Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Bryn Mawr, Philadelphia County
Historian Drew Gilpin Faust became the first female president of Harvard University in 2007.
As the first female president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust has broken down the gender barrier that has surrounded higher education for centuries. Before becoming university president of Harvard, she was the founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study beginning in 2001. Prior to that, Faust was the Annenberg Professor of History and director of the women’s studies program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was on the faculty for 25 years. She received her bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College in 1968, and both her master’s degree in 1971 and doctoral degree in 1975 from the University of Pennsylvania.
Born in New York City on September 18, 1947, Catharine Drew Gilpin was the rebellious daughter who perpetually challenged what it meant to be a young girl and later, a woman in higher education. Known as Drew from an early age, she is the daughter of McGhee Tyson Gilpin, a thoroughbred horse breeder, and Catharine Mellick Gilpin, a New Jersey socialite. Her parents met on a fox hunt in the mid-1940s and lived in New York City before Drew was born, but later moved to Millwood in Clarke County, Virginia to raise their family on a farm. Along with her three brothers, Faust started her education at the Blue Ridge Country Day School, a co-ed private school near her home in Virginia. There, she was known as a precocious child who earned high marks and loved to read. She spent her summers doing the high society activities expected of a young girl, including joining the Girl Scouts and taking dancing lessons. However, she resisted becoming a debutante in her teen years. At age 12, Faust was sent to boarding school at the Concord Academy in Massachusetts, a well-respected girls’ prep school. However, it is clear that her upbringing would have implications on her career later in life. According to an article published in Bryn Mawr’s alumni newsletter, “As a girl, Faust rebelled against the restrictive conventions of femininity and the racial injustice that prevailed in her native Virginia. At age 9, she sent a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower decrying segregation; this early awareness of inequality in race relations presaged her later scholarly interest in the history of the American South.” She would go onto break down racial barriers through her historical research as a professor and she would eliminate some gender stereotypes in her appointment as the president of Harvard University. Faust went against family norms with her selection of college; however, this decision was less about being a black sheep in the family and more about the educational environment from women in the 1960s. Although her father, two of her brothers, and several of her uncles and male cousins graduated from Princeton, Princeton did not admit women in the mid-1960s, so she went to Bryn Mawr instead. While at Bryn Mawr in Montogomery County, Pennsylvania, Faust met Mary Maples Dunn, then a history professor. Dunn later went on to become the acting dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study from 1995 until 2001, when Faust took her place. In a New York Times article, Dunn said that it was significant for Faust to attend Concord Academy and Bryn Mawr. She said, “I think these women’s institutions in those days tended to give these young women a very good sense of themselves and encouraged them to develop their own ideas and to express themselves confidently.” Faust received her bachelor’s degree in history from Bryn Mawr College in 1968, graduating magna cum laude with honors. She gave the commencement address to her peers, in which she told them of her desire to turn her interests in activism into scholarship because she believed that if she had a better understanding of history, she could have a more significant impact on the future. With that goal in mind, she went on to the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to study American civilization. However, Faust was initially denied admission to University of Pennsylvania on the basis of gender. The graduate history program at the University of Pennsylvania did not have any female faculty at the time, so despite her honors and grades, she was rejected. The department head told Faust that they did not want someone who was just following her husband since right after her graduation from college, she had married her college sweetheart, Stephen Faust, who was in medical school at Penn. During their marriage, she was later admitted to their graduate program and received her master’s degree in 1971 and doctoral degree in 1975. In 1976, after she received her PhD, Faust and her husband divorced, but she remained at the university and served on the faculty for 25 years. Eventually, she became the Annenberg professor of history and director of the women’s studies program at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1982 and 1996, she received distinguished teaching awards. While at the University of Pennsylvania, Faust authored many historical books, specifically on Civil War related topics, focusing on the lives of Confederate women. Some of her more popular titles include: The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South; A Woman’s War: Southern Women, Civil War and the Confederate Legacy; Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slave Holding South in the American Civil Warand This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Her 2004 book, Mothers of Invention, won the Society of American Historians’ Francis Parkman Prize for the year’s best nonfiction book on an American theme. Although Faust had declined several promotions to serve on the administration at the University of Pennsylvania, she accepted the deanship