As undergraduates, Edie Canter ’80 and her friends had many discussions about women’s issues, but rarely in an academic setting. That realization led them to push for a women’s studies program.
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Edie Canter, Class of 1980, took an interest in feminism as an undergraduate, inspired partly by her friends at the Princeton Women’s Center. She was active, though not the most vocal advocate, and that combination of traits set the stage for one of her most memorable experiences at Princeton.
Canter: Women were a minority. I didn’t feel it much in the classroom personally, but I had friends, particularly in the sciences, who felt that it was hard being a woman in the sciences. I was not – I was in the Wilson School. There were a lot of women in the Wilson School majoring in that area or in the social sciences.
There were very few courses to my recollection that dealt with looking at the world through a gender lens at the time. I have a strong memory of taking one of the few courses that existed along those lines, that was “Women in the World” or something like that. I think it was a politics course. The professor was a woman, but was very critical of the feminist movement and actually one of the most paternalistic people I’ve ever met. She said to us, “You’ll grow out of that, that feminism thing.” I remember sitting in the back of the room with a lot of my friends just rolling our eyes at this woman, but this was the only class that they had, and one of the few classes they had that was talking about women’s issues at all, and it was this very particular viewpoint.
Those of us who were identifying as feminists and believed very strongly that we needed to start looking at the world through gender lenses – not just through the lens of male, but also a female lens – started talking about women’s studies and how Princeton ought to be teaching more broadly about this issue.
A lot of these conversations were happening at the Women’s Center. The discussion continued to focus on the academic part of this – that we have a Women’s Center, and we can talk about these issues, but why do we not have classroom experiences that allow us to reflect on these issues and look at particularly social science, history, and politics, through a non-male lens?
There was activism around trying to get a women’s studies program started at Princeton, which also included looks at how many women were on the faculty, how many women were on campus, and how women were treated in the classroom. All of these issues were intertwined.
After a lot of reluctance, the University did respond to some of the advocacy by creating a student-faculty committee to examine whether or not to have women’s studies. They populated the committee on the faculty side, at least in part, with a bunch of faculty members who were known to be in opposition coming into it – either in opposition to women’s studies or generally negative about interdisciplinary programs. It wasn’t completely stacked, but there were definitely people known to have a negative opinion that were on that committee, which meant that it felt to those of us who were advocating for it like a bit of a set-up. Nevertheless, it wasn’t exclusively that, and there was the opportunity for students to have a voice in this committee.
At the Women’s Center, among those of us who were thinking about this issue, I remember we had discussions about “Who can we get to be on this committee? Who would be the right students who would express the view we had that was positive towards women’s studies and that would be accepted on the committee?” The faculty or the administration got to decide who was on the committee.
I remember a discussion where, looking around the room, it was, “Well, you probably wouldn’t be that good because I don’t think they’ll let you on the committee. They know you’re really vocal about this.” I was somebody who was not so loud out there in the community. I was just sort of finding my footing, if you will, as an activist. I wasn’t particularly known for being a vocal advