Life stories from Drew Faust, Howard Gardner, Annette Gordon-Reed, Martin Karplus, Toshiko Mori, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, and many more, in the Experience series.
Jane Mansbridge, Ph.D. ’71, a political scientist and one of the world’s most prominent scholars of democratic theory, came to the field that “helps citizens better govern themselves” almost by accident. Born in New York City and raised in Weston, Conn., she graduated from Wellesley College in 1961, and following a bumpy experience as a graduate student in Harvard’s History Department, turned to government. Cambridge then was awash in protests over women’s rights, Civil Rights, and the war in Vietnam, and Mansbridge became involved in the folk music scene, co-ops, various collectives, and women’s organizations. After receiving her doctorate she taught at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University before returning to Harvard as a faculty member in 1996. In 2018, she was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, known as the Nobel Prize in the field, for “having shaped our understanding of democracy in its direct and representative forms, with incisiveness, deep commitment and feminist theory.” Mansbridge is the Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where she is a popular and highly respected teacher.
GAZETTE: Where did you grow up? As you were growing up, what world event made a big impact on you?
MANSBRIDGE: I grew up in a small town in Connecticut that is now home to many rich people, but when I was growing up it was decidedly mixed-class. My graduating class from middle school had just 25 kids, only one of whom was from a professional-class family, although three or four more were from upper-middle-class families. Several of my classmates were from a neighboring town that in that era was a poor factory town, and they had bad teeth and poor health. One had needed crutches all her life. One was illiterate until sixth grade.
My high school was bigger, but I was bullied in high school for being bookish and a smart girl. That left me with a vivid realization that not everyone liked the kind of person I was or the values I had. The experience may have contributed to my later drive to find out more about people who were not like me.
World events were not as important to my life as the people in my life. My father had a great impact on me. He had left England, a country he loved, because he hated its class system. He passed on to his children his love for American egalitarian ideals — not that we live in an equal country by any manner of means, although we were closer to a more equal country at the time when I was growing up.
GAZETTE: What books did you enjoy reading growing up?
MANSBRIDGE: I just loved everything. I read every book on horses in the school library. I lived in the country, and I didn’t have any friends nearby, and I read lots and lots of things in my parents’ bookcases, most of which were above my comprehension. I remember I brought a magazine from school that had some sexy stuff in it. My mother was very disapproving, and she said, “Well, if you want to read things about sex, you should read James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’” I did, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I kept asking, “Where’s the sexy part?” [Laughs.]
GAZETTE: Can you talk more about your parents, and your experience of being bullied in school?
MANSBRIDGE: My mother was a full-time mother, and my father started Cambridge University Press in the United States. They were both enthusiasts; my mother loved traveling, and my father loved books. They both conveyed to me that in the best world, you can get tremendous excitement from your work, that you can love what you do. Not that I thought I could get such work. I didn’t have any professional goals, but I did pick up the possibilities.
As for being bullied in school, it all happened because I was chosen by a group of Westport artists who were asked to pick a “homecoming queen” at a high school dance. I guess I looked like the quintessential American girl. They put a crown on my head, and the band played. It was all wonderful. Until the next day, when I walked down the hall, and they called me “Queenie,” and I became an object of derision. That continued even after I went away to a school in Switzerland for six months in my junior year of high school. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they scraped together the money to send me away to school for that short period. They didn’t let on they knew I was being bullied, but I think that was the reason why they did it. I’m sure I didn’t say anything to my parents about what was happening to me. When I came back, I realized I hadn’t escaped it by going away, because the bullying continued. My desire was really just not to be noticed. Then I went to college and never again did I feel that weight of otherness. But it left me with a weariness and an appreciation of the power of people who don’t think you’re one of them.
But I don’t want to downplay the positive experiences of my childhood. I went to church every Sunday. I was in the choir. When we went away on vacation, we would go to new churches and bellow out the hymns. My dad was much taller than me, and I would sing standing next to him. I only let myself sing loud when he was singing because his voice was much louder than mine, and it drowned me out. That way, I got both wonderful things: I got to sing loud, but also nobody could hear me … I loved growing up in a small town.