Drew Gilpin Faust, NECESSARY TROUBLE: Growing Up at Midcentury

Drew Gilpin Faust, NECESSARY TROUBLE: Growing Up at Midcentury

Zibby speaks to professor, historian, and author Drew Gilpin Faust about Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury, a brave and poignant memoir about Drew’s privileged childhood in the segregated South and the birth of her questioning spirit. Drew describes instances of the “necessary trouble” she created growing up (like writing a strongly worded letter to Eisenhower in support of school integration at age 9). She also talks about her career in higher education, particularly what she achieved as president of Harvard.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Drew. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your memoir, Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury.

Drew Gilpin Faust: Thank you for inviting me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I was so excited when I saw that you had a book coming out. I know it’s not coming out — even though this will air closer to the time of your book. This is a summer book. As soon as I saw it in a catalog, I was like, oh, my gosh, I have to talk to her. I can’t wait to hear how she ended up becoming the head of Harvard. How did this all happen? I poured over your book and all of it. Then I was curious as to why it started and stopped where you had it. Is there a continuation? Is there a part two coming out next? Maybe talk about the idea of even starting your book and which times you focused on the most and why.

Drew: I was moved to write this book by my increasing sense that people today, especially young people, have misapprehensions or no understanding of what went on in the 1950s and ’60s and that it’s being misrepresented or sometimes caricatured. There’s all this objection to the baby boomers and how baby boomers have failed. I thought, I want to tell this story as I saw it and I remembered it. That was in part because I had been a historian my whole life, and I’ve relied on testimony from people in the past. I spent a lot of time listening to people in the past. I thought, while I’m still on this earth, I want to now tell and have the possibility of others listen to me and listen to my sense of the experience of those years and to outline to some degree, my own life, but also how it fit within a broader set of choices and structures of society in that era. No single person can be representative. Of course, I’m not representative in so many dimensions. I came from a very privileged family and moved through life struggling with the upsides and the downsides of that. Nevertheless, a lot of the things around me that I did have to confront were larger structures that I think could be generalized to many more people as they make their choices and as the character of the 1950s and the ’60s unfolded. You asked also, though, about why it stops when it did.

Zibby: Why did it stop? I wanted it to keep going.

Drew: I stop when I turn twenty-one and I cast my first vote. It was not legal to vote until you were twenty-one in 1968. I cast my vote in a very fraught election that had occurred after two assassinations in the spring, Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and then the upheavals of the democratic convention. I’d just been launched into the world with a college degree, and what a world it was. Here were two choices in this election, neither of which reflected the anti-war sentiments that had mobilized so many of us during the preceding years. The challenge of that election and the turning point it meant for me and for the nation was a really important marker in my life. I wanted to stop there because I really was writing about coming of age, growing up. That’s what this book represents. How do you find your way in the world? I use a theme of freedom, and freedom in a variety of dimensions, including the Civil Rights Movement, including communism and the un-freedoms of the Soviet Bloc, and then my own struggle for freedom from the conventions about young women that I found so constraining. I felt that, okay, I turned twenty-one. I have an education. I have a job that supports me. I’ve liberated myself in many ways, intellectually, from the chains that had been imposed on me. This was the time to stop the memoir because I felt, now I have to enact that freedom. What am I going to use it for? That’s a whole other set of questions, and so it seemed a good stopping place.

Zibby: So interesting. I really enjoyed hearing all about your whole family history and particularly, the threads of the military that were woven throughout so many branches of your family and how that affected not just the men, but the women and the families and particularly, all the different generations you had who had experience in this and how that ultimately ended up shaping you. Today, here I am, I’m forty-six, but it has not felt the same as the generations that you write about and the systemic changes, obviously. We all know this. It’s one thing to read about it in a history book, and it’s another for you to take us through your family and the golden son who sadly passed away and how even that has so many ripples all the way through the different generations. Maybe speak to that for a minute and how all of that — of course, the military and the government, it’s not just a theoretical thing. It affects who is even alive in your home and so much else.

