Drew Gilpin Faust’s new memoir captures her early life and time as a student at Bryn Mawr.
This summer saw the publication of a new memoir by historian and author Drew Gilpin Faust ’68, who served as Harvard University’s president from 2007 to 2018. Necessary Trouble: Growing up at Midcentury (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) chronicles her experience of coming of age in a conservative Southern family in postwar America and how, through her intellectual curiosity and engagement with social justice issues, she began to find her own path forward. In this excerpt from the book, Faust describes her personal impressions of Bryn Mawr at a time when the women’s liberation movement had yet to emerge and “our consciousness was just beginning to be aroused and could certainly not be considered raised.
Before we arrived on campus, each of us was supplied with a copy of the "Freshman Handbook," intended to prepare us for our new lives. The president, Katharine McBride, who had led the college for more than two decades, opened the booklet with a message of welcome. Neither her greeting nor any other entry in the handbook used the word “women”—or even “girls,” which is how we customarily referred to ourselves—yet the contents illustrated the many ways that our lives were to be shaped by assumptions about appropriate female behavior. Expectations—which took the form of what were known as “parietal rules”—were clear and specific: men were not allowed in student rooms after early evening, and doors were to remain at least partially open when they were visiting. For our safety, we were to sign out with our whereabouts when we were off campus in the evening and to return by 2:00 a.m., a much more lenient curfew than permitted most college women. All-but-unquestioned assumptions of female vulnerability masked underlying anxieties about female morality and justified a set of regulations that would have been unimaginable at nearby all-male Haverford. One product of these fears was the Lantern Men—Bryn Mawr’s version of nighttime security guards—who opened the locked doors of the residence halls for students returning late at night and also escorted any young women who arrived after dark from Philadelphia on the Paoli Local, a train that stopped a few blocks from the college. I found something rather charming about the notion of protectors lighting our steps along campus pathways, but the swinging lanterns dotting the lawns amid the gothic arches and towers—keeping damsels from distress—would eventually come to seem medieval in conception as well as appearance. It wasn’t long before we began to ask why we couldn’t all just have our own keys.
The handbook explained that we would be expected to wear skirts to class and to any off-campus destination, out of “respect” for our professors and for the “reputation” of the college. But at least the Self-Government Association—Bryn Mawr students had claimed responsibility for setting their own rules for nearly three-quarters of a century—had just repealed the
requirements for skirts at dinner. One item of clothing we were advised to bring was a “basic wool dress” that could “stand in good stead for church, Miss McBride’s Tea and the Princeton Mixer.” I had no intention of attending church or the Princeton Mixer, but Miss McBride’s freshman-week tea was legendary. Elegant dishes of coffee ice cream and raspberry sherbet. Stockings a necessity. We were to be ladies as well as scholars.
Bryn Mawr represented a very peculiar sort of feminism. In the mid-1960s, there was not yet a women’s liberation movement. Our consciousness was just beginning to be aroused and could certainly not be considered raised. Many of my classmates were like me, uneasy with the hurdles and injustices we recognized in our own lives. But we were not yet equipped with the language and insight to mount a systematic challenge to the world we found ourselves in. We accepted many constraints that today would seem unthinkable. Slowly, however, we had begun to identify and resist others.
Bryn Mawr assured us we could compete with men because we were special—intellectually gifted, ambitious, as good as—or even better than—any man. We would be able to transcend obstacles that would limit other women. To even speak of women as a category was seen as a kind of special pleading, an acknowledgment not so much of difference as of deficiency. As one member of the class of 1966 put it, “I feel like the administration and faculty think that being a woman is something you are supposed to overcome.”
But we, as outstanding individuals, need not concern ourselves with the broader circumstances or structures of women’s lives. Bryn Mawr women had no deficiencies. Our education was designed to empower us, but to do so without ever requiring or encouraging us to think about our social or cultural place as females. Tellingly, Bryn Mawr declined to join Phi Beta Kappa, insisting that all its student were worthy of the honor. In some ways, the college and my mother shared a common outlook: both acknowledged that it was a man’s world. My mother’s conclusion was that I should accept the subordinate place that was my destiny. But Bryn Mawr, in contrast, intended to equip me with the individual strength and capacity to prevail in an arena that men had created and defined.
We felt growing unease about the assumptions of social and class superiority—symbolized by teas and servants—that seemed fundamental to Bryn Mawr’s culture and identity, but increasingly at odds with the 1960s’ emerging hostility to hierarchies and privilege. And we were bewildered by the contradictory messages we received about our roles and opportunities as women. As my classmate Liz Schneider wrote, looking back from the “real world” a few years after our graduation, “The education of women—no matter how rigorous or inspiring—cannot overcome the wholesale prejudice of a society entrenched in its belief that women are inferior and properly excluded from the positions a first-class education might prepare them for.” But Bryn Mawr made it difficult to acknowledge that these contradictions did exist, and we left college ill-equipped to deal with the barriers that would confront us as women beyond the college walls. “Most Bryn Mawr women are trapped, she wrote, “in a fundamental ambivalence: do they want to be the doctor or the doctor’s wife?” I remained blithely unaware that I might have to choose.
What is your reaction to this remembrance?
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