(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 naïveté. 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.  

“CEO’s and Ho’s” indeed! (Even though, ironically, and I don’t think intentionally, “ho’s” is spelled like the garden implement, instead of like the prostitute.) Where is the power and control in such a representation for an 18- to 22-year-old young woman? Why are men represented as professionalized and powerful, while women appear to be sexualized for men’spleasure? What does it mean that this is an invitation to weekend socializing at an eating club? What’s a young woman supposed to think when she lifts her head from her books and finds an invitation to a party in which she’s supposed to assume the position — in all senses of that phrase — of the “ho” while her fellow male students posture as would-be (will-be) CEOs?

I hear myself sounding indignant, and I can anticipate some of your righteous responses. Where is my sense of humor? I must just be a strident, man-hating lesbian feminist. (And let me say for the record that I am a lesbian and I am a feminist, but I’m hardly strident or man-hating, and I’m known to have a pretty good sense of humor.) I can hear some of you saying, “These fliers are all in good fun. They’re invitations to parties, after all, not to career seminars. Everyone knows this is a joke.” Well, do we? Does everyone know? Do you know? How much can young women withstand bombardment by images like these without feeling their self-esteem knocked down just a peg or two? Or three?  

When I began my career as a feminist theatre and performance critic, my effort, and those of like-minded colleagues, was to examine “images of women” similar to these. Many of us noticed that generally, in cultural narratives put onstage or into film and television, women were consigned to appear as virgins, mothers, or whores. As the field grew and our methods became more sophisticated, feminist performance theorists proposed that we needed to look not just at images of women, but at the whole meaning-making apparatus of theatre and film, or “representation,” as it was defined more broadly. If, for example, the “gaze” really was male, how could female characters, performers, and spectators wrest that power of active looking into their own hands? We argued that the gaze doesn’t have to be male, but suggested instead that it’s been corrupted by a historical and ideological binary gender dynamic that can be changed.

Consider the famous drag kicklines, for only one example, in the annual Triangle Club performances. First begun at Princeton in 1899, when all women’s roles in the single-sex college were played by men, the drag tradition was established when there were no actual women at Princeton. The all-male kickline promoted a male-generated idea of women. The men performed (as they continue to do) with over-done makeup, unwieldy high heels, and outsized polyester wigs never meant to hide the fact that the kickline was comprised of men. The number did more to underline women’s absence on campus than it did to encourage them to be present. In an all-male atmosphere of randy fun, the kickline was an in-joke of men among men, similar to the drag roles performed in Shakespeare’s plays before women were allowed back on the English stage. The drag roles and the kickline weren’t meant to represent real women, but simply to hold a place for men’s parodic idea of women, freighted with the constructions and presumptions of the culture of the moment.

By contrast, 40 years after Sue-Jean Lee ’70 became the first woman performer in the Triangle Club, in this year’s performance, called Store Trek, a woman played the protagonist — the main character and therefore the lead — for the first time in the production’s history. Although she might not have been the strongest character in the history of theatre, she focused spectators’ experience of the story, as the plot proceeded through her eyes and from her point of view. And in another rare occurrence, the female lead in the musical performance wasn’t tied to a male romantic partner. Her role in the play’s universe was to achieve social justice for exploited laborers at a Wal-Mart-like corporation. Against the backdrop of a story in which a strong woman character took action throughout the show — and in which her activism saved the day — and since a woman performer essentially carried the show, the ubiquitous, signature Triangle drag kickline meant something very different. The male performers donning women’s clothing and wigs and kicking up their heels in a synchronized show of “performed femininity” couldn’t quite parody the absence or ineffectualness of women onstage (or at Princeton). Instead, in fact, the number lampooned the men a bit, in all their narrative powerlessness in Store Trek.  

I’ve digressed to the theatre (which is really where I live) simply to underline that representations like the “CEO/ho” party invitation flier aren’t just “good” or “bad,” nor are they “innocent.” That is, I’m not suggesting that this is a “bad” image that hurts women when they see it (although it might). I am suggesting that fliers like these create a climate in which women at Princeton live and, as such, the image is complicit in social structures imbued with power. Fliers like these are symbolic of an environment in which students “hook up,” and in which disposable relationships proceed along rather retrograde gender lines. Just like everything else at a university, the flier is pedagogical; it teaches female students at Princeton what their “rightful” place should be not just in the local hierarchy, but in the political and corporate power structure the flier represents.

How, then, can we analyze and perhaps dismantle the social implications of the party invitation? Is there a direct line between women’s participation in campus leadership and the ubiquity of fliers like this one? That is, if more women were in structural positions of authority and power, might their actions in campus government and on the social scene make fliers like these anachronistic and crude, symbols of the final death throes of a once all-male culture threatened by powerful women? Honestly, it’s hard to say, since we never know how exactly representations are interpreted and understood.  

