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“Dear Ellen”; or, Sexual Correctness at Harvard By: Ruth Wisse
Commentary | Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Commentary has given us permission to reprint this article, which appears in their current April 2005 issue.

*

Dear Ellen,

It was great having a chance to catch up with you over lunch today. I don’t think we’ve really seen each other since you graduated from Harvard two years ago, so I had no inkling you were back, and working toward an advanced degree in history. When you were a senior here, you were still toying with the idea of going into law.

But, as you say, that was before you’d decided to get married, or faced the prospect of what it would mean to duplicate the seventy-hour work week of your husband-to-be. Marriage and children (you spoke of them in the plural!) call for more flexible working hours, and I fully agree that a university life, especially one in the humanities, is more compatible than a law partnership with extended motherhood.

Having said that, I can also well imagine how the current controversy swirling around the president of our university, touching as it does on some of your very own conflicts, might feel like an object lesson on how and how not to manage the rest of your life. And I can surely understand how it would have shaken your sense of yourself as (in your own description) a middle-of-the-road liberal.

You said you liked the quotation attributed to me in the newspaper to the effect that women’s dilemma is born of choice and freedom. You also told me how dismayed you and your friends were that a talk by Lawrence Summers on this very subject should have created what the Harvard Crimson called, in the understatement of the year, “a firestorm of criticism.” Of course I share your concern that your professors should be trying to shut down the free exchange of ideas by shutting up one of their own fraternity. But the choices you yourself face in life remain the same no matter who defines them. I’m reminded of one of the jokes we studied in our seminar on Jewish humor. Becky says to Sam, “Close the window. It’s cold outside.” Sam, after closing the window: “So now it’s warm outside?”

As for your suggestion that you and your friends organize a public forum to discuss the issue openly, I’m still not sure what you consider “the issue” to be—sexual equality, tensions in the women’s movement, the culture wars being waged at this university and far beyond it, or something else altogether. Do you want to express your sympathy with Summers, to clarify something for yourselves, to influence the course of public discussion? All of the above? Whichever it is, I prefer to put my own thoughts in writing, since it occurs to me that in the current atmosphere I’d be well advised not to follow Summers’s example of speaking “off the record.”

First, let’s be sure we agree on what we’ve witnessed. On January 14, at the invitation of a fellow economist and former colleague, Summers addressed a small private conference on “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce” that was sponsored by a local non-profit outfit, the National Bureau of Economic Research. The organizers were responding to statistics showing that, although more women than men now attend university, women are not “represented” in fields like mathematics, engineering, and the physical sciences in proportion to the numbers receiving advanced graduate training. Economists themselves, the conference organizers felt that society was being deprived of a potentially valuable segment of the workforce, and that women who failed to take up professions for which they had been trained were a squandered resource. They invited Summers to speak because they appreciated the way he stimulates debate.

Now that the transcript of his talk has been released, we can see how richly he obliged his hosts—though you are right that there was little in his remarks that others hadn’t been saying or speculating about for years (if mostly out of earshot of the country’s academic thought police). Nor is Larry Summers the first to point out that, in general, and without causing anyone undue alarm, certain groups just happen to be “underrepresented” in certain activities: Catholics in investment banking, white men in the National Basketball Association, Jews in farming and agriculture. Addressing the specific issue of women in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities, he then went on to speculate whether this perceived scarcity might be due to—in his declining order of importance—female choices, an unequal distribution of cognitive skills across the sexes, or discrimination. He concluded:

So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.

“To provoke you” was right. In suggesting a statistical disparity caused by neutral and possibly intractable factors in human nature, Summers was fluttering straight into the jaws of political correctness. In particular, he was flouting the feminist claim that at the root of any and all discrepancies in female employment figures there lies—in a word—discrimination. Given the reception that routinely greets any social scientist who thinks out loud about genetic variations, you have to admit that it was pretty gutsy, or reckless, of Summers to air this possibility of a “variabliliy of aptitude,” even at a supposedly closed meeting, let alone to bring up the subject of women’s voluntary life choices. In any event, it did not take long for him to reap the rewards of his candor.

