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Jan. 18, 2005

By Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

Clanging Chains, Once Again

This is a dangerous time for women seeking equity. Today as in the late 19th century the body has returned as the key determinant of women’s destiny. And powerful men feel free to pronounce what women are and should do.

I did not attend the academic conference on Friday at the National Bureau of Economic Research, so I must rely only on the account in the Boston Globe and the New York Times. In reading of Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers’s alleged remarks, summarized by the Globe reporter, “that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers,” I flashed back to earlier controversies about women’s bodies, lives, schooling and careers. Harvard, given its prestige in American culture, has assumed an unusual and undeserved authority in these controversies. At key moments Harvard spokesmen have played a leading role in words that have helped deny women educational equity.

In 1873 Edward H. Clarke published “Sex in Education, or a Fair Chance for Girls.” He was a Harvard Medical School physician and Harvard Overseer with a specific purpose. He fiercely opposed the admission of women to his university. Clarke insisted that he wrote not as an interested party, but as a physiologist, seeking to warn of the dangers faced by girls in school. He wrote, “The problem of woman’s sphere, to use the modern phrase, is not to be solved by applying to it abstract principles of right and wrong. Its solution must be obtained from physiology, not from ethics or metaphysics.” He then went on to insist that girls who undertook the schooling offered to boys threatened their reproductive systems, their sanity and their very lives. For the next two decades women educators and scientists were forced to respond to his unfounded and physiologically inaccurate statements. As M. Carey Thomas, the founding dean and second president of Bryn Mawr, recalled, in offering women the higher learning, “We were haunted in those days by the clanging chains of that gloomy little specter, Dr. Edward H. Clarke’s 'Sex in Education.'”

In 1899 Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard, equally uninformed, spoke at the inauguration of Caroline Hazard as Wellesley’s president. Here he dismissed any relation of higher education to careers in women’s lives, seeing college primarily as a luxury that parents could indulge their daughters in. In the middle of telling the Wellesley president that her institution was essentially irrelevant, he did suggest that women’s colleges could help encourage religion and become schools of manners, helping to foster proper behavior in young people. They should, however, cease to imitate colleges for men and stop all competitive enticements to learning such as “grades, frequent examinations, prizes and competitive scholarships.” What women’s colleges must do is concentrate on an education that will not injure women’s “bodily powers and functions.” Eliot went on, “It would be a wonder, indeed, if the intellectual capacities of women were not at least as unlike those of men as their bodily capacities are.” A Harvard voice was clanging the “chains” again in 1899.

And now in 2005. It seems likely that Lawrence H. Summers could have taken his remarks from his Harvard predecessors from over 100 years ago. The example that he was said to have given regarding his daughter’s play with trucks was right out of Clarke and Eliot. As an economist, a man such as Summers normally works by a different kind of data. But not a man in dealing with something that he knows: women.

M. Carey Thomas wrote to a friend that Eliot’s Wellesley speech was “so brutal, it made me hot from head to foot.” Dressed in her academic regalia and an honored speaker at the luncheon honoring Hazard, Thomas was in no position to walk out. I am sure that she wished she could. She would have understood why Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, did—and why she was so angry, so appropriately angry.

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz is the Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor of History and American Studies at Smith College. Author of “Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America,” Horowtiz is well known for her research on the history of sexuality.


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