When Harvard University President Neil Rudenstine announced in 1994 that the school would embark on a $2.1 billion fund raising campaign, he was aware of at least one major obstacle. “There was a lot of concern for how a $2 billion campaign would be perceived,” Susan K. Feagin, former director of development at Harvard, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Would it look greedy?” With an endowment of $5.8 billion already (a figure that ballooned to more than $14 billion last year) the decision was made to draw attention away from Harvard’s wealth by emphasizing the university’s less well-off divisions, like the school of education.
At least one important donor took notice. In March, film star Jane Fonda donated $12.5 million to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to create the new Center on Gender and Education and endow a chair named after Harvard’s famed professor of gender studies, Carol Gilligan (now at NYU). Fonda described her gift, the largest from an individual the education school has received in its 80-year history, as a “thank you” to Gilligan, who taught her about what Fonda calls the “toxic” effect of fixed gender roles.
Fonda reports that her acquaintance with Gilligan’s work began in 1985, when Gloria Steinem gave her a copy of Gilligan’s first book, In a Different Voice. The book, a comparison of men’s and women’s responses to various moral dilemmas (both hypothetical and real), received wide acclaim when it was first published.
It is easy to see why feminists found her appealing; she concluded, as one reviewer put it, that while men “tend to see moral issues in terms of rights [and] abstract and rigid principles of impartial justice . . . women tend to think in terms of fairness, caring, and responsibilities.” Professor Gilligan’s innovation was to add to the familiar feminist lament of patriarchal oppression the contention that women didn’t merely merit equal treatment, but actually had a higher claim on morality.
Today, Professor Gilligan is as much in the limelight as ever. Over the last 20 years, a number of scholars, intrigued by her work, have asked to see the interview transcripts and raw data on which she based some of her studies, particularly In A Different Voice. Little came of these requests, but few dared to criticize a canonical feminist text—until last year, that is.
In the course of working on her book, The War Against Boys, Christina Hoff Sommers, the W. H. Brady Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, instructed her research assistant, a male undergraduate at Harvard, to ask for a copy of Professor Gilligan’s data. His request was denied by one of Gilligan’s own research assistants and Sommers proceeded to question the scientific integrity of Gilligan’s studies, first in a lengthy article in the Atlantic Monthly and then in her book.
The controversy deepened when it was learned that Sommers’s assistant never identified himself as such (Harvard professors are generally not inclined to hand over their scientific data to curious undergraduates). In the end, though, when Professor Gilligan was presented with the opportunity to defend herself and her research, her response was far from illuminating.
None of this is particularly surprising. Although Gilligan’s book reads more like a series of personal anecdotes than a systematic scientific study, and her critics are no doubt right to say that, as the Harvard Crimson paraphrases them, “reader resonance is no substitute for hard data,” reader resonance is not without significance. That thousands of women say the experiences recorded in Gilligan’s book greatly resemble their own suggests her findings have some merit. Still, it isn’t what most impartial scholars would regard as a model of social-scientific inquiry, either.
Being Jane Fonda
This brings us back to Jane Fonda, who is not so much impressed, as it turns out, with the academic merits of Professor Gilligan’s research as with how that research explains the difficulties of being Jane Fonda. These difficulties, according to Fonda, are deeply connected to the “gender norms” on which Professor Gilligan has focused her research—that is, how society imposes specific roles on boys and girls beginning in early childhood. Fonda blames these norms “for many hardships, such as her own eating disorders, her father’s unhappiness, and her mother’s suicide,” according to the Crimson.
There is no elucidation given to this rather pat explanation of what seem like complex and serious problems. But one can understand the convenience of this statement—a sort of one-stop psychoanalytical shopping. (Freud blamed everything on sex. Fonda seems to blame everything on gender roles.) And there seems no reason to begrudge Fonda this personal comfort. It is troubling, however, that she has decided that her problems are the problems of most children in America. Even on its face, it seems absurd to suppose that this daughter of a movie star father and a socialite mother had a “typical” childhood.
Fonda, however, is not alone among media celebrities in her belief that her problems have universal applicability. A few years ago, Fonda’s Hollywood cohort Barbra Streisand became the “honorary chair” of Brandeis University’s new Jewish women’s studies center. “As a Jewish woman,” she told the Boston Globe, “I have always been bothered by negative stereotypes about us . . . .” The irony is hard to miss: Jane Fonda (the onetime Barbarella) wants to ensure that women aren’t seen as sex objects, while Barbra Streisand (“Funny Girl”) is trying to combat stereotypes about Jewish women.
There is nothing new, of course, about academic institutions seeking to boost their finances by catering to the egos of media stars and other well-heeled types. The same weekend that Streisand received an honorary degree from Brandeis, for instance, one-time “Seinfeld” co-star Jason Alexander received one from Boston University. But Alexander refrained from using the occasion to offer his solution to the world’s social problems. For Streisand and Fonda, a degree alone would never have been enough.
At least in the case of Streisand’s work, only university graduates and undergraduates who elect to learn about stereotypes of Jewish women will have to do so. The effects of Fonda’s gift, on the other hand, as Christina Hoff Sommers pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article, are likely to extend well beyond Harvard’s education school.
Citing various classroom experiences in which boys are forced to play with dolls, or children analyze Grimm’s fairy tales for gender stereotypes, Sommers observes, “Fonda’s new center will promote educational reforms that will make a lot of children . . . thoroughly confused and miserable.” More important, “it will also further divert teachers from the central mission of educating children.”
But Jane Fonda couldn’t be more excited about the outcome, perhaps guided by the ineffable feelings that washed over her upon first reading Gilligan’s work: “It rocked me to the core.”
Naomi Schaefer is assistant editor of Commentary.