Drew: It’s both very personal and very much more than personal in its impact. There’s a chapter in the book which is a little odd for a memoir because it’s not something I remember. It’s about World War I and about my family’s experience in World War I. It’s based on a set of letters that have been preserved back and forth between different members of the family during the war. It really focuses on my great-uncle, who I never met. He was killed just before, weeks before, the war ended in 1918. He was a flyer, which was a very dangerous role in that primitive era of flying. His plane fell into the North Sea, and he was killed. At that time, his father, my great-grandfather who had been in the military, had been to West Point, graduated in the early 1880s from West Point, was serving in his late fifties as a general on the Western Front. This news comes to him, but he can’t leave his post because there’s very heavy fighting just as the war’s ending. The news comes to my grandmother, the dead person’s sister, and her mother in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the midst of the influenza. They all have to grapple with this terrible loss of the golden boy, the son on whom so many expectations had been placed. For my grandmother, this is devastating in so many ways, losing this wonderful brother whom she idealized.

She writes to her father, a conciliation letter where she says she knows that the family will never be the same because he was the family line that was going to carry the family forward. She writes a line, “A girl is never the same.” She’s a kind of second-class citizen in this family. She says, “The wrong one died.” She spends her whole life, in a sense, feeling, “A girl is never the same.” Lives into her eighties, so well into the next part of the century and well into my own life. She’s deeply affected by this loss. It shapes her marriage. It shapes her attitudes towards the world. It shapes her sense of her own possibilities. Then as she grows up, she has a child right after the war when her husband comes home safely. He was also a flyer, but he made it through. He comes home. They have a child right away. She names this child for the dead brother, my father. This is my father, born in 1919. Of course, as he comes into his adulthood, he goes off to war. If you just think about these generations of sending sons to war, my grandmother is terrified that she will lose him or his brother, both of whom were in the military in the second world war. I have letters back and forth from my father to his family about his experience in World War II. He lived. He survived. He found the military very moving and gratifying. He felt it made a huge contribution to the world in helping Patton liberate France, but it distorts our family once again because he just married and left my mother with my older brother and went off to war and did the most important thing in his life, in his view.

When he came back to all of us, it was an afterthought. I think their marriage was affected by that separation, by what he’d experienced and how he valued it and understood it but was also horrified by parts of it that then affected his life. Fast-forward to when my older brother is coming of age in the 1960s, and we have the Vietnam War. It’s as if a generation is defined by the wars that each one seems to fight in this part of the twentieth century. For me, that third war, the Vietnam War, was defining because I was such an activist opposing it. That was a very important part of my young adulthood and my understanding of my commitment as a citizen, my obligations as a human being. As I watched so many young men in my college cohort being drafted or worried about the draft, my brother went into the navy because he didn’t want to be in ground troops. He served four years in the navy. Once again, lives shaped, often distorted by these military obligations and demands that these three wars represented. In a sense, the three wars are an arc that rests over the structure of this book from my first origins when I am born as a baby boomer — that means after the war; that’s the very definition of my generation — up through my own experience in relationship to the way the Vietnam War tore not just families apart and not just more than fifty thousand deaths, but the nation torn apart by the experience of Vietnam.

Zibby: Wow. Then you have yourself where we totally understand you as a daughter, which I think, of course, informs how you end up growing up. Here you are, this young, precocious, obviously brilliant woman. Your mother does not even value your intelligence and in fact, finds it almost offensive to her ideas, her sensibilities related to what a lady should be. That, of course, was forced upon her. Not that she was so excited about it herself. We understand even her mother-in-law relationship because you tell us so much about your grandmother. Just really fascinating. It comes to you, who’s now writing letters to Eisenhower and speaking your mind and doing all of this at a young age. I’m like, what did I do? I wrote a letter to my headmaster trying to get the Jewish holidays off from school. Literally, that’s what my parents saved about me. That’s my childhood letter. It really put you in a position to listen to yourself and just continue to advocate for what you believe in. I feel like there’s part of your dad’s mission-driven leftover from the military. What you said about him feeling so important, how hard it is to take something that, ideologically, is so massively important and then change a diaper or put the dryer sheets in or whatever, it’s hard to transition to that. You picked up the mantle, in a way, and just did it a slightly different way. Very interesting, though.