Here’s another example of this conundrum and the kinds of influence representations have on public life: a cartoon published in the Daily Prince on Feb. 9, with a graph depicting what “college girls” “freak out” about, in ascending order of importance, from writing their JPs (relatively insignificant) to friends having babies (worthy of the dire OMG!). The comments the cartoon elicited on the Prince’s Web site reveal exactly the range of attitudes about women and gender I’m trying to parse here, from simple exclamations of how funny the reader found the image, to a measured critique of its retrograde gender presumptions.

One of the more disturbing things about these on-line retorts is that the posters almost uniformly call Princeton female students “girls” instead of “women.” When I was in college in the ’70s, at the height of second-wave feminism, we deliberately trained ourselves to call one another “women,” since a central feminist gesture was to rename the parts of our experience that had been trivialized, including what we were called.  

I realize that reclaiming the word “girl,” similar to how gays and lesbians resuscitated the word “queer,” is a gesture of empowerment that in part derives from the Riot Grrrl punk movement of the early 1990s. But at issue is language. Even the word “feminist” is verboten now, and used more often as a slur than a compliment.  

Isn’t this cartoon, then, analogous to the CEO/ho party invitation? Isn’t it another salvo in the bombardment of Princeton women with representations of themselves as more preoccupied with marriage and babies and pleasing men than with scholarship and their professional futures? What’s the cumulative effect on a campus whose visual landscape inculcates such meanings? Where can students on campus learn to read these representations critically, so that they can tease out their implications, refuse their meanings, and engage in a dialogue about why they’re so pernicious? Without an audible discourse about feminism to back them up, I’d propose it takes a deep store of personal resources to respond resistantly.        

And sadly, after U.S. women’s liberation and the feminist movement of the ’70s and ’80s that in part helped establish women’s studies programs and women’s student advocacy centers on campuses around the country, the activist movement off campus has faltered badly, its claims and energies becoming much more single-issue focused and often much less visible. And while I know that the feminist presence online is crucial for the current generation of students, the visual landscape of most American colleges and universities is barren when it comes to the physical, material signs of feminist activism. We used to see familiar symbols of feminist solidarity all over campuses’ visual landscapes.

The popular playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who visited Princeton more than once during her tragically abbreviated life and career — she died of lymphoma in 2006 — created a character called Heidi Holland in her most famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Heidi Chronicles. Heidi is a feminist art historian, who moves from the feminist activist movement to the academy and finds herself, at the play’s crisis, perplexed about her circumstances. She visits her alma mater, and delivers a speech that asks women, “Where have we been? And where are we going?” Her question often haunts me as I think about the future of women, feminism, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. “Where have we been and where are we going” encapsulates research on women in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The earlier recovery project has told us quite a lot about where we’ve been, things we never before knew about women’s contribution to knowledge and culture.

But where we are going remains an open question. What’s the utility of studying women and gender and sexuality as an endeavor institutionally distinct from other fields? How does what we do remain not only unique, but necessary to the University’s project? What is the future of women’s studies, along with feminist campus social activism? I would propose, at least provisionally, that its future lies in its ability to be the center of productive, incisive critique, a place where those of us now more or less enfranchised in the University can continue to trouble our status and our participation in the production of knowledge, ever aware of the vicissitudes of gendered structures of power.

Feminist scholars have worked hard to make the analytical tools of gender studies, sexuality studies, and critical race studies available to colleagues and students alike in ways that have revolutionized knowledge. I came into my own professionally as a feminist critic, and while that name described most precisely my perspective on theatre, it seems to me that any feminist scholar or student has an obligation to maintain a critical role vis-à-vis the institutional, social, and cultural contexts in which we move. I don’t mean, by “critic,” that we should roam around Princeton and its environs chronicling all the demeaning party invitations. I don’t mean that we should just seek out evidence of women’s victimhood. In fact, I find “critic” a generative term, one that implies that we can avail ourselves of keen and astute intellectual tools to interpret culture — on campus and off — from a perspective that asks what it means for anyone who for whatever reason is not fully enfranchised under its rules and laws — and even what it means for those who are. Feminist critics can lend their idiosyncratic visions to the project of generating new knowledge, of commenting on culture and representation, of opening new ways of thinking about and seeing the progress of our common social lives. And if this is the barest summary of what it means to have coeducation at Princeton, to have women’s and gender studies as part of its institutional structure, and to have feminist criticism enlivening campus debates about what a host of things mean, then we’re quite lucky, I think, to be moving into what I can only hope will be a brighter future indeed.