Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Mary (Polly) Ingraham Bunting - A Woman for all Seasons

In 1959, the Russians launched Sputnik into space. This upset the American government to no end. The Russians, they worried, were getting too far ahead of us. Why weren’t we making the same strides in science as they were? Where were all our bright young kids? Why weren’t they in college, and how could we get them there? They were so worried, they set up a panel to find the answers and then implement a program to get those kids back in school.

Polly Bunting was on that panel. She was the only woman on the panel. And what this panel learned was that, of all the teens in America not attending college, 98% of them with the highest IQ’s were girls.

The men were crestfallen. All their hopes for their new program just vanished, because everyone knew girls only went to college to find husbands. And once they did, they married, dropped out, and had babies. Women never amounted to anything. The men abandoned the project before it even began.

Polly was shocked. I was too. These were supposed to be smart men. All they had to do was look at Polly. She was a woman. She was married. She had children. And she was sitting on the panel with all of them. Wasn’t that an indication that women had brains and could achieve?

Unfortunately, those men were a product of their time. They believed the stereotype despite the evidence sitting right in front of them. Polly called it a “climate of unexpectation.” Women didn’t achieve because they weren’t expected to.

"Adults ask little boys what they want to do when they grow up,” she said. “They ask little girls where they got that pretty dress. We don't care what women do with their education. Why, we don't even care if they learn to be good mothers."

Polly began studies of her own to find out why smart women didn’t go to college, and what she learned was that the stereotype was true. Women often gave up their education for marriage and family. But she also learned that they did want to return to college. Unfortunately, there was no one to watch the kids or help with the housework, and many colleges openly discouraged married women, and women with children, from returning. They believed women wouldn’t give their full attention to their studies.

Polly realized a women’s track to a degree and a career was not the same as a man’s. A man could marry and have kids and still go to college because his wife was at home taking care of everything for him. Women didn’t have that luxury.

As President of Radcliffe, Polly put what she had learned into practice. She made it possible for women to attend college part time. She had dorms built for married women so their husbands and kids could live on campus with them. She convinced Harvard to go co-ed, which finally allowed Radcliffe women access to Harvard’s libraries.

But what Polly is known most for is the program she set up, allowing women to study in their field, while Radcliffe provided them with free room and board and money for babysitters, housekeepers, and whatever else they needed. These women were getting paid to learn. She called it The Radcliffe Institute for Independent Studies. In her honor, it was renamed The Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute. In 1999, Radcliffe merged with Harvard and the men of Harvard, in their great wisdom, took the honor away from her. They changed the name to The Radcliffe Institute Fellowship Program at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Clearly a much better choice.

Polly was one of those people who learned things ‘just because.’ She had a genuine interest in everything and everyone. And she was a doer. If something needed to be done, she did it, and if it was beyond her, she found people who could get it done and convinced them to do it.

She was an extremely interesting person, a bit quirky (She would garden topless, and put bandaids over her nipples so they wouldn’t get sunburned. She would stand on her head before a test because it helped her think better.) and she was successful in multiple fields of science, as well as Academia, Government, and Community Affairs. There is so much more to her and what she accomplished than I could ever fit into a blog. For a closer look at her life, read Mary Ingraham Bunting: Her Two Lives by Elaine Yaffe.


Diane Mayr said...

We're still not there. A whole lot closer, but still not there. Yet...

Jet said...

What a fascinating woman in a fascinating time.