Drew: I think you’re right that in the post-war period that there was this sense of ethical challenge, post-World War II period. These issues had been so black and white, fighting the Nazis and the heroes of World War II who had done that. There was a kind of moral seriousness that that conveyed to many in the post-war years. Of course, the fifties were, in many ways, were just not that and were avoiding that. At the same time, I think I picked up on, my father had done these really brave things. What was going to happen next? What was my duty? As I grew up as a girl in a family with three brothers, I was constantly feeling things weren’t fair. I was asked to be a lady and wear horrible organdy itchy dresses and do certain things or not do certain things that my brothers were allowed to do. It always made me mad. I believe that also attuned me to or sensitized me to the very segregated, unfair world in which I’d lived and that out of my own gender inequities, I came to see much larger inequities in Southern civilization.

You referred to this Eisenhower letter. It was a letter I wrote when I was nine years old to President Eisenhower. It was prompted by the disputes in Virginia about school integration in the aftermath of Brown v. Board and my outrage when I suddenly realized that it was not an accident that my school was all white and that someone had prohibited Black students from coming to my school. That was not fair. I wrote to Eisenhower in support of integration and begged him to please integrate schools. I invoked all this religious imagery from my own Sunday school knowledge in a Protestant Episcopal church, kind of shaking my finger at Eisenhower telling him what to do. I was a very opinionated nine-year-old. I sent this letter off. My parents had no idea I’d done it. When I got this little formal acknowledgment back from the White House, they said, “What’s this about?” They were horrified because they accepted the basic views of Virginia in their era. They knew they had trouble on their hands. That’s where the title comes from. I was always making trouble.

Zibby: That’s another piece of the book which carries through, even for your going to Selma and all of the advocacy and activism, I should say, that you have been doing. I loved how you depicted your father’s relationship with, I think his name was Raphael. Raphael?

Drew: Raphael, as if it were R-A-Y-F-I-E-L-D. It was spelled like the painter Raphael. We called him Raphael.

Zibby: How he came in after your mother passed away — I’m so sorry about that. He was the one who was really his caretaker after that. It sounded like the two of them were, honestly, BFFs back in the day. They were buddies. I feel like you did such a nice job of highlighting that friendship and relationship as much as it could be given the constraints of that era and time and place and all of that and how that even shaped some of your future activism.

Drew: It’s interesting you focus on the relationship between my father and Raphael because it’s such a complicated one and just speaks the complexities of race relations in Virginia and the South generally in that era and I think in eras before as well. Raphael did take care of my father. Raphael knew everything about him. My father was, on one level, devoted to Raphael and was weeping at his funeral when he was asked to speak and was very moved in his remarks. There nevertheless was a hierarchy and a distance. They never sat down at a table and ate together. Raphael would eat in the kitchen. Daddy would eat in the dining room. That’s what was expected. There were lines that could not be broken. There’s a lot, I believe, about how Raphael saw all of this that I do not know. There was speculation in the community that maybe he had founded a branch of NAACP and was actually kind of secretly an activist on racial issues even as he was so deferential to my father. What was going on in Raphael’s mind? How much were their perceptions of this relationship different even as they interacted in these very intense and intimate ways?

Zibby: Wow, that is really interesting. Are you in touch with his children or grandchildren?

Drew: They have died. His children are dead, so I am not.

Zibby: That’s so sad. You go on to talk about your time at Concord Academy and then Bryn Mawr. By the way, my dad was responsible for getting rid of parietal hours at Yale.

Drew: Aha!

Zibby: Literally, he talks about that a lot.

Drew: You know what the word means.

