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May 11, 2011

Vol. 111, No. 12


Limits, still

Why do some women students settle for less?

Published in the May 11, 2011, issue

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been nervous. It turned out that President Tilghman, alarmed by the same dearth of female candidates for class president, already had asked a few others to do some investigating. When they turned up evidence to substantiate these concerns, she created a committee — the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership (SCUWL) — and charged it to explore them more fully. I was appointed to the committee, and during our year of research, I was not surprised to see myself in the women who spoke to us about shifting anxieties relating to gender and leadership. But I could not have predicted that our findings would lead me to question not just the subtly gendered norms that structured Princeton students’ existence, but the very conception of “success” after which I was supposed to be striving.  

Like many freshmen, I felt adrift during my first year of college. The shock of adjusting to an intense academic environment, combined with a culture of heavy drinking that seemed, for the most part, to structure the norm of casual sexual encounters, made me feel — as a woman in the Class of 2012 wrote on the SCUWL website — “lost, overwhelmed, objectified, and intimidated.” I longed for connections with upperclass women who would help me navigate this hostile social world, to the point where I considered joining a sorority, simply so I could feel like I was part of a community. Academically I felt anonymous, too, with few professors or preceptors whom I felt comfortable approaching. I went home for winter break and realized that something was wrong with the way that I was “adjusting” to Princeton. As a third-generation Princetonian, I had a keen sense of disappointment that I still felt like an outsider at the university where my parents met, while simultaneously, my family’s stake in Princeton kept my tenacity alive. After briefly flirting with transfer applications, I decided that if I was going to stay on campus and still keep my sanity, I needed to start speaking out about the elements of Princeton that made me so uneasy.

I founded organizations and sought out leadership roles, organizing events and conversations around issues of gender and sexuality. Suddenly, I was no longer anonymous: I had a respected if sometimes-controversial identity as a campus feminist activist. This was a mixed blessing; my activism could be a lonely enterprise, especially on a campus where the most moderate, conciliatory attempts to de-stigmatize “feminism” left me branded as a radical. But the real difficulty was that even as my self-confidence grew, I could not stop comparing myself to everyone else around me, and finding myself wanting. Emerging as a leader raised the stakes. With every success, I kept measuring myself by how much more I needed to do. I existed in a haze of e-mails and event-planning and academic anxiety, unwilling to forgive myself for being, well, imperfect. My work on the steering committee showed me, with stark clarity, that these feelings were not unique. This “intensity of self-effacement,” in the words of one alumna, seems to erode women’s confidence and dampen our willingness to take risks.

A similar exploration of college women’s leadership, conducted at Duke in 2003, used the phrase “effortless perfection” to describe a phenomenon that seemed to be equally ubiquitous at Princeton. Not only were women expected to be, as one undergraduate reported on the steering committee’s website, “pretty, sexy, thin, nice, and friendly,” we needed to make it look like we weren’t trying — that our impressive academic, extracurricular, and social achievements came naturally to us. Visibility as a leader worked in opposition to this model of success. We weren’t supposed to need or desire accolades, nor should we draw too much attention to ourselves. Since such a high standard of achievement was the norm, women seemed to have the sense that they could always do better.  

But something else was equally clear: This leadership problem, although it ­perhaps affected women more visibly, was bigger than the number of female Rhodes scholars. Unreachable ideals, projected by peers, as well as the sense that Princeton students must be “successful leaders,” shaped the fabric of men’s identities, too. Men were limited by a different set of expectations that encouraged them, like women, to be goal-oriented and individualistic. Just as women were expected to lead in particular ways, so were men; the difference was that for men, ambition and visibility — the normative values of “success” — were required, not discouraged. Neither ideal left much room for variation. I floundered until I realized that I needed to work not just toward a bright future for myself, but toward a community that would value me simply because I cared about my peers. And I was, surprisingly enough, very effective. Students responded to my insistence that everyone’s voice be heard, regardless of how much I personally disagreed with them. And although it was often difficult, I tried to stop holding myself to the highest possible standard, and instead applied that standard to my community.

