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Feb.24, 2010

Vol. 110, No. 9

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Forty years of undergraduate women at Princeton: Women and gender studies in the classroom and feminist activism on campus

By Jill Dolan, Professor of English and Theater and Director, Program in the Study of Women and Gender
Posted on February 24, 2010

(The following is an abridged version of an Alumni Day lecture Feb. 20, 1010.)

I’m delighted to be here today, speaking on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of coeducation at Princeton. I’m relatively new to the faculty — I was hired in fall ’08, jointly appointed in the English department and in the brand-new Lewis Center for the Arts, where I’m a professor of theater. In summer ’09, I was asked to direct the Program in the Study of Women and Gender. That the 40th anniversary of coeducation at Princeton coincided with my appointment to the program is a happy accident.

What I’d like to do this morning is several-fold. First, I want to remind you of the history of women at Princeton, and to propose that 40 years of coeducation really isn’t a very long time, in the scheme of an institution that is itself 264 years old. What might be gained from reminding ourselves that women’s presence on campus is relatively recent? Might we see the current status of female students as part of the institution’s continuing evolution, instead of as an “arrival” that we can celebrate periodically and then proceed to take for granted?

Second, I’d like to propose that the establishment of coeducation at Princeton was the yield of many years of activist agitation and political preparation by women who in the late ’60s and early ’70s were proud to call themselves feminists. From what I’ve read of this history, these women — who were graduate students and faculty members — saw their efforts as intensely political, as a way to redress the history of their exclusion from an elite institution. Insisting on women’s right to an Ivy League education required myth-busting facts and arguments generated by what was then a nascent “women’s liberation” movement. Such activism — then, as now — was not for the faint of heart.

The third section of my talk this morning reflects on the current status of women students and women’s studies here at Princeton, bringing us from celebrating women’s arrival as University citizens to regarding our present circumstances, alongside the changing fortunes of women’s studies as a discipline and feminism as a social movement. An opportunity to look back is useful only, it seems to me, if it provides a perspective from which to look forward.

So, first, let’s recall the salient milestones around the admission of women to Princeton in 1970 and the subsequent formation of women’s studies as an academic field. The first female graduate student was admitted to the University in 1961, while the first Ph.D. granted to a woman was given to a biochemistry grad student in 1964. By 1967, the University’s trustees had established a committee to “investigate the desirability and feasibility of coeducation” at Princeton (11, Transforming the Tiger: A Celebration of Undergraduate Women at Princeton University). A great deal of controversy surrounded the committee’s work, and alumni didn’t hesitate to share their negative opinions about women’s place at Princeton. Some administrators worried that men would stop applying if women were admitted or, worse, that “alumni would stop giving if Princeton admitted women undergraduates” (15, TT). One alumnus, in 1969, told Princeton’s chairman of annual giving that “For my money, Princeton should be — and forever remain — an institution for White, Male, Christians (preferably, Scotch Presbyterians)” (17, TT). Nonetheless, on April 21, 1969, the trustees voted to begin accepting applications from undergraduate women that fall.

The going wasn’t easy for many of these young female pioneers. One reported that she found herself “the only girl in most of my classes … At the beginning of the year, I couldn’t help thinking whenever I said something that I was representing all coeds, or even all women.” A woman of color in the Class of ’73 (the first class to enter and the first to graduate) said, “I can distinctly remember a physics professor who invited me to fry him some chicken once” (29, TT). Very quickly, however, women established their intellectual force in the classroom and in campus life. Swept up in the feminist zeitgeist and inspired by the presence of women undergrads, women faculty began teaching courses that addressed gender issues.

Shortly after coeducation was adopted at Princeton, women faculty and students began advocating for the establishment of a women’s studies program. After all, the University’s refusal to admit women represented only one strain of the national exclusions, oversights, and sometimes downright abuses that American women suffered, not only in education, but in politics, the arts, at home, in the law, and across public and private life. The women’s studies programs beginning to form all over the U.S. in the early- to mid-’70s argued their necessity by pointing to the gendered power imbalance propagated at the very sources of knowledge and social life: the family, heterosexual relationships, the economy, and history. To redress this gendered lopsidedness required a separate study of women and a deliberate focus on how gender culturally determines social and even biological destiny.

The weight of tradition in a place like Princeton, however, can be quite a burden. The women faculty on campus, especially, who fought for the right to admit women and for the establishment of women’s studies as a legitimate, separate course of study, risked alienating their colleagues and administrators, who would deliberate on their tenure and promotions. The lines between those with and without power were drawn very clearly, the consequences very material and very real. Nonetheless, stories about this period in Princeton’s history are rife with anecdotes about wily women faculty who worked tirelessly to lay the political groundwork that would facilitate a positive faculty vote in favor of creating such a unit. In 1982, founding director Kay Warren, a professor of anthropology, was appointed and the Women’s Studies Program began. Seventeen years later, in 1999, its name was changed to the more broad-based Program in the Study of Women and Gender.