of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in 2001. In this role, Faust guided the transformation of Radcliffe from a women’s college into a wide-ranging institute for advanced study, particularly the study of women, gender, and society. Prior to Faust’s arrival, Radcliffe College, a women’s college, had merged with Harvard in 1999 and became known as the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. Faust was appointed the 28th president of Harvard University on July 1, 2007, and was formally installed on October 12, 2007. She was the first woman to hold this position in the history of Harvard University. Many sources say she was a surprise choice for the position after the high-profile and controversial Lawrence Summers stepped down in 2006. Former Harvard President Derek Bok served as interim president of Harvard between the departure of Summers in 2006 and Faust’s selection in 2007. However, while Summers was in office, he publicly suggested that genetic gender differences may explain why few women attain top math, science and engineer degrees and, ultimately, jobs. His comment sparked controversy in academic and feminist circles around the country, so as an effort to redeem himself, he asked Faust to head an effort to recruit and retain female students and faculty at Harvard. According to a New York Times article, when asked if her appointment as president of Harvard signified the end of sex inequities at the university, she said: “Of course not. There is a lot of work still to be done, especially in the sciences.” However, in other interviews, she has made it clear that she does not want her sex to get in the way of doing her job. According to an article published in Bryn Mawr’s alumni newsletter, even in the press conference after Faust’s appointment as the president of Harvard, she said: “I’m not the woman president of Harvard. I’m the president of Harvard...but young women have come up to me and said, ‘This is really an inspiration.’ So I think it would be wrong not to acknowledge that this has tremendous symbolic importance.” Feminists and women in higher education alike have applauded Faust’s appointment as president of Harvard University. One article published in the alumni magazine of Bryn Mawr, says that Faust’s appointment will “shatter one of America’s oldest glass ceilings.” In an article on TIME.com, Harvard graduate and current CNN Anchor Soledad O'Brien spoke highly of Faust’s role, saying: “I cheered [for] Drew Gilpin Faust’s appointment as Harvard’s 28th president—the first woman to hold the job in the university’s 371-year history. Faust, 59, has a lot on her plate—placating an often unwieldy and ego-driven faculty, making a Harvard education relevant in today’s world, underwriting lower- and middle-class students who can’t afford to pay—but already, by her sheer presence, she sends a message to every 19- or 20-year-old who dreams of going up against the odds: you can do it too.” According to a Boston Globe article, Faust is remarkably efficient at balancing her work obligations and personal life responsibilities. In 1980, Faust married Charles Rosenberg, one of the nation’s leading historians of medicine and science who is the current professor of the history of science and Ernest E. Monrad professor in the social sciences at Harvard. Together, Faust and Rosenberg have one daughter, Jessica, born in 1982. Jessica graduated from Harvard in 2004. Professor Rosenberg also has a daughter, Leah, from a previous marriage, who is now a professor at the University of Florida. In 1988, Faust was diagnosed with breast cancer, an event that caused her to reevaluate her life. According to the Boston Globe article, she said, “You learn so much about what matters to you.” She went on to say that after surviving cancer, “taking an intellectual risk seems like nothing.” It is clear that in addition to her role as the president of Harvard University, Faust continues to take intellectual risks. She continues to serve on the educational advisory board of the Guggenheim Foundation, which provides fellowships for advanced professionals in the academic fields of the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and creative arts. Previously, Faust has served as president of the Southern Historical Association, vice president of the American Historical Association, and executive board member of the Organization of American Historians and the Society of American Historians. As a sign of her historical and professional accomplishments, Faust was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994, the Society of American Historians in 1993, and the American Philosophical Society in 2004. In 2009, Forbes.com included her in their annual list of the“100 Most Powerful Women.” When Faust was growing up, her mother repeatedly reminded her about the role of women, saying, “This is a man’s world, sweetie, and the sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be.” However, with her recent appointment as the president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust has shown that she knows where her place is—at the top. As a pioneer for women in higher education at one of the most prestigious schools in the country, Faust has broken through the glass ceiling that has kept many women out of academia and challenged the role that so many wanted her to conform to, especially her mother.
“A Woman’s War: Southern Women in the Civil War” (with Thavolio Glymph and George C. Rable). A Woman’s War: Southern Women, Civil War and the Confederate Legacy. Ed. Edward D. Campbell and Kym S. Rice. New York: University Press of Virginia, 1997. 1-28.
The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slave Holding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Vintage, 2009.
“Biography.” Harvard University Office of the President. 2008. 3 Dec. 2008 <>http://www.president.harvard.edu/biography/>.
Bombardieri, Marcella, and Maria Sacchetti. “In Faust, early bold streak.” Boston Globe 25 Feb. 2007: A1.