Fonda Gift Creates Gender Studies Center

In Jane Fonda's latest role, she stars as philanthropist summa cum laude. With a $12.5-million gift to the Graduate School of Education (GSE)...

In Jane Fonda's latest role, she stars as philanthropist summa cum laude. With a $12.5-million gift to the Graduate School of Education (GSE), the largest it has ever received from an individual donor, Fonda has underwritten the creation of a Harvard Center for Gender Studies. GSE dean Jerome Murphy said it would be "the first comprehensive, interdisciplinary center at a major research university focusing on the role of gender in education." Several million dollars will be earmarked for gender and education research in other faculties.

Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda
Photograph by Jim Harrison
The gift immediately drew a vituperative attack in the Wall Street Journal on Fonda, Harvard, and, most of all, Graham professor of gender studies Carol Gilligan. Frequent Gilligan critic Christina Hoff Sommers, whose book The War against Boys faults Gilligan for overemphasizing the impact of gender norms on boys and girls, reiterated her opposition to Gilligan's ideas, but ignored the broader mandate of the center.

Besides supporting existing programs like the gender-studies concentration begun by Gilligan, the center's research will focus on gender in the context of cultural and social factors such as race, ethnicity, and poverty. For example, the Harvard Immigration Project is studying why daughters in most immigrant groups complete more years of school than sons; Dimon professor Pedro Noguera is studying the experience of African-American boys in school (as a cohort, they are more likely to be expelled or suspended than any other); and Larsen professor emeritus Robert LeVine is following 2,000 mothers and children in Nepal, Venezuela, and the United States, in order to understand the relationship between a mother's level of schooling and family health.

"What this is not about," Dean Murphy said later in an interview, "is upscale kids in private schools. It's about race, immigration, and class. We're interested in improving the educational experience for the largest number of students possible."

That appeared to be Fonda's intent, too; at the March 2 press conference announcing her gift she recounted experiences of meeting and working with children in this country and throughout the world. But media interest in Fonda herself threatened to overshadow that message. Asked whether her own educational experience at a girl's school and then at Vassar meant her gift was an endorsement of single-sex education, Fonda responded, to laughter, "When I was in the single-sex education, I would have said no. But in hindsight, with a little eldering under my belt, and having read Carol's research on, specifically, my alma mater, Emma Willard, I'm very grateful that my father sent me to an all-girl's school..."

The surprise news of the press conference was that Carol Gilligan, who is 64, will be leaving Harvard in 2002 for a cross-disciplinary professorship at New York University. She told the audience that she would continue her teaching and writing, and said Fonda's gift "freed her" to leave, since gender studies would continue at Harvard in her absence. As Fonda put it, "When Harvard takes a step, it becomes a path."

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