I should remind you all of just one more piece of the activist history of women at Princeton in the ’70s and ’80s. The eating clubs lagged behind the University in admitting women to their membership. In 1979, three eating clubs (Ivy, Tiger, and Cottage) remained all male, which prompted an undergraduate woman — the forever infamous Sally Frank ’80 — to file a sex discrimination complaint. Not until 1991, however, after 11 years of bickering (no pun intended) between the courts and the University, were women admitted to Tiger Inn, the last club to lift its ban on coed membership. The backlash against Frank and the women who followed her activist lead was gruesome: The book Transforming the Tiger: A Celebration of Undergraduate Women at Princeton University, from which I’ve drawn much of the history I’m sharing with you today, records that “A man spat at Frank at Reunions in 1985. At the 1986 reunion, a T-shirt displaying Frank’s face was worn and sold; her face on these shirts was marred with a mustache, and the shirts read ‘Frankbuster’ [no doubt after the movie Ghostbusters, which was released in 1984] and had the slogan ‘Better Dead Than Co-Ed.’ ” Emotions clearly ran high in the face of female students’ activism toward their own campus equality.

What has happened to women students, women’s studies, and women’s campus activism since the victorious battles of the 1970s and ’80s? What’s the present status of women on the Princeton campus, and how can we even begin to assess it, now that women make up a solid half of the student population and, theoretically, at least, are fully enfranchised at the University? A few recent events might be bellwethers for women’s current place on Princeton’s campus. For example, last fall, when elections were held for student government offices and for the leadership of campus eating clubs, the utter lack of women on those slates was a glaring absence. Junior Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux editorialized in the Daily Prince that the lack of women willing to step up for election to leadership positions stemmed from a central gender conflict. On the one hand, women students’ social interactions on “the Street” require a certain set of “feminine” gender performances. On the other hand, people assume that campus leaders are “aggressive, confiden[t], … and proactive” — attributes conventionally considered “masculine.” Thomson-DeVeaux editorialized, “Princeton women don’t lack confidence, but social confidence is reaffirmed by inherited notions of femininity, which are difficult to reconcile with and translate to academic confidence. … for women.” She continued, “The path to social success is to adopt a mode of femininity that begs different qualifications than the ones required to compete academically. … [T]he more traditionally female women act, the less qualified for leadership they appear in the eyes of their peers, because the leader we envision is gendered male.” In its own editorial the following day (Nov. 18, 2009), the Daily Prince board also called attention to the fact “that almost none of the top, most visible positions in student activities at Princeton are filled by females.”

This startling fact led President Tilghman to convene a group of women faculty and staff to discuss the issue, and to determine what might be done to ameliorate the situation. This meeting was eye-opening for me, since as a new member of the faculty, I’m not familiar with students’ campus social lives. I knew even after three semesters of teaching at Princeton that the students are impressively smart, and that my female students are as good as the men. In other words, I didn’t really notice a gender difference in students’ participation in class, or in the work they turned in for grading.

Given my impressions, at the preliminary meeting President Tilghman convened of what this semester became the working group on women’s leadership, I was shocked at anecdotes people shared about how women students navigate their social lives, and ended the night embarrassed by my own navet. How could I imagine that by virtue of their admission to Princeton, these talented young women would somehow be kept safe from the sexism that continues to plague American culture? University campuses, after all, are proving grounds, where social norms tend to be rigid and implicit, and the costs for diverging quite high. Ask any gay or lesbian student what it means to reject what queer theory calls “heteronormativity,” which proposes that heterosexuality is the enforced social norm. How silly of me to think that the intellectual equity for women and LGBT students I find in my classrooms might translate to social equality in the rest of their on campus lives.

My own assumptions were debunked when I heard stories at that preliminary women’s leadership task force meeting about women students dressing up in outfits of identical styles and fashions to promenade down “the Street” on Thursday and Saturday evenings, sartorial uniforms meant to attract what those of us in feminist theatre and film studies used to call “the male gaze.” The male gaze presumes that women are constructed by society to be looked at as objects, rather than to act as subjects. Some feminists now boast that they’re proud of this objectification, which they see as a choice that’s under their control. Chronologically older feminists — myself among them — felt exploited by the male gaze, objectified by cat calls and wolf whistles and by the general cultural presumption that women’s bodies were fair game for male assessment and public commentary.

Many scholars distinguish feminism in “waves” of history. The first wave of American feminists was suffragists who agitated for the right to vote, which women finally received in 1920. The second wave appeared in the late ’60s, prompted by the persistent misogyny of the radical Left during the so-called sexual revolution. The third wave of U.S. feminism is represented by women like Jessica Valenti, who executive-edits the Feministing blog; its tag line reads, “ Young women are rarely given the opportunity to speak on their own behalf on issues that affect their lives and futures. Feministing provides a platform for us to comment, analyze, influence and connect.” Some third-wave feminists distinguish themselves from second-wavers by insisting, for example, that they take pleasure from dressing in sexualizing outfits, and find it fun and flattering when men are seduced by their powerful, self-generated female sexuality.

