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The WSRP was founded in 1973 in response to the need to transform theological education to reflect the unprecedented presence of women as candidates for the ministry and students of religion. While women were first admitted to Harvard Divinity School only in 1955, they comprised a third of the student body by the mid-1970s and a majority of students by the early 1980s.
In its earliest years, the Program was directed by Brinton Lykes, the Coordinator of Women's Programs, who is now a Professor of Counseling and Developmental Psychology at Boston College. The Program assumed its current form as a research center under the leadership of former director Constance Buchanan. With funding from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the Program appointed its first full-time Research Associates in 1980. In 1995, the Program began a capital campaign to raise an endowment insuring that research on women will have a permanent place at Harvard Divinity School.
From 1977 to 1997 Constance Buchanan served as director of WSRP and associate dean of Harvard Divinity School. Under her leadership the Program secured funding from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and began a capital campaign to secure a permanent endowment. She went on to become the Ford Foundation's Program Officer in Education, Media, Arts, and Culture. She has primary responsibility for developing the Foundation's new initiative on religion as a cultural force in contemporary society. While at Harvard, Buchanan authored a book on women, religion and public life titled Choosing to Lead: Women and the Crisis of American Values (Beacon Press, 1986). The book argues that women have an important role to play in leading the nation out of its values crisis and explores the barriers—practical, historical, and, especially, moral—they must overcome to do so. She is the co-editor with Clarissa Atkinson and Margaret Miles of Shaping New Vision: Gender and Values in American Culture (UMI Research Press, 1987) and Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality (Beacon Press, 1985).