Thanks for the thought-provoking, informative article on the status of conservativism on campus. It’s hard to know whether things are “worse” for conservatives now than they were before.
I think a lot depends upon subjective personality type, aside from whether the place is objectively welcoming and hospitable to conservatives. How one personality responds to an environment can be very different from how another personality responds! In my case, I believe the Princeton environment made me even more conservative because I had a rebellious personality back then. I liked to challenge authority structures in my youth, especially the snobby hypocritical ones. Since the prevailing orthodoxy at Princeton was radical liberalism and since — except for Peter Singer — there was plenty of snobby, radical liberal hypocrisy around me, going “rogue” was a real pleasure, and it made me more conservative.
I arrived in 1996 from Texas, the daughter of very conservative Mexican immigrants. (Marxism in Mexico had made my family very politically conservative; and our beloved Catholic faith made us morally-conservative, especially in the sexual arena). I hoped Princeton would be just like Dead Poets Society, a place where great ideas from great books and great friendships would be forged, with plenty of opportunity for nighttime escapades into the woods to light fires and get into healthy mischief. I found all that and relished it among my Humanities Sequence pals and Cottage Club friends. The old, aesthetic, liberal arts type of conservative culture was indeed alive and well in corners of campus. However, what was nowhere to be found was sexual conservativism.
Challenging abortion, hook-up culture, pornography use, and same-sex sexual activity was respectfully permitted in seminars, but you felt like an oddball voicing those views. Still, they were permitted. I had frequent debates with preceptors and friends in class and dorm rooms. Here Robby George, Patrick Deneen, Michael Sugrue, and Princeton Tory friends were my lifelines, helping me to think clearly. However, all those friends who debated me in class and in hallways remained friends — none of us ever took those ideas so personally that we couldn’t have a laugh and a beer later. In the realm of personal relationships, however, navigating the radical sexual culture was another matter.
Dating around while not hooking up, forced me to “grow” and appreciate the conservative sexual ethic all the more. There was no Anscombe Society or institutional structure available then to find like-minded practitioners. You were on your own. Still, it was possible to be “known” as sexually conservative and still be part of mainstream culture. For example, in Cottage my junior or senior year (I don’t remember which) the social chair approached me one day because the board was concerned that young women that season were afraid to bicker Cottage due to rumors of “third floor bicker,” some “incident” that had happened the previous bicker season, and the idea that sexual favors were a sine qua non of getting into the club if you were a woman. He asked me if I could think of any way to curtail this concern. I suggested we organize a fireside chat, that we invite any young women interested in bickering to come talk to the current (female) members behind closed doors. No guys allowed. That night was a great success — like a mini MeToo movement — where I listened to fellow club members tell the younger women to “know where you draw the line and stick to it!” and “Don’t be ashamed to say ‘No!’, say it with confidence!” and “Don’t let the male members pressure you to have sex!” It was very eye-opening. I thought all my female friends were enjoying hook-up culture, but there was plenty of pent-up discontent. (By the way, I’ve been told those fireside chats are still happening, which is just awesome.)
Can a conservative young women today, especially one with traditional sexual morals, still find creative ways to be part of Princeton on her own terms? Can she participate as a conservative thinker in seminar conversations and friendly debates while forging deep friendships with peers who think very differently? Can she belong to an eating club and socialize as an “out of the closet” conservative? Or has Princeton become so hostile that that’s it’s not realistically possible anymore, not even for the rebellious, mischievous type?