All weekend, in every corner of campus, Princeton women proudly took up space.

They filled the seats and bleachers of Jadwin Gymnasium, listening to Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan ’81 and Sonia Sotomayor ’76 describe their years at Princeton and the changing balance of the court. They gathered in small classrooms to find strategies for coping with everyday challenges — caring for parents and children, advancing in the workplace, dealing with sexual harassment — and in large halls to celebrate their successes. They jumped out of their seats in a massive Poe Field tent when the three luncheon speakers — former Woodrow Wilson School Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, women’s basketball coach Courtney Banghart, and social psychologist Amy Cuddy *05 — stood together on stage, their hands on their hips in “power poses.” The audience members gave them a standing ovation, cheered, and adopted power poses, too.

“When people win, they take up space,” Cuddy, who has researched benefits of the poses, told them. Taking up space, she said, makes people feel powerful — and feeling powerful changes the way we see the world.

It was one empowering moment among many at Princeton’s She Roars conference, which brought about 3,400 alums back to campus Oct. 4–6, the vast majority of them women. Throughout the weekend, there was a strong sense of sisterhood as alumnae from across generations hammered out ideas about how to chip away at the nation’s gender gap. Against the political backdrop of  the #MeToo movement and Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, participants explored ways to better the lot of women in our country, including by running for office. But they also took time to celebrate each other’s company during lighthearted events like a wine tasting and late-night dancing.

“Use your talents to get more civically engaged,” advised Rep. Terri Sewell ’86, the only Democrat and only African American in Alabama’s congressional delegation, in an electric Friday-morning breakfast talk. She called on alums to break out of the “tribalism echo chamber” and to commit to three actions: to drive five people to the polls on Election Day, to “adopt a woman candidate and help her win,” and to give back to the community and to Princeton.

At lunch that day, Slaughter, Cuddy, and Banghart spoke about leadership in fast-paced TED-Talk style. Slaughter, who now leads the New America think tank, asked the audience to imagine a world of true gender parity, “where a woman could marry the man of her dreams regardless of whether he is more ambitious than she is,” where men and women are equally represented in caregiving jobs, and where “those jobs would be as valued as investment banking.” In such a world, she said, “we’d spend as much on early childhood education, and on all education, as we spend on defense.”

She acknowledged that she had felt “a physical weight” because of the headlines from Washington, and that many women felt rage and despair. “We have to find a way forward to a world of equal dignity and respect for all human beings,” she said. “And that includes white men, because they cannot become the enemy.”

A Saturday-morning event sponsored by Princeton’s James Madison Program offered She Roars attendees conservative views on “viewpoint diversity” and balancing family and career. “On a social and interpersonal level among students, it is not easy to be an outspoken conservative here,” said Allison Berger ’18, who noted she has been called a “traitor to my gender.” She said the situation is “a lot worse” at most other universities, but that intolerance for conservative viewpoints at Princeton prevents valuable conversations from taking place.

Moderator Heather Gerken ’91, left, and Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and Elena Kagan ’81 in conversation during the She Roars marquee event Oct. 5.
Sameer A. Khan

The weekend’s marquee event was a conversation with Supreme Court Justices Sotomayor and Kagan in Jadwin Gym. The justices spoke about their careers and their experiences at Princeton with moderator Heather Gerken ’91, dean of the Yale Law School.

Gerken steered clear of the divisive confirmation process then underway in Washington, but she noted that the Supreme Court has always been understood as a neutral arbiter and asked how the two justices saw their role. Kagan responded first, explaining that part of the court’s strength and legitimacy depends on people seeing it as “somehow above the fray.” She continued, saying it has been “an extremely important thing” that for the last 40 years, until the departure of Justice Anthony Kennedy this year, there has been a justice at the center, so that the court was not seen to “belong to” one side or the other. “Now,” she said, “it’s not so clear whether we’ll have it. All of us, every single one of us, needs to be aware of that.”

 Sotomayor said the justices understand “that we have to rise above partisanship in our personal relationships.” Sotomayor, among the court’s liberal justices, said she has worked with conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to promote civics education. 

“It is just the nine of us,” Kagan said. “If you hold grudges or if you have a bad relationship with one of your colleagues, then in the next case you have not much of a chance of persuading that colleague.”

Many women at the conference acknowledged the difficulties they have faced, and continue to face — including a lack of confidence. In a Saturday-lunch conversation between Shirley Tilghman, the first female president of Princeton and Sally Blount ’83, the first female dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Tilghman was asked how long it took for it to feel “good enough” — a reference to the “imposter syndrome” that others have discussed. Tilghman hesitated for a moment before replying with an answer that surprised the crowd: “Never.”

Amy Cuddy *05, left, Courtney Banghart, and Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 show off their power poses.
Sameer A. Khan
Later, during the question-and-answer period, participants adopted by acclamation a statement co-authored by Georgia Nugent ’73, former president of Kenyon College. “We are united in our advocacy, particularly at this moment in our national life, for the importance of women’s voices being heard, respected, and acted upon,” the statement says, in part. “We want to affirm the energy and power of women speaking together and on each other’s behalf, recognizing ... that what benefits women benefits everyone.”

Alumnae of Princeton’s first coed classes were recognized with hearty applause during a session about the arrival of undergraduate coeducation at Princeton in 1969. Historian Nancy Malkiel, former dean of the College, asked the “pioneering women” from the classes of 1970 to 1973 to stand, praising them for their “courage and sheer gumption” for enrolling at the University and “for making Princeton better and stronger in every way.”

Malkiel recounted key points from Keep the Damned Women Out, her history of coeducation at elite U.S. and British schools in the late 1960s, saying that Princeton’s decision to admit women was not an act of altruism but was meant “to improve the educational experience of men.” Despite fierce opposition from alumni and antipathy from some faculty and students, she said, “Princeton coeducated more successfully” than its peers.

Asked about issues that remain to be addressed at Princeton, Malkiel cited the need for more women faculty members, a gender imbalance among graduate students, the lack of undergraduate and graduate-student women in some academic departments, and a question “that is still open” about the participation of female students in the highest-profile leadership positions.

“This conference is a way for those of us who came in the early days to see how much progress has been made,” journalist Helen Zia ’73 told PAW. “There are still things that need to be done, that need to be carried on by the new generation.”

The conference concluded on a light note with an address by comedian, writer, and actress Ellie Kemper ’02. She spoke about the many “confident, strong women” she has worked with, including her mother, Dorothy Jannarone Kemper ’72, a “strong, opinionated, brilliant woman,” and Tina Fey, her director and boss on the show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Kemper also read from her new memoir, My Squirrel Days, about meeting her Princeton field hockey coach, Beth Bozman. From that encounter, she learned that “women are at their best when we are helping other women. ... We listen to one another. We don’t interrupt one another. Having a tough conversation with an intimidating woman showed me that women find strength from each other,” Kemper said.

She ended by thanking a man —President Eisgruber ’83 — and the Princeton community: “Thank you for promoting us and believing in us and for realizing you would be totally lost without us.”