In Response to: Limits, still

PAW invited readers to offer their views on essays in the May 11 issue by historian ­Christine Stansell ’71 and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11, a co-winner of the Pyne Prize. The essays responded to a University report that analyzed why undergraduate women at Princeton are underrepresented in high-profile leadership positions and as recipients of major academic prizes. This issue includes a sampling of reader responses; expanded versions and additional comments can be found at PAW Online ( The following essay is an expanded version of a letter that appeared in the print edition.

I appreciate the attention PAW has paid to the SCUWL report on women’s leadership, and particularly Christine Stansell ’71’s and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11’s insightful analyses (feature, May 11) of the situation of women at Princeton. Reading through the exceptionally productive task force report, and contemplating Stansell’s and Thomson-Deveaux’s responses, I’m struck by how gender bias remains intractable, not just at Princeton, but in American culture at large. This makes change exceptionally difficult and ever more necessary.

Thomson-DeVeaux describes the constraints of being the “right” kind of woman at Princeton:   “articulate but not overbearing, feminine but not girly, accommodating but not spineless, and above all, nice, not angry, and not strident.” And as Stansell paraphrases the report, “Why in the world should Princeton women have to be ‘poised, witty, and smart’  — but not so witty or smart as to be threatening to men?”

These stereotypes of women’s proper behavior come from more than a century of gender and race instruction derived from ideals of “true womanhood” and the “cult of domesticity” propagated in the 19th century. This gendered ideology trained American white women to adopt a sense of propriety that stressed piety, purity, submission, and domesticity. Clearly, these values continue to insinuate themselves today.   DeVeaux’s essay emphasizes the injunction that to be a “proper” woman, regardless of how smart or accomplished, means being self-effacing. The implication is that women promise not to threaten male power and authority in exchange for the reassurance that they’ll continue to be desirable as mates.

Sexuality, then, is also part of the problem with women’s leadership on Princeton’s campus. What feminist poet Adrienne Rich decades ago called “compulsory heterosexuality” haunts this issue. Part of young women’s fear of being too assertive, too powerful, too smart, or too strident seems to be concern about being dismissed as a viable heterosexual romantic partner. In addition, because the media have for decades accused feminists of being “man-hating” — an always ludicrous claim that captured the country’s imagination nonetheless — asserting oneself as a woman means being tarred with the brush of feminism, which in turn means being associated with retrograde stereotypes about lesbians.

Are heterosexual relationships really so limited that men won’t date strong, outspoken, even occasionally angry women? And are women so willing to sell short their ambitions to find a partner who would prohibit the exercise of their emotional, political, and intellectual power?

Social messages like these are insidious and work at an ideological level that sometimes masks itself in our everyday lives. But we often hear these gendered presumptions broadcast loudly and clearly. From the proliferation of movies in which men refuse to grow up to the various Real Housewives television series, American culture continues to convey backward messages about gender roles for men and women. While I can think of hopeful counter-examples of strong, assertive, smart, and sexy female characters — television’s The Good Wife and the film Bridesmaids, for only two — films and television tend to lag behind a culture in which powerful women like Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and Elena Kagan ‘81 serve on the Supreme Court.

The gender lessons of popular culture inevitably infiltrate university life. Members of the now-suspended fraternity at Yale marched on their campus walkways last fall chanting, “No means yes! Yes means anal!” This blatant, public objectification of Yale women, which prompted a complaint under Title IX, might be offensive and egregious, but I don’t think it’s unusual. We’re all familiar with a campus visual climate in which posters hang on lampposts, inviting students to parties on the Street for “CEOs and Corporate Hos.” These fliers picture white men posing behind big executive desks and women dressed in skimpy skirts wearing come-hither expressions parading as the “hos.” I know they’re supposed to be funny, but nonetheless, these images depict how sexualized power remains skewed to favor men.

How can women undergraduates hope to be visible public leaders in such a climate? What courage of character must be required for women to see themselves behind the corporate desks pictured in those fliers, instead of being those pimped out in the short skirts? What presence of mind and knowledge of self must be necessary for women to feel secure in their sexuality and in their ability to find equal romantic and companionate heterosexual partnerships, when gender stereotypes claim that sexual coercion is men’s prerogative?

I’m certainly not suggesting that all women are victims and all men are predatory. Those stereotypes, too, are damaging, limiting, and false. Rather, I am insisting that the problem of women and leadership at Princeton, and of campus gender equity in general, is influenced by entrenched social assumptions. We need to encourage gender-equitable and sexually diverse relationships and to enrich our visual culture with empowering and pleasurable images for men and women alike.  

Jill Dolan