Zibby: Yes, I knew what the word meant. I love that your daughter did not, or whoever it was. Was it your daughter? Somebody did not .

Drew: Yes, my daughter. I was telling her, probably, about what we’d done. She said, “What are parietals? What are you talking about?” I thought, well, that’s a sign of success if she doesn’t even know what it is. We really did eliminate it. What year was that that your father was at Yale?

Zibby: He graduated in ’69.

Drew: So just the same era exactly.

Zibby: Same era. He was very proud of that, and also for establishing something called the Yale Ballet Society because he was trying to find a way to get girls on campus and founded a ballet appreciation society so they would go to the ballet in New York. He’s a character.

Drew: That’s great.

Zibby: Then of course, through all of your advocacy, you end up becoming a leader. I would love to fast-forward a little bit and just even get the bullet points of post-memoir here, midcentury times, to becoming a leader and if you thought about a career in politics at all and how you feel about things now.

Drew: I never thought about a career in politics. I worked for two years after I graduated from college for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was then a very new cabinet department. It had just launched a new program called Model Cities, which was a program that was going to take an integrated — meaning, not racially integrated, but all kinds of different programs and problems seen holistically and try to see how the federal government could help improve the situation in cities. During my college years, there had been riots and insurrections in cities every summer. The issues of urban problems and urban justice was very central in my mind and the mind of the country. I went off to work for the federal government. Within two years, I was back in the academy and felt that universities were really the places in which I felt more comfortable but also felt I could be most effective as a contributor to American life. I went to graduate school and got a PhD and then was hired by the University of Pennsylvania, where I had gotten my degree, and worked on the faculty there for twenty-five years. In my role with students as teacher and in my role writing about the origins of racial history in the United States — I wrote about the Old South, nineteenth-century South, slavey, and then began increasingly to write about war, which I think reflected my Vietnam interests and the ways that what we talked about earlier had affected me. I felt my influence was through my writings and mostly through an effort to make universities be the institutions that they could be in contributing to society.

I didn’t take on administrative roles except those that were kind of forced upon me. You had to be a department chair every once in a while. You had to do things. I felt the classroom was really where I wanted to be. I had a child in 1982. The classroom and the teaching obligations rather than administrative ones fit better with that life of being a parent. Then I was invited by the then president of Harvard to come and be the founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard. He invited me in 2000, but 2001 is when I arrived. I did that partly because my daughter was out of the house. She had gone off to college. I felt that this was an institute that was meant to help solve the problem of women at Harvard and to make relationships between Radcliffe and Harvard regularized by their merger and to also put a focus on the issues of gender within scholarship and within the university. I thought, boy, to do that at Harvard is such an important thing. If they can get it right, maybe everybody else can get it right. That was the first really major administrative job I took on. I found that I loved it. I found working with people on goals and advancing issues that actually had solutions rather than issues that lasted for 250 years or whatever I was looking at in my historical work was very gratifying. I continued with that and then was asked to be a president in 2007. I served as Harvard’s president from 2007 to 2018. That was a great privilege as well as an education in its own right.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Do you feel like they’ve finally gotten it right with women?

Drew: They’ve gotten it a lot better. It’s not entirely right. There’s so many issues that still remain in terms of representation on the faculty, in terms of student lives, in terms of issues like sexual harassment. There’s still lots to be done, but it’s a much better situation than when I first arrived. Just to give you a story, not long after I arrived at the Radcliffe Institute, my very first days at Harvard University, a major administrator came to me and said, “Be sure you don’t talk about women when you talk about issues because that’ll only discredit you.” It was as if anybody who saw women as a category had a special or was trying to make up for their insufficiencies. It wasn’t something that should be central within Harvard’s consideration. Women in so far as they were there should just fold in and be like everybody else that was always there. That has certainly changed. We have voices talking about women, thank goodness, all the time. Harvard has just selected a wonderful new president who will take office in July who is an African American woman, political scientist. This would’ve been completely unimaginable when I arrived at Harvard. Now there she is. Change happens.