On January 17, three days after his talk, the Boston Globe ran a story featuring the response to it by a professor of biology at MIT, Nancy Hopkins, who had stalked out of the meeting straight into the arms of reporters. “This kind of bias,” she expostulated, “makes me physically sick.” Without pausing to question whether bias has in fact been at work in Harvard’s hiring practices, the Globe simply reminded its readers that the number of tenured job offers to women had “dropped dramatically since Summers took office”; the inference was unmistakable.

Here I can’t help mentioning that, already prior to this incident, a caucus of senior women faculty had lobbied Harvard’s president to address what it considered evidence of discrimination on his watch—and that Summers had accepted its demands by creating a task force to deal with the alleged problem it identified. In short, even before he dared venture what he ventured on January 14, he had conceded the argument by pledging to implement more strenuous group preferences. The door had thus been opened, and it was no wonder that the women’s caucus, now encouraged by the media, proceeded to press its advantage, upping the ante by casting Summers as not only a functional antagonist of women but an ideological one—as, in short, a sexist.

The tactic succeeded wildly. As you well know, Summers had attracted his share of enemies in his few years at Harvard, being the first president in four decades to challenge, however gingerly, the near-hegemony of the liberal and radical Left on campus. You’re familiar with the major controversies: he precipitated the departure to Princeton of Cornel West, a professor of African-American studies, whom he chided privately for neglecting his academic duties; he was known to be in favor of restoring the Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC), which in a fit of anti-military spite the faculty had banned from the campus in 1968; he stopped in its tracks a petition urging the Harvard endowment fund to divest from Israel, stating that “profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities”; and, following a long campaign by Harvey Mansfield, Harvard’s most prominent conservative, he persuaded the faculty to apply stricter standards in grading.

For these and similar reasons, Mansfield himself would conclude that the latest furor over Summers, unleashed in its full ugliness at a packed faculty meeting on February 15, was about the things the president had done right rather than about the things he had done wrong. “The liberals of Harvard lost the national election last November,” cracked Mansfield, “They are taking it out on Larry Summers.”

But here we come to the most intriguing question you raised at lunch: why did Summers feel it necessary to apologize, as he did repeatedly the minute the first newspaper reports appeared, and then again in facing the faculty on February 15, and then again and even more abjectly at a second faculty meeting a week later? Why didn’t he defend his views, or at least his right to express them? After all, this is a man who had served as Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration. He had seen how a President who had treated women shabbily had not only defied his critics but won the grudging respect of the country for brazening it out. Why should Summers, the lord of a much smaller fiefdom, apologize for a mistake that you and I and many others didn’t think he had made in the first place?

National Review called his ordeal “a feminist show trial.” An East Asian historian compared it to a Communist Chinese “struggle session.” Both these descriptions suggest that, in apologizing for his sins, Summers had been forced to yield to a mob. Others have speculated that members of the Harvard Corporation and the board of overseers, who in the end determine a president’s fate, insisted that he damp the fires. If so, his capitulation would have been nothing more than a desperate man’s attempt to hold on to his job.

Frankly, I question both of these scenarios. Larry Summers may be no Captain Dreyfus, but I think that, had he considered himself innocent, he would have stood his ground. In my opinion, the truly ghastly aspect of this whole affair is that the accused man actually believed he had committed an offense. Summers apologized not because, like Nikolai Bukharin, he was forced to, but because he was convinced he had done something wrong.

And what was that? “I deeply regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully,” the president wrote in a letter to his faculty:

I have learned a great deal from all that I have heard in the last few days. The many compelling e-mails and calls that I have received have made vivid the very real barriers faced by women in pursuing scientific and other academic careers. They have also powerfully underscored the imperative of providing strong and unequivocal encouragement to girls and young women interested in science. . . . I was wrong to have spoken in a way that has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women.