I get this, and even respect it. But when Amada Sandoval, the director of Princeton’s Women’s Center, at our exploratory meeting with President Tilghman, showed this flier, I was appalled.

Post Comments
7 Responses to Coeducation and its lessons

Luther Munford '71 Says:

2010-02-24 18:28:29

The odd thing is that women had very little to do with Princeton deciding to admit them. It was not done in response to female protest or even overt criticism. Rather, it was done based on a belief by men that Princeton would be a better place if women were included. That unbalanced motive may have been the source of some of the initial problems my female classmates encountered. Once coeducation happened, of course, the women who came to Princeton sealed the deal. In particular, the dynamite women in the Class of 1973, the first to spend four years at Princeton, made it quickly impossible to think of Princeton in any way other than as a coed institution.

Martin Lapidus '62 P'96 '98 Says:

2010-02-25 09:39:58

Professor Dolan states, "Second, Id like to propose that the establishment of coeducation at Princeton was the yield of many years of activist agitation and political preparation by women who in the late 60s and early 70s were proud to call themselves feminists." I'd like to propose that Professor Dolan look into how much President Robert F. Goheen '40 *48 did in the early and mid-1960s paving the way for coeducation at Princeton.

Emily Winerock '99 Says:

2010-02-25 09:45:17

The Colonial party theme reminds me of the infamous party at Tower Club in my day, "Stocks and Bondage: Dress for Success or Dress for Duress." However, as I recall, whether one wore linen or leather depended less on one's gender, than on one's wardrobe (or the desire to augment it with a shopping expedition to "the Village" in NYC).

Evangeline Su '99 Says:

2010-02-25 12:04:20

I remember finding that clash at Princeton and being troubled by it, because I grew up in a very sheltered environment where I ran into very little of that. After I left Princeton and moved to the Midwest, I found this contrast between power/achievement success and social success to be more acute and prevalent than what I'd seen at Princeton. The issue is a core problem in American society at large. If you look at sociological studies of gender equality and think about how and why for example Sweden or the Netherlands have a higher level of actual gender equality, part of it is financial compensation, but part of it is that if you look at advertising -- women with average bodies are portrayed. Swimsuit and clothing ads in the US are women with very idealized body shapes. I've seen ads from Sweden where very normal-looking people are used and was fascinated that I noticed immediately the woman's non-American-model body shape. I remember about 4 years back there was a poll of undergrads at Princeton asking how many guys looked at pornography. The number was very high, and I think it was published in the campus newspaper. I thought then when I read it that if I were on campus reading that, I'd feel intimidated about going to class, start worrying about what I was wearing, and stop thinking about my academic work. If Professor Dolan and this campus committee can do anything to help women out of this paradoxical existence, I'm all for it.

Stewart A. Levin '75 Says:

2010-03-08 09:29:50

As it happens, I was in the audience at Prof. Dolan's Alumni Day presentation and have since ordered a copy of the "Taming the Tiger" book. The Colonial Club party theme was, of course, in execrable taste. As I said to Jill afterwards, free speech has its consequences and I trust CC will see some. However, the discussion I said I would have loved to see is if in that advertisement, the CEO picture had been, say, Andrea Jung and the Hoes had been the Triangle Club drag pic. Would that still have been considered offensive and propagating the same gender role stereotypes?

Robin Herman '73 Says:

2010-03-10 09:15:03

I agree (as usual) with my friend Luther Munford. Reports show clearly that Princeton's decision to admit women was strictly a competitive consideration, i.e. the University was losing top male applicants to co-ed colleges (significantly, Yale had just announced it was taking women). Also, to get the dates straight, Princeton decided in April 1969 to accept the applications of women that had been submitted earlier - in February 1969. We set foot on the campus in Sept. 1969 -- three weeks after Woodstock. Times were a-changin'.

Sharon Westerlund Alve Libby Davis '73 Says:

2010-05-11 15:39:52

I love 2010. Sonya, Michelle, and Elena Kagan. Just proves it was worth the struggle in 1969. The first letter I received as a member of the Class of 1973 was an invitation to join the sex commune based on the Harrad Experiment. I thought most men would be English majors like Garrison Keillor or seminarians headed for Princeton Theological Seminary. Was I a naive farm girl from upstate NY? Yes!! But I'm also the granddaughter of smart Finnish immigrant farmers and foresters. This is the first week in 40 years that I've told my community that I indeed graduated from Princeton. Way to go, ladies and gentlemen of the '70s. Sharon Kaija Alve '73
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CURRENT ISSUE: Feb.24, 2010
To view a video of Professor Jill Dolan's Alumni Day talk on 40 years of coeducation at Princeton, click here.