Zibby: Change happens. I feel like my own family is a little microcosm of the changing times. My grandfather went to Harvard Business School and graduated in 1939 during the war. He couldn’t get a job on Wall Street because they thought that unless you were from a very well-to-do German Jewish family, which he was not, that they would be too discriminated against. He ended up going into retail. Then my father graduated in 1972 and then went into finance. Then I graduated in 2003 as the woman.

Drew: 2003 from Harvard Business School?

Zibby: Yeah.

Drew: Oh, great. That’s great.

Zibby: My mother worked at Harvard Business School because her dad had gone there. She was sort of trying to pick up a husband or I don’t know what. She went. She got a job. That’s how she met my dad. Then I went as the student. I felt really good about that. Then I wonder if one of my kids is going to end up there. My class was only thirty percent women, something like that. I don’t know what the percentage is today.

Drew: It’s closer to fifty now at the Harvard Business School. There’s been a lot of focus on women’s issues and bringing women more — for example, the whole grading system, grade based on who’s loudest and steals the floor from everyone else, that’s a kind of gendered way of rewarding students for class participation of that sort. Lots of scrutiny. Have you been back to any of the events? I know there are often events for women alums.

Zibby: No, but my twentieth reunion is coming up. By the time this airs, I will have gone.

Drew: That’s great.

Zibby: We’ll see how it is there. No, I haven’t really .

Drew: You can get a take on whether things have changed.

Zibby: Give you an update.

Drew: A report card.

Zibby: Report card, yes. What now? You have this book coming out. What would you like to tackle after this?

Drew: I’m sort of mulling about a new book project and reading stuff and thinking about what I might do. I’ve felt for a long time that I’d like to write a biography. I wrote a biography early in my career of a despicable man who was a Southern slaveholder and planter, governor and senator from South Carolina, wrote down all his despicable thoughts. He was just a rich target for exploration. I wanted to see the world through his eyes. How do you be a person like this? That’s fascinated me from my very earliest days of my historical career, in part because of my own experience, which is, how do people do evil things and take it as a routine? How do you get up in the morning if you’re a slaveholder in the South? I think that came from, how do you get up in the morning if you’re a segregationist in Virginia in the 1950s and ’60s? I just wanted to know how people live with experiences, practices that we find unthinkable. As I’m considering a biography now, I have my eyes on writing about somebody in the nineteenth century who was just opposite, who always seemed to do the right thing and oppose slavery and risked his life and fought against slavery. There is a biography of this man coming out soon, so I have to take a look at what that’s covered. I think I might take a piece of this life and ask the other question. How do people come to make admirable choices in the world? as opposed to the people I’ve focused on mostly, which are the people who have made choices that it’s very hard for us to comprehend or forgive.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. Wow. If there’s one thing that you want people to take away from Necessary Trouble, what would it be?

Drew: It would be that things have definitely changed since the fifties and sixties. We can’t say everything’s the same, everything’s been terrible forever. We should look back and be grateful for what isn’t the way it was when I was growing up. That should inspire us to recognize that we can change things again, that where we are is not inevitable. We are not back in 1950 or 1960. We don’t have to be where we are now fifty years from now. I would hope that might encourage people to be optimistic even in trying and difficult times about what can happen and what they can do to make it happen.

Zibby: Amazing, and that nine-year-old girls should continue writing the president.

Drew: Yes.

Zibby: I have a nine-year-old, so maybe we’ll do that today.

Drew: Good.

Zibby: Thank you so much.

Drew: Thank you very much. It was great to meet you. I hope I see you around at one of your reunions.

Zibby: Yes, yes. Take care. Buh-bye.

Drew: Excellent. Buh-bye.

Drew Gilpin Faust, NECESSARY TROUBLE- Growing Up at Midcentury

NECESSARY TROUBLE: Growing Up at Midcentury by Drew Gilpin Faust

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