In March, a study group released its report about the underrepresentation of women among Princeton’s highest-profile undergraduate leadership positions and as recipients of the highest academic prizes. The gender disparity has existed for a decade – a marked contrast to earlier days of coeducation. PAW covered the study in its April 6, 2011, issue; for a link to the full report, click here.
PAW asked two Princetonians from different eras for their reactions to the study: Christine Stansell ’71, a scholar of women’s history at the University of Chicago who spent many years on the Princeton faculty; and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11, who this year shared the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize – Princeton’s highest undergraduate academic honor.
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Christine Stansell ’71 came to Princeton in 1969, the year undergraduate coeducation began. She returned to campus as a history professor in 1982 and helped to found the Program in the Study of Women and Gender, now called the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She was the Edwards Professor of American History when she left in 2007 to teach at the University of Chicago. Stansell’s most recent book is The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present (Modern Library, 2010).
This is a model report: lucid, thoughtful, well documented, easily digested. It’s exceptional at doing what reports are supposed to do: It explains a problem, documents an approach, and provides solutions that can be implemented easily. It maintains a balanced tone; neither lays blame nor obfuscates; nods respectfully toward counterarguments.
Still, there are bound to be skeptics. From one angle, announcing a problem about women and leadership could not come at a more surprising moment. The country has a formidable first lady from Princeton, and two Supreme Court justices are alumnae. We have the first female president among the Big Three Ivy universities and a college administration packed with accomplished, powerful women. It’s a vivid tableau of women as leaders.
But to scores of others — faculty, alums, current undergraduates — the report will come as old news. Women have a problem at Princeton, and it never goes away. It’s diffuse, elusive, and tenacious. True, it waxes and wanes, and the definition and intensity change over time. In the early years, it was the sheer absence of women students that seemed to be the issue; in the 1980s, it was the ubiquity of sexual harassment, ranging from actionable aggression to loutish male behavior. Attitudes on Prospect Street often were blamed: the early exclusion of women from clubs, the retrograde stereotypes of feminine behavior that lingered, the shameful treatment of women in bicker.
To this murmur of undergraduate complaint over the years has to be added the chronic grievances of women graduate students and faculty — at the low numbers of women in whole departments, at the veiled expectations that worked against them (men talk, women ask intelligent questions), at the depressing patterns of hiring and promotion that mysteriously, inexplicably, favored men. The uneasiness existed despite everything: despite an admirable woman president, and the luminous women among the alums, and the overwhelming satisfaction of Princeton women with their education, and the appearance of at least a token woman or two in the tenured ranks of every single department over the last 40 years.
And still the old order insinuates itself: men up front, women behind the scenes. Men at the top, women somewhere else. Men operating for public recognition, women for personal satisfaction. Men are presidents, women are vice presidents. Where do the rules come from? And who enforces them? Why in the world should Princeton women have to be “poised, witty, and smart — but not so witty or smart as to be threatening to men,” as the report paraphrases undergraduates? In 2011 we shouldn’t have to ask the question.
Whatever the sources of the problem, it’s not overt sexual discrimination, at least on the academic end of things. Female students have female professors, and deal with female deans, and walk into classrooms where, more than likely, they will not be alone. They are not likely to be told that a woman doesn’t belong in any field that is taught at Princeton. There are no campus institutions barred to women, including the eating clubs. Half of each entering class is female — a fundamental change from 1970, when an administrator said that the University was pledged to preserving a male majority; in the future, he said, at most a third of any class would be women. That quota crumbled long ago.
But those were the old days, when women’s restrooms were as scarce as hen’s teeth, and the faculty had one tenured woman. Those times are long past, an antique history, banished by changes in American society but also by thousands of people who worked in large ways and small to make a different kind of university. The ranks included men, from the very beginning. Male undergraduates in the late 1960s did much to inspire the Patterson Report, Princeton’s 1968 study that brought on coeducation: A substantial body of students, when polled, firmly called for change, stating that they would not even encourage a younger brother to come to Princeton, so backward did they consider their all-male environment. Looking back over this long history, packed with good will, noble intentions, and solid successes, it’s dispiriting then to come upon a student’s description of a campus that “otherizes” women. The sentiment could come straight from 1969, although the language and the perception that something is wrong are far more cutting than any of the plucky, cheerful crew of coeds could have had back then.