I see no reason to doubt Summers’s sincerity; he usually says what he means and means what he says. Taking him at his word, then, I conclude that he was not sorry for having offended liberal orthodoxy; he was sorry, genuinely so, for having given some sort of offense to women, for sending them “an unintended signal of discouragement.” Having first done our sex the courtesy of treating us as peers, he was now determined to treat us as a victimized species. Henceforth, he would tailor his thoughts to the ability of women to bear the hearing of them.

Not only did the president apologize, he rolled out a six-point program that would make affirmative action for women a top priority in hiring and promotion at Harvard. To anyone who has followed the career of group preferences in America, the process at work here was depressingly familiar. First come the threats—in this case, the tears—of the designated victims; then come the anguished efforts of well-meaning liberals to alleviate the pain; then follows, inevitably, the stirring of further, unappeasable resentments. “The person one pities is a person one may like but does not truly respect,” writes John W. McWhorter, one of a number of courageous blacks who have seen through the misplaced charitable inclinations that lie behind the American regime of affirmative action, and the web of lies and crippling self-deceptions that ensues from it.

But the exploitability of liberal white guilt is as nothing compared with the exploitability of liberal male guilt. Through their accusations of bias, through their testimonies of suffering and of hurt feelings, the tenured women of Harvard vaulted to the top of the heap of the truly disadvantaged, including, it seems, in the eyes of the man they had laughably named as their chief oppressor.

If you were ever tempted to work up a historical study of this episode, you would discover, Ellen, that the drive for “gender equality” at Harvard began in 1971. That is when, following the example of several other elite universities, the faculty of arts and sciences endorsed the major conclusion of its committee on the status of women that “the number of women on the faculty must be increased”:

The committee felt that within five years Harvard ought to be able to achieve a percentage of women in junior faculty appointments equal to the percentage of Ph.D.’s currently being granted to women at Harvard. It was also the committee’s feeling that progress ought to be made toward achieving a number of senior professional appointments going to women, equal to the number of women Ph.D.’s awarded a decade before.

This assumed correlation between opportunity and outcome was of course qualified by the pious reminder that “appointments of women, as those of men, would continue to be made on merit.” But whether or not that criterion remained in force, the greater problem facing Harvard’s engineers of “gender equality” was that the pool of women in the humanities was far larger than the pool of women in mathematics and the sciences. As a result, although women today comprise almost a fourth of the Harvard faculty, they are very unevenly distributed among the disciplines.

Not so surprising, you say. After all, in the world outside the university, women have crowded into a “soft” industry like book publishing but very few have started up their own dot-coms or hedge funds. Unfortunately, what you find unsurprising others find a source of outrage. Rather than investigating, in a spirit of free inquiry, the possible causes for this uneven distribution, the same Harvard committee, still standing after all these decades, is now agitating to eliminate it forthwith.

Indeed, the legacy of that 1971 committee on the status of women may be the most damaging remnant of the radical movement that once overran our culture and is still ensconced in power at Harvard and other universities. Let me try to spell out the enduring nature of the damage.

The very notion that “women” have an “agenda” of their own puts them at odds with the common academic purpose. But an adversarial committee stays in business by thinking and acting adversarially; and the longer it stays in business, the more implacable become both its resentments and its demands. In creating the standing committee, the Harvard faculty fashioned a permanent source of institutional discontent.

As for an ideal of equality based on equal outcomes, it not only sabotages equal opportunity but engenders a system that corrupts everyone who participates in it. Consider the practicalities: when a department is hiring, say, an assistant professor, a typical pool of applicants may comprise 60 men and 25 women. Directives from the dean’s office having urged preferential consideration of women, the department knows that a short list of four candidates, equally divided between men and women, will stand a better chance of preliminary approval than a list weighted toward men. (No one would consider submitting a list without women on it, even if that means having to beg a female candidate to apply.)

