr. Faust left home at an early age, to be educated at Concord Academy, then a girls’ prep school in Massachusetts, and at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s college known for creating future leaders, and to become a leading Civil War scholar. And Sunday, through the convergence of grand changes in higher education, her own achievements and the resignation of Harvard’s previous president under pressure, she became the first woman appointed to lead the Ivy League university founded in 1636.
“One of the things that I think characterizes my generation — that characterizes me, anyway, and others of my generation — is that I’ve always been surprised by how my life turned out,” Dr. Faust said in an interview Sunday at Loeb House just after the university announced that she would become its 28th president, effective July 1. “I’ve always done more than I ever thought I would. Becoming a professor — I never would have imagined that. Writing books — I never would have imagined that. Getting a Ph.D. — I’m not sure I would even have imagined that. I’ve lived my life a step at a time. Things sort of happened.”
Sunday morning, she said, she found herself lying in bed thinking in near disbelief, “Today I think they’re going to vote for you for the president of Harvard.”
Catharine Drew Gilpin was born on Sept. 18, 1947, and grew up in Clarke County, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley. She was always known as Drew. Her father, McGhee Tyson Gilpin, bred thoroughbred horses.
Dr. Faust has written frankly of the “community of rigid racial segregation” that she and her three brothers grew up in and how it formed her as “a rebellious daughter” who would go on to march in the civil rights protests in the 1960s and to become a historian of the region. “She was raised to be a rich man’s wife,” said a friend, Elizabeth Warren, a law professor at Harvard. “Instead she becomes the president of the most powerful university in the world.”
Race was “not much discussed” in her family, Dr. Faust wrote in an article reprinted in Harvard Magazine. “I lived in a world where social arrangements were taken for granted and assumed to be timeless. A child’s obligation was to learn these usages, not to question them. The complexities of racial deportment were of a piece with learning manners and etiquette more generally.
“There were formalized ways of organizing almost every aspect of human relationships and interactions — how you placed your fork and knife on the plate when you had finished eating, what you did with a fingerbowl; who walked through a door first, whose name was spoken first in an introduction, how others were addressed — black adults with just a first name, whites as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’ — whose hand you shook and whose you didn’t, who ate in the dining room and who in the kitchen.”
In that world, said one of Dr. Faust’s brothers, M. Tyson Gilpin Jr., 63, a lawyer in Clarke County, his sister did some of what was expected of her: She raised a beef cow, joined the Brownies and took dancing lessons. But she resisted other things — becoming a debutante, for example.
“My sister took off on her own track in prep school on,” Tyson Gilpin said. “I think she read the scene pretty well. She was ambitious. She wanted to accomplish stuff.”
Her father, her two uncles, her great-uncle, two of her three brothers (including Tyson) and numerous male cousins all went to Princeton, but since Princeton did not admit women in the mid-1960s, she went to Bryn Mawr. Majoring in history, she took classes with Mary Maples Dunn, a professor who would become the president of Smith College, the acting dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and a close friend and advocate.
It was significant, Dr. Dunn said, that Dr. Faust had been educated at Concord Academy and Bryn Mawr. “I think these women’s institutions in those days tended to give these young women a very good sense of themselves and encouraged them to develop their own ideas and to express themselves confidently,” she said. “It was an invaluable experience in a world in which women were second-class citizens.”
Dr. Faust graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1968, magna cum laude with honors in history. She went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where she received a master’s in 1971 and a doctorate in 1975 in American civilization.
She was a professor at Penn for 25 years, including five years as the chairwoman of the Department of American Civilization. She was director of the Women’s Studies Program for four years.
At Penn, Dr. Faust, who was divorced from her first husband, Stephen Faust, in 1976, met Charles Rosenberg, a professor who is regarded as a leading historian of American medicine, and who became her second husband. She and Professor Rosenberg have a daughter, Jessica, a Harvard graduate who works at The New Yorker. She also has a stepdaughter, Leah. Dr. Faust’s fifth book, “Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slave Holding South in the American Civil War,” won the Society of American Historians’ Francis Parkman Prize for the year’s best nonfiction book on an American theme. Her sixth book, to be published by Knopf, explores the impact of the Civil War’s enormous death toll on 19th-century Americans.
In 2001, as Dr. Dunn was stepping down as acting dean of the Radcliffe Institute, the remnant of Radcliffe College, which had been absorbed into Harvard in 1999, Dr. Faust became the dean. She made major organizational changes, cut costs and laid off a quarter of the staff, transforming Radcliffe into an internationally known home for scholars from multiple disciplines.
“We used to call her Chainsaw Drew,” Professor Warren said.
When Lawrence H. Summers, the Harvard president, stepped in trouble two years ago over his comments about women in science, he asked Dr. Faust to lead an effort to recruit, retain and promote women at Harvard.
Asked Sunday whether her appointment signified the end of sex inequities at the university, Dr. Faust said: “Of course not. There is a lot of work still to be done, especially in the sciences.”
What would her mother, who never went to college and died in 1966, have to say about her appointment? “I’ve often thought about that,” she said. “I’ve had dialogues with my dead mother over the 40 years since she died.”
Then she added with a rueful smile, “I think in many ways that comment — ‘It’s a man’s world, sweetie’ — was a bitter comment from a woman of a generation who didn’t have the kind of choices my generation of women had.” (Source:NY Times)