My own role was hard to navigate. I learned that, above all, a woman leader on campus cannot be effective if she is not seen as “nice.” This was not a natural skill. I had to tamp down my anger and indignation at moments when I felt condescended to, and to learn to disagree without seeming hostile or aggressive. This kind of leadership was plainly gendered, and I may have conceded too much. For better or for worse, I learned to walk a crooked line, embracing the parts of myself that made me a generous, authentic leader. I was bolstered by the knowledge that I was speaking out because I genuinely cared, and was willing to suspend my own stake in order to include more voices. In other words, I started to become successful when I stopped caring about traditional conceptions of “success.”  

From the comfortable vantage point of my senior spring, though, it’s easy to assign motive where none existed. In many ways, becoming a leader was a survival mechanism, the only way to regain my fragmented sense of self. I always had been a feminist, and after the dizziness of my freshman year, calling for a community ethic was the only way that I could see to address the unquantifiable issues that seemed, in particular, to affect women, especially the gaping silences around eating disorders, mental health, and sexual assault. It was the gap between polished ideals and messy reality that led me to put self-discipline first and self-care last. I heard fears of inadequacy echoed by women throughout the steering committee process. Although they were, by their own admission, juggling tough academic loads, developing their extracurricular activities, and trying to sustain their friendships, relationships, and social lives, women were not demanding credit or visibility. Many needed encouragement before they saw themselves in prestigious fellowships or graduate schools, and that encouragement was lacking.

These, of course, are issues that extend beyond the orange bubble. In many ways, the women of my generation are haunted by our mothers’ successes and limitations. I know few women who have not thought about whether they would pause their career to raise a child, follow their partner to a foreign city, or postpone childbearing until the demands of the career ladder eased. I know even fewer women who have good answers to these questions. I am caught between the image of my parents telling me that I could be anything, and the realities of my young adulthood, in which I have struggled for four years to be the “right” kind of woman: articulate but not overbearing, feminine but not girly, accommodating but not spineless, and above all, nice, not angry, and not strident. I still wrestle with the silent postscript: If I can be anything, then I must be everything.

In the end, I had to reconsider what “success” meant. I wanted to be a guide as well as a visionary, exploring unknown territory without a linear goal. It took me four years to accept that this kind of leadership did, in fact, constitute “success.” My struggles have stemmed from trying to measure myself by an unattainable standard, one that happens to be different for men and women. The challenge is for Princeton to be the kind of place where neither gender nor an impossible ideal structures its students’ lives; where being breathtakingly busy is not the only marker of success; and where emotional health is not an indulgence, but a necessity.

In finding my voice at Princeton, I discovered a kind of leadership where sincer­ity, efficacy, and visibility were not incompatible. I can’t offer easy solutions to the steering committee’s report — and since my first steps outside FitzRandolph Gate in June will mark a beginning, not an end, I’m not going to try. What I know is that when I begin life outside the gate, I will strive to be a leader who creates an ideal, rather than letting an ideal shape me.
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7 Responses to Limits, still

Cris Perdue '73 Says:

