19 February 2007

Drew Gilpin Faust

While this might be relatively old news, I still want to offer my heartfelt delight and glee for Drew Gilpin Faust, recently named the first female president of Harvard University. The obvious reasons have been discussed in the media for the past week—I want to simply make a few personal comments.

Primarily, let’s not forget what an esteemed and respected historian she is. Dr. Faust has written two seminal books: Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery (LSU, 1982).

The media has mentioned Mothers of Invention , but only briefly (but what should we expect from the American media). In that book, Faust challenges some of the common stereotypes of the "helpless" Southern white women—and then shows how the War changed her plight completely. Southern white women (and Faust writes primarily about upper and middle class women), were compelled to take charge of their own lives during the War when most of the Southern men were away. That independence led to significant changes in gender relationships after the conflict. Mothers of Invention is an important work on a variety of historical topics: the Civil War, the old and new South, as well as women and gender roles.

I first picked up James Henry Hammond and the Old South nearly twenty years ago as I searched for dissertation information. This remains one of the absolute best sources on the Old South—the worldview of the large plantation owners, the master-slave relationship, and how the antebellum Southern ideology was crumbling as the Civil War approached.

Both of these books are worth reading. And I almost forgot, I actually assigned another of her works in a Civil War class I taught several years ago. Faust’s The Creation of Confederate Nationalism (LSU, 1990) is short book/long essay on the intellectual roots of Confederate identity. It’s a difficult read, but a concise and well-written introduction to a difficult intellectual topic.

Maybe soon, it will cease to be national news when a women becomes a university president. And
I do think we are swiftly reaching that point. But this is Harvard, and Larry Summers—as much as I liked him as a Clinton economic advisor—seemed to be more of a divider than a uniter (not to mention his unfortunate comments regarding women in the sciences).

But we can’t let this milestone pass without some joy and celebration. It’s another step in remaking the society and workplace--and both of those institutions need alterations. And yes, it also enrages those right-wingers. As I have mentioned before in Books and Bait—I get giddy when something disturbs their cultural sensibilities--and we all know what they think of feminists.

When the announcement was initially reported by the Harvard Crimson, I immediately emailed my friend Katie, who took history classes with Dr. Faust at Penn. Katie is currently a local political activist, consultant, writer (she is hard at work on a novel), and radical feminist. I asked Katie if she had any comments about Faust and whether she thought her former professor would be tough enough to conquer the old boy’s network at Harvard. Katie, always good for a colorful quote, immediately responded with:

"SHE FUCKING ROCKS! She should do her lecture on Civil War weaponry if they doubt her toughness. I love her, I have a big crush on her.”

I trust Katie's judgement--and I think Harvard is in good hands. Let's keep tearing down those ceilings.

1 comment:

Miss Grimke said...

I believe I have found here some candidates for the Drew Gilpin Faust Fan Club! Come see me!