What happens when the four arrive and are duly interviewed? One way or another, the committees appointed to promote female hiring will need to be shown results. If there is a clear female favorite, the problem is solved. If there is a clear male favorite, he will probably be hired—but only probably. If there is no clear favorite, a decisive argument will be advanced in favor of one of the two women; after all, as a colleague of mine put it candidly at a recent departmental deliberation, this will “win us high points with the administration.”

But that is not the end of the corruption. The women’s caucus at Harvard, which boasts of representing 90 percent of the senior female faculty, claims to be fighting for “diversity.” There are currently 86 tenured female professors in the arts and sciences at Harvard; there may be a tenth that number of tenured Republicans, male or female. By substituting sexual for intellectual or any other kind of diversity, feminist watchdogs have already done their bit to help create Harvard’s notoriously monolithic faculty.

On no subject, finally, is uniformity imposed more rigidly than on the women’s question. I may be (as someone asserted) the only female among the senior faculty who thinks the university should guarantee equal treatment to all candidates for every position in every department, and that women deserve no more special consideration in hiring than veterans, the disabled, or reformed prisoners. (I doubt I’m the only one, but the proposition has yet to be tested.) Of course, I freely concede that the university has the right to promulgate any policy it chooses. But who has given the standing committee on women—a non-academic, non-elective, heavily politicized body—the right to bill itself as the women’s point of view, or to advocate university policy in my name? So much for the free marketplace of ideas.

Did you happen to attend the recent panel discussion on “Women and Tenure at Harvard”? Leaving nothing to chance, the poster for the event announced its goals in advance: “(1) Create awareness about the lack of women in tenured positions at Harvard University; (2) Promote networks between Harvard students and faculty; (3) Strengthen the community of women at Harvard; (4) Advocate for change to increase the number of female faculty at Harvard.” Billed as a discussion, it was more like a rally, sponsored by the largest consortium of groups (most of them funded by the university) I have ever seen on this campus: the Association of Black Harvard Women; Athena Theater Company; the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance; the Black Students Association; Delta Gamma; Fuerza Latina; the Harvard Society of Black Scientists and Engineers; Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business; the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association; Hillel Sisterhood; Isis; Kappa Alpha Theta; Kappa Kappa Gamma; Pleiades; the Race, Culture, and Diversity Initiative; the Radcliffe Union of Students; the Sabliere Society; the Society of Physics Students; Strong Women Strong Girls; Women in Color; Women and Youth Supporting Each Other; Women in Science at Radcliffe-Harvard; the Women’s Leadership Project; and the Committee for the Equality of Women at Harvard. The host, a sorority called Seneca, is best known for its tailgate parties after major football games; its support only confirmed the utter correctness, the irreproachable virtue, of the cause.

If you want to know why there haven’t been many debates like the one you want to organize, start with this rally. At lunch you said to me, “Maybe if others had been arguing over these issues, Summers’s opinions wouldn’t have caused such a furor.” You’re right, but you seem to be missing the point. As a student of history, you’ve surely learned that revolutionary Marxism marched under the banner of historical determinism. Its analysis of capitalism was not merely one hypothesis among several; it was the only valid analysis, and it offered the only valid solution to the evil it described. Militant feminists likewise regard their case against the “patriarchy” as irrefutable; they certainly do not consider they have anything so tentative or discussable as an opinion. (I remind you that the current campaign was launched by senior women faculty who successfully accused the Harvard administration of bias without citing a single case in support of their allegation.)

If you and your friends were now to challenge this dogmatism, you would be undertaking to resume the discussion Larry Summers thought it better to close down, taking up the battle he chose not to fight. The proposition? “Resolved: Discrimination Is the Major Cause of Women’s Underrepresentation at the Top of Certain Fields.” You would be arguing the negative, helped perhaps by a few brave souls like the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, who might be able to offer a sophisticated explanation for disparities in cognitive abilities between the sexes. (Not that you, or I, would necessarily support his hypothesis.) On the affirmative side would be all the sponsors of that rally, plus their myriad fellow-travelers.