2011-05-09 14:50:53

Congratulations! To both writers and on the report, good job. Professor Stansell, congratulations on surviving the first couple of years of coeducation at Princeton. I was a (male) member of the Class of '73 and was assigned to live in Pyne Hall, in one of the two entries allocated to men. So though I did not really meet women at Princeton until becoming an upperclassman, I did absorb some sense of what was going on, and it was intense. During the first week an undergraduate woman entered one of the dining halls and was "spooned," many men banging silverware on their plates. Just a tiny example, but it hopefully gives a bit of the flavor. Way too much attention for those poor coeds, and often not a good kind. Ms. Thomson-DeVeaux's comment about "a culture of heavy drinking that seemed, for the most part, to structure the norm of casual sexual encounters" kind of stopped me in my tracks; it reminded me so much of some behavior in my days, which I thought of as a mix of horniness with sometimes eagerness to take sexual and personal advantage. I also notice Professor Stansell's comments on the ubiquity of sexual harassment in the 1980s. When I arrived at Princeton in 1969 from the Midwest (followed by a summer-study program in Mexico), I was surprised how many students came from private prep schools, and by the dominance of the culture that seemed to come with them. It was a culture of economic and social privilege, and tended to go with personal values of striving for more of the same. The persistence of culture often impresses me, and at a place with as much tradition as Princeton, perhaps it should be no surprise. Comments in the summary of the report also ring true. In certain precepts a couple of students dominated discussion, and this surely is not proper. The remarks on the importance of a good start at Princeton seem right on target, and even fit with my experience of long ago. The question of what is success also shows up in various places in these pieces, and that is a great question. Also, what makes for a fine contribution or excellent service, and what can Princeton do more to recognize and support that? Thank you.

Stewart A. Levin '75 Says:

2011-05-13 09:19:41

In a "truth in advertising" moment, I forwarded the link to this article to a remarkable young lady currently on the Princeton wait list. I was surprised, albeit pleasantly, that she found it "... enlightening and refreshing - especially with Ms. Thomson-DeVeaux's grasp on what defines success and how she would create the ideal rather than letting the ideal create her. It's nice to know the kind of thoughts flowing at Princeton!"

Bill Flury '54 Says:

2011-05-16 09:31:08

Ms. Thomson De-Veaux reveals the secret when she says, "I know few women who have not thought about whether they would pause their career to raise a child, follow their partner to a foreign city, or postpone childbearing until the demands of the career ladder eased." True equality of opportunity will be achieved when the same statement (change childbearing to child rearing) can be made about men.

Michael Otten '63 Says:

2011-05-16 09:33:48

Women can and do lead differently, and from my perspective, "vive la difference!" The best "manager" I ever had was a woman, and it was precisely the non-aggressive, goals-oriented leadership that I valued most. It's time for our society to recognize that the old-style male leadership model leads to unfortunate excesses that ultimately undermine the long-term success of any societal organization. Current examples are the avaricious "leaders" in banking and Congress, some of whom may in fact bring the USA to its knees by encouraging non-productive use of our human resources, more concerned with mergers and acquisitions than creativity and productive growth.

Craig Hamilton '74 Says:

2011-05-20 15:41:32

I was a member of one of the first Princeton classes that included a significant number of blacks and women. I came from an overwhelmingly black high school. I was not only never comfortable at Princeton, I was virtually mute in precepts. While I met a few professors who made it clear they wanted me to succeed, only once in four years can I recall feeling encouraged to speak in a precept, and it was a classmate who encouraged me. I felt misunderstood by nearly everyone and inferior to absolutely everyone. (Many blacks at Princeton came from prep schools or integrated schools, and those who came from predominately black schools seemed to feel more confident than I did.) I mention all this because, despite all the problems I encountered, I never felt intimidated physically. I never felt physically unsafe. Clearly women at Princeton had another layer of problems beyond mine. I have always worked easily with people from diverse backgrounds. As a result, work at the University Store was the only place I routinely felt good about myself and the only place I excelled during these school years. Of course, I would never suggest that being the U-Store student manager compares in any way with success at Princeton academically or in terms of school leadership. But it is noteworthy that I addressed a pay disparity matter at the U-Store that made me unpopular with the store management, yet I persisted and prevailed. No telling how much better I would have performed academically at Princeton if I had not felt so uncomfortable all the time. It never occurred to me to attempt social interaction with anyone at Princeton except blacks. So here again, women at Princeton must have had more problems than I did, since presumably they would have had an expectation of a normal social life within the larger student body. I am extremely close to my daughter, and I was able to spend some time with her during her Princeton years, and we communicated regularly when I was not working nearby. As a result, I gained a better understanding of life for women there when she was a student than I had when I was in school. Some of what I learned was extremely troubling. I applaud Princeton for addressing these matters directly and thoroughly.

