Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action

It was 1968, and I had applied to graduate schools in the field of French literature. Someone from Tufts University—a male dean or department chair, I can’t remember—called to say the faculty had accepted my application. In fact, he chatted on, they had wanted to award me a National Defense Education Act fellowship (of which they had just one or two), but since I was a woman, they feared I might “go off and get married” without finishing my degree, and so they had given the fellowship to a nun.

Debating affirmative action in the United States today, it helps to keep in mind how we once lived in this greatest of all meritocracies. More than half the population—women (including nuns) and “minority men”—rarely had equal opportunity; some never had a fighting chance. But when sufficient social pressure forced the federal government to consider leveling the playing field, the struggle over how to do that began.

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Lima