Last week Drew Gilpin Faust ’68, the first woman to lead Harvard University, returned to campus to talk about her recently released memoir Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury.
Old Library’s Great Hall was filled with an audience made up largely of alums who were eager to hear Faust talk about the book, which is centered around her formative years, including her time at Bryn Mawr.
Faust was introduced by Self Government Association President Bryn Osborne ’24 and sat down for a nearly hour-long discussion with Bryn Mawr President Kim Cassidy about the book and the impact Bryn Mawr had on her life.
“One of the most important things about Bryn Mawr for me was that this was a world run by women, filled with women, and I was taught by extraordinarily talented and accomplished women,” said Faust. “I think I probably came to imagine myself as a university professor by seeing these remarkable people that I studied with. Had I gone to Harvard, I probably would never have had a female professor. There was one tenured woman in the faculty of arts and sciences during my college years.”
Among the individuals Faust cited by name for their impact was Katharine McBride, who was president at the time Faust attended Bryn Mawr. In particular, she recalled the Convocation speech McBride gave when she arrived on campus.
“President McBride gave a speech about ‘our work,’” recalled Faust. “I hadn’t realized before that I had work. I thought I had papers and exams but not an oeuvre. She was suggesting that there was a vocation there. That this really mattered what I’d be doing. I was kind of awestruck by that.”
Faust also fondly recalled her interactions with Bryn Mawr’s sixth President Mary (Pat) McPherson, who attended the talk. McPherson was the freshman dean when Faust entered Bryn Mawr.
Among the stories she shared was one about a time when her mother drove to campus unexpectedly to talk with McPherson about concerns regarding what her mother had come to imagine was her daughter’s burgeoning sex life.
The next morning, McPherson called Faust to her office and relayed the prior day’s conversation with her mother.
“Basically, she told my mother to go home and stop bothering me. I walked out of that room and I thought, ‘I’m being treated as an adult, I’m being treated as someone who can run her own life, and I’m being treated as someone who’s not having secrets kept from her,'" said Faust. "For Dean McPherson, this was about responsibility, transparency, honesty, and trust. And those were pretty important values that I saw affirmed early on in my college career. “
In addition to talking about her time at Bryn Mawr, Faust spent a portion of the evening talking about writing the book and the challenge of going from writing history to a memoir.
“I approached this book as a historian. I felt inspired to write it in part because I recognized that, as I was getting older, I had spent a lot of my life listening to voices from the past, and reading letters, diaries, and artifacts left by those who had proceeded me, mostly in the 19th century, and trying to make sense out of what their lives had represented,” said Faust. “And I thought, I need to be a voice now. I need to tell instead of to listen. I felt that the period that’s covered in this book, which is up to my 21st birthday in 1968, was a particularly salient moment in the United States for women, for African-Americans, and for the country as a whole as we struggled to figure out what I meant to be a place where justice could be done…but it is a memoir and a personal story and I wanted to tell it in a personal way.”
After the talk, Faust stayed to sign books and talk with those in attendance. Earlier in the day she attended a reception with a select number of students, faculty and staff.
Read an excerpt of Necessary Trouble from the Fall 2023 edition of the Alumnae Bulletin magazine.