When Gloria Steinem Spoke Truth to Power at Harvard
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because when you get an opportunity to speak truth to power, it’s best to come armed with some devastating specifics.
By Sean Braswell
Welcome to the second season of The Thread, OZY’s weekly podcast unlocking a series of linked histories, starting with feminist leader Gloria Steinem and stretching all the way back to the casting couches of early Hollywood. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on Apple or on OZY.com.
In 1971, the feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem was invited to become the first woman ever to give the annual Harvard Law Review banquet address. Steinem, 36, was an unusual choice for such an exclusive, and almost entirely male, institution. At first she thought the invitation was a practical joke. She eventually agreed, though, and endeavored to make the most of the opportunity. And what Steinem delivered on that March evening was more than a thought-provoking after-dinner speech — it was a devastating indictment of one of the most prestigious institutions in the world.
For most of its illustrious history — going back to its founding in 1817 — Harvard Law School has been a bastion of white male privilege. Women were not admitted until the early 1950s. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was just one of nine women in a class of 500 at the school in 1957. Things were not much better by 1971. When Steinem first arrived on campus, as she describes in her memoir, My Life on the Road, she met with female law students. She learned that only 7 percent of the student population were women, she learned about “Ladies Day” (the only time that female students were called on in class) and she learned that the law school’s faculty was 100 percent male. “So sure of themselves are the powers-that-be,” Steinem wrote, “that the sign over the men’s room in the library stacks just says FACULTY.”
“The humanization of Harvard Law School is inevitable.”
Outside of Harvard’s walls, of course, a massive protest movement in America was already well underway. Steinem, a writer and editor at New York Magazine, had begun her career as a journalist, and was only starting to speak out on behalf of women’s rights. Steinem’s sojourn to Harvard would prove to be one of the first of thousands of trips and speeches that the feminist activist would give over the next half-century. “What really opened people’s eyes to the movement itself was her traveling and writing about women,” says Patricia Marcello, author of Gloria Steinem: A Biography. “She was suggesting that we had the right — not only the ability, but the right — to express ourselves and be whatever we wanted to be in life.”
At the time, Steinem still had a serious fear of public speaking, but she persisted nonetheless because, as she wrote, “[t]hese [female] students are depending on me.” The banquet was held in Boston’s Sheraton Plaza Hotel. Around 200 people, including most members of the law review and law faculty, attended the black-tie affair. After dinner, the evening’s speaker strode to the podium in a long 1930s velvet dress she had found in a thrift shop. Steinem was nervous and read her remarks from a prepared text, but what the speech lacked in delivery it more than made up for in content.
“The humanization of Harvard Law School is inevitable,” Steinem informed the assembled members of the legal (white, male) establishment. “Part of living the revolution is that the scales fall off our eyes a little bit every day.” Then, armed with examples from her discussions with students, she turned her attention to the experience of women at the law school. She talked of “the hissing and booing from male students that often follows a female colleague’s classroom remarks on women’s rights” and the professors who “joke about the ‘reasonable man’ test, explaining that there is no such thing as a reasonable woman.” She called out, though not by name, the professor who described rape as “a very small assault” and another who responded to the demand for hiring a female faculty member by “answering that women faculty brought problems because of ‘sexual vibrations.’”
Steinem also criticized the law school’s curriculum for ignoring legal problems relevant to women, pointing out it had courses on racism but not sexism, on international whaling law but not women’s rights globally. She not only presented the silent audience with problems, however, but also solutions. Among other things, she suggested that the law school recruit female students with a goal of 50 percent, hire female faculty members and make child-care facilities available to all students and employees. “What is notable about her speech is that it does not deal in generalities or abstract aims,” Carolyn G. Heilbrun observes in Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem. “It describes wrongs and explains how they may be corrected.”
When Steinem finished, there was polite applause. Then something happened that was just as unprecedented as a female banquet speaker: The toastmaster, Vernon Countryman, a professor of debtor-creditor relations, stood up to rebut her. Countryman made what Heilbrun calls a “red-faced and sputtering” attempt to respond to Steinem’s claims, but his remarks only made the law school look worse. “The banquet ended,” one law student in attendance later wrote, “with the quietly held yet widespread sense that Countryman had underlined Steinem’s theme of male boorishness and disrespect for women in a way that her words alone could not do.”
And while nothing changed at the law school overnight, over time, as Steinem predicted, its increasing humanization was indeed inevitable. Women now make up more than half of U.S. law students, including 49 percent at Harvard.