In many ways, the pressures the report describes make up a much broader reality. If female mentorship is the answer, then we must be honest about what truths those mentors are going to convey. The world is not closed to talented women, but it is stingy with them, and it gets stingier the higher you go. The campus that envelops these young men and women has yet to become a place that demonstrates how different things can be. Regardless of well-meaning efforts and professed commitments, women still are a minority on the faculty. There is one child-care center, and it dates to 1969. Motherhood is a minefield in negotiating tenure. By my rough, quick count, a third of the department heads are female, and only a dismaying 15 percent of endowed chairs. Whole departments and scholarly areas still are deserts for tenured women. In this, Princeton is little different from its peer institutions. But then, Princeton should be the best place in the country for women, of whatever stage and status.
Necessary Dreams, psychiatrist Anna Fels’ brilliant book about young women and ambition, begins with the psychologists’ insight that the acquisition of mastery — including the desire to lead — requires an audience as well as a goal. A child does not learn to walk by herself; she does it in response to encouragement, smiles, and approbation. The cheering chorus follows girls through high school, urging them on in the big game, the science competition, the class election, and the term paper on Moby Dick. But then the volume of cheering drops, and anxious voices, internal and external, begin to pipe up. Will you have a life? A family? What about children? Can you really work? Or, can you really stay home to raise a family? Will you ever fall in love, anyway? Don’t you want too much?
Writing in 2004, Fels located this moment in women’s mid-20s. But this report makes me wonder if there has been a downward drift. Clouds of fearfulness about the future float over American campuses, and diminishing expectations seem to be hitting even the fortunate undergraduates of Princeton. The younger sisters of women who in the 1990s were feisty and determined in the face of belittlement seem to be battening down the hatches. Young men, too, are worried. But at this level of Ivy League achievement, young men are raised to lead, and they tend to press on, regardless. Young women go into the default mode, making do with second best — since it looks like the world is going to deal it out anyway. There are too many people, young and old, who give them the message that it’s just fine to aim for less.
My point is that the “gender-recognition differential” underlies the gender-leadership differential, and that it is driven by others’ expectations as well as women’s reticence. For an illustration, here’s a thought experiment. Flip around this report’s data, and imagine the mounting fuss if there had been only one male Undergraduate Student Government president in the previous decade, or if only one-third of the Pyne Prizes awarded went to men. When would the discussion have started? Long before now, I wager. That’s how much we recognize our need to have men excel. That’s how little we count on women to step up.
Women students are like canaries in the mineshaft, delicate barometers of the state of the universities. Their entrance into the great bastions of male learning was critical to the wave of democratization that gave many of us, including me, the best educations the world had to offer — despite being the wrong sex, or race, or from the wrong kind of family. When they stop singing, everyone is in trouble.May the report spur parents, teachers, boyfriends, classmates, and fellow spirits to re-energize the chorus. This university can be a liberated zone for women; it is precious precisely because it is different from the world in ways that allow women to thrive. There is no housework to burden them, no child care, no pay differential; they can walk around at night; they can study what they want; they can write about the most subversive ideas with a claim on the attention of their teachers and classmates. We want them to use this time to kick up their heels and take the jumps — to want and do more, not less. But the burden should not be on them — they do enough already, everything we ask of them and more. It’s up to the rest of us. We owe it to them. More important, we need everything they have to offer.
By Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11 is concentrating in religion, and pursuing a certificate in gender and sexuality studies. She is a co-winner of the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize.
I entered Nassau Hall for the first time on a bright, cold day in the fall of my junior year. The click of my high heels ricocheted through the entrance hall as I walked with some trepidation toward President Tilghman’s office. Folded in my bag was a copy of an op-ed that I had written for The Daily Princetonian a few days earlier, noting that out of the seven freshmen who had advanced their names for their class presidency, none were women.
This was, for me, a visible symbol of a more nebulous problem: Men and women seemed to construe their leadership roles and, indeed, their campus identities differently. The issues that concerned me were subtle and difficult to articulate, but I had decided to bring them to President Tilghman because they reflected my own experience, both as a female student and a leader.