Aggrieved sisterhood is indeed powerful. But we know that already—and we also know that the rawer the grievance, the weaker the arguments. So I’m with you: this fight is worth having, as long as you understand the nature of the playing field. Among the weapons available to you are those weak arguments on the other side, plus the failed record of past efforts to pretend that sexual differences do not exist, or must not be allowed to count.

That record is very instructive. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, there were substantial increases in the number of American women in graduate school. These women are now in their forties or early fifties. But where are they? If you look at the faculties in various academic fields—not just the sciences—where women once formed over a third of those in graduate training, they are not to be found in anything like comparable numbers. Among the relatively few at the top, moreover, a disproportionate number are either unmarried or childless.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that many if not most of these women, especially the ones who wanted to run a home and raise a family, chose not to pursue careers that would demand long hours of intense dedication during their peak child-bearing years. This is, in effect, Summers’s “high-powered-job” hypothesis. He was talking about your predecessors—and about you.

Indeed, many things have happened since the advent of women’s “liberation” to complicate its peculiar idea of progress, and one of those things is that the ideological drive for equality has outstripped many women’s enthusiasm for the project. As the columnist David Brooks has reminded us, the fraction of women over the age of forty and without children has nearly doubled over the past quarter-century, to about a fifth of the cohort. According to the Gallup poll, 70 percent of these women now regret that they are childless.

As it happens, a friend of mine who is a member of this same group recently attended her 25th reunion at one of the “seven sister” colleges. She told me she went with misgivings, since she had dropped out of the work force to raise four children. Though she is exceptionally clever, and her volunteer work exceeds in creativity what most of us do professionally, she was afraid she would feel outperformed by her old schoolmates, the majority of whom had become successful professionals. But instead of flaunting their achievements, many of these classmates resentfully took the occasion of their reunion to rail at the school’s administration and faculty for not having encouraged them to aim for husbands and families while they still could. “Why weren’t we told?” My friend was stirred by their misery, but struck by the futility of their complaint. One can sooner recapture the lost snows of yesteryear than the chance to bear and raise children.

As I said in that quote that caught your fancy, whether seen from the angle of career or motherhood, highly educated women face problems attributable to the very freedoms that gave them their options. Greater choices are bound to create greater unease, and sharper regrets over roads not taken. What feminism provides is a framework of grievance for the unease, and a politics to give it expression.

Here is the columnist Margaret Carlson, lambasting poor Lawrence Summers for his failure to understand “how much free-floating anxiety women feel over the hundred slights we suffer in the workplace and the anger we generally hide about the males who benefit from, and sometimes inflict, those slights”:

We’ve gotten some of what feminism asked for—flextime, maternity leave, equal opportunity in university admissions, almost equal pay at almost equal jobs (at the entry level, at least)—but we still face this indignity: If we start out with this much opportunity, when we don’t do as well as men later, it has to be our fault. Surveys show that young married men are putting in an hour longer a day on the domestic front than they used to, but until men jump with both feet onto the daddy track the way women jump onto the mommy track, we can’t and won’t compete with them evenly for the very top jobs. What’s more, we are supposed to shut up about it—feminism is so yesterday, and whining is so whiny.

And so on and so forth. What do you say to such self-parody? Here is a woman, enjoying unprecedented bounty, who still demands the one thing she is denied—the excuse to blame someone else for her dissatisfactions. Deplorably, Summers handed it to her.

You asked me whether, out of my own experience, I could offer some guidance on how to balance family and career. I can say one thing unequivocally: I and friends my age have no patience for this whiny whining. Evidently, so “socialized” were we by what Betty Friedan called the feminine mystique that we stupidly married in our early twenties and proceeded to have children without ever thinking that we could go about life in any other way. Or not so stupidly. Over the ensuing decades, some of us have had careers, some have worked part-time, some have started businesses. But I think I can speak for all in stating that our children loom so much larger than anything else in our lives, we could not possibly set them against any other conceivable competing good. Nor do I think Gallup will ever find 70 percent of women regretting that they did have children.