Linda Carroll '71 Says:

2011-05-23 10:09:19

The anthropological research shows that most men in most circumstances prefer a social bond with another male over a social bond with a female (there is a current popular saying that encapsulates that -- as it is vulgar, I will leave it to your imaginations). An accumulation of these decisions means that, for males, the male power structure provides many more advantages than those that can be obtained by a bond with a female (principally reproduction, and also assistance with life's chores, which is more critical at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale). Of course, for this same reason there are women who will align with the male power structure rather than with other women. Where the situation improves for relations between men and women, and therefore for women's status as a whole, is where there is significant group coherence, such that males feel that they are bonding with an entire social group or family composed of males and females. Translation for today: More cooperation and less competition will improve women's chances for high status. The more exaggerated the highs, the more males will assist other males in scaling them, and leaving women behind (encapsulated in the saying: He who dies with the most toys wins). The other important feature to cultivate is giving women during their adolescent years a place of their own. I arrived at Princeton in the fall of 1969 as a junior participant in the last Critical Languages group and was able to verify what many studies have shown -- that, by and large, women who had come from a women's high school or college had developed a stronger sense of social leadership. In some cases, that resulted in a fuller participation in the experience, though in others it seemed to result in greater distance from it, as it seemed so difficult for women to be able to lead at Princeton then. I agree that only when it is normal for males to consider the kind of career interruptions and redirections for family reasons that women already do, will there be true equality between men and women.

Nicole Velasco '08 Says:

2011-05-24 15:11:59

In many ways, I am the typical Princeton female: a high-achiever in secondary school who held many leadership roles until she got to Old Nassau. A superficial assessment yields evidence that my lack of leadership goals during my first year was the simple result of adjusting to college and needing to focus on my academic work. After further review, I recognized that the inherent campus social structure and deeply rooted ideals of antiquity (especially those regarding the behavior of women) were subconsciously knitted into my decision-making. Princeton is a patriarchal campus, perhaps for the very reasons (among many others) listed by Linda Carroll '71 (comments). Fueled by the ubiquitous desire to "get ahead," there is little wonder as to why a premium is placed on the male bond. For a prototypical tomboy like myself, social navigation required reflection. Torn between a desire to lead and a desire of social acceptance as a "Princeton female," I became a member of the Rockefeller College Council, a democratic body that would allow me to lead without limelight. Stansell's point about the "gender-recognition differential" underlying the gender-leadership differential was certainly at play. Though I had a heavy hand in the production of our large-scale events (a lu'au reminiscent of my home state, and a multi-band rock concert), I was able to mask my role with the appearance of the council. I was simply one of many. As the years passed, my high school fervor to lead waned and I grew more concerned about being socially palatable. By the end of my sophomore year, the concept of "effortless perfection" became second nature, thanks to the general sentiment of the campus. We all seemed to work hard, play harder, and not have a single hair out of place. Yet there was an additional thread in my social tapestry: I'm a female. Despite my tomboy tendencies and preference for male comrades, my gender affected the way I was received. In general, I had a great social life, but every now and again I would hear the phrase "rolling with the big boys" or some allusion to the fact that I was sidestepping my role as a "Princeton female." At one point, a friend of mine from a circle I affectionately named "The Dudes" confided in me and said, "You know, for the longest time we tried to figure out which one of us you wanted to hook up with. But then we realized you just wanted to hang out." Perhaps the solutions for gender disparities in the high status of campus leadership roles require a looking glass into the dining halls, the common rooms, the eating clubs, and in the very social lives of students. It is necessary to recalibrate the relationship between what Stansell calls "others' expectations" and "women's reticence." However, I'm not sure how best to disseminate information about the abstraction that is the female experience.
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Gender and leadership
Read the full text of the findings and recommendations of the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women's Leadership.