Constance Buchanan's Far-Reaching Impact

February 21, 2012
Constance Buchanan's Far-Reaching Impact
Brandeis Professor Bernadette Brooten, PhD ’82; Ann Braude, current WSRP director; and founding director Constance H. Buchanan. Photo: Tony Rinaldo

Vivid accounts of "lightbulb" and "aha!" moments are common when colleagues and friends describe the profound influence Constance Buchanan has had on them.

Buchanan, founding director of Harvard Divinity School's Women's Studies in Religion Program (WSRP), was a member of the faculty and associate dean of HDS from 1977 to 1997 and also served for six years as special assistant to Harvard President Derek Bok for his University-wide initiative on improving the quality of teaching and learning. During that time, she developed the WSRP into an internationally recognized center for research on women and religion. Described by others as visionary, but also pragmatic, she had the foresight to reach outside academia to find philanthropic women with passions and interests that intersected with the WSRP's mission, even though many of them had no direct Harvard connections.

One of those women was Michelle Clayman, the founder, managing partner, and chief investment officer of New Amsterdam Partners, an institutional money management firm in New York. When Buchanan approached her, Clayman says, "the lightbulb went on for me that this was the missing piece in the women's movement: a focus on religion. She showed me that you cannot study religion without studying women, and you cannot study women without studying religion. She also demonstrated that unrigorous religious interpretations can have devastating impacts on women."

Clayman has seen Buchanan's influence on others, as well.

"Connie has opened the eyes of many women leaders by connecting seemingly abstruse topics to the world we live in," Clayman said. 'She led many of us on our journeys of personal philanthropy—helping us to figure out what is important to each of us and why, and how to set about implementing our personal visions.'

In addition to finding the women who would support the WSRP, her success in building the program is also due to her 'unerring instinct for spotting up-and-coming scholars doing groundbreaking work on religion with an impact on contemporary life,' Clayman stressed.

Another donor to the WSRP program, Alicia Kershaw, a retired attorney and cofounder of The Women's Foundation, calls Connie Buchanan "my HERO!" She explains: "I met Connie when I was struggling to build a career in law, and raise a family. Though I had been exposed to religion extensively in my childhood, I found the church hypocritical and alienating. Connie laid out the connection between the church and the world in a way that made sense, and with a hope for change." After all, says Kershaw, "Connie had herself fought [patriarchal] forces to get the WSRP in place."

Though he remembers Buchanan mostly for the work she did with him focused on improving the quality of education at Harvard, former Harvard President Derek Bok remembers the same kinds of qualities.

"You had the utmost confidence in her sincerity of purpose and the extent of her dedication to the improvement of education," Bok said. "It was a pleasure to work with someone who shared the same values as I did. Intelligence and knowledge are important, but that inner commitment and dedication to the ultimate goal of education makes a decisive difference."

Arlene Hirschfield, a community leader in Denver charitable circles and another WSRP supporter, was also influenced by Buchanan's commitment to greater things, saying that meeting Buchanan was an "aha" moment in her own personal and philanthropic journey. Unqualified in her praise, Hirshfield exclaims, "Constance Buchanan has changed the world for scholarship and action for women."

Buchanan was honored at the recent WSRP National Leadership Conference, where she delivered an inspiring, challenging speech that set the tone for the weekend's discussions. At the conference, Clayman and Hirshfield were among a handful of participants who urged the group of philanthropists and activists to come together to support an effort to endow the WSRP directorship in Constance Buchanan's name.

Responding to this ongoing endeavor, Ann Braude, the current WSRP director, stressed that endowing the WSRP's research associate positions has been crucial to the continued success of the program. She expressed gratitude for the sustained support of the philanthropists, many of whom attended this year's conference, and reflected back their message: "You are telling me that you'd like to go further and do more."

While evidence is marshaled time and again to support the adage that "violence begets violence," Connie Buchanan's remarkable impact demonstrates the counteracting, positive effect of leaders like her: Vision begets vision. Many of the scholars and philanthropists whose imaginations she has sparked have gone on to do groundbreaking work in their respective fields.

—by Wendy McDowell