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.