Egalitarian feminism’s legacy to women like Margaret Carlson is a perpetual discontent. The more they are granted, the more they think they are missing. The more power they attain, the less powerful they feel. The more they achieve, the less they are gratified. The more they are blessed, the more loudly they curse their fate. So I watch with dismay today’s brand of socialization, the one pushed by females fostering the cult of grievance and males turned into pretzels by free-floating guilt.

Urging women into difficult careers is all well and good; extending them equal opportunity is a matter of law; but the society that does not counsel early marriage and children is far crueler to women than the “sexist” one it replaced. Whatever social status accrues to Nobel Prize-winning scientists, the society of women will always honor those who marry happily and procreate.

You don’t need my confirmation of this—just ask the writers of Sex and the City, who wound up their six-year series about the most self-indulgent women who ever lived with four happy heterosexual unions, one of them engaged in a Herculean struggle to produce a child. I can only hope that if you and your friends make your choices knowing you will have to bear their consequences, you may be able both to retain your self-respect and begin to restore the dignity of our sex.

I can’t close this overlong letter without commenting on the last part of our conversation—when, to my surprise, you dropped your head in your hands and said, “The Democratic party is so hopeless. None of my friends is going into politics. We’ve all given up.”

What was that all about? How did we get from a discussion of the Summers affair to the misfortunes of the Democrats? I think I’ve fathomed your distaste for the local atmosphere of intimidation, but how does that translate into despondency over the wide-open arena of American politics?

Not that connections are lacking between events on campus and political life outside. Indeed, were it not for the way the Summers affair fits into the Left-Right divide in America, the media would never have taken it up with such relish. “On campus, Summers has lost big,” exulted Katha Pollitt in the Nation. “He has had to apologize, appoint a committee, and endure many a hairy eyeball from the faculty, and complaints from furious alumnae like me.” Given how little the Left has had to crow about recently, it isn’t hard to see why this incident should have given wings to a woman like Pollitt.

Somewhat more moderately, the New York Times did its best to amplify Summers’s offenses by shifting the focus from the substance of his ideas to the “bigger concern” of his “management style,” thus cheerfully passing a microphone to everyone keen on attacking him on any grounds whatsoever. And through all this, as Pollitt rightly gloated, the president kept apologizing. By the end of February, he had even acquired a style coach, who (I couldn’t invent this) said: “It’s a good thing when a male demonstrates vulnerability.”

Were you truly a creature of the Left, Ellen, you would have been in your element to see so much blood in the local water. If what was at stake at Harvard, as one pundit claimed, was its liberal identity, by the time you and I talked at the end of February that identity had been reconfirmed; in Cambridge, at least, it seemed as if the left wing of the Democratic party had indeed utterly reversed Bush’s victory at the polls. But from everything you were saying, it’s clear you had no patience for this, and that the more the campus Left had managed to browbeat the president, the more you and your friends were intent on distancing yourselves from it.

No, the Harvard episode lit up national politics the way a flare lets us see the whole terrain, and you did not like what you beheld. Perhaps, then, your despair over the Democrats was a function of your recognition of how badly they have betrayed the tenets of your own kind of liberalism—the kind encapsulated in that passage you brought me from John Stuart Mill about the blessings of “liberty of thought and feeling, absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.”

I suppose I can’t blame you for being momentarily discouraged. But that doesn’t absolve you from shouldering your political responsibilities just as you appear ready to shoulder your private ones. The Democratic party is not some inert beast to be circumvented; it can be changed from within or challenged from without. Stage your debate, by all means, take up the argument where the president left off. But give up? Not on your life. Neither a campus nor a polity is imposed on us from above; they are ours to shape and reform and strengthen—and, when necessary, to reinvent.

Ruth R. Wisse is Harvard College professor, Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish, and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is currently completing a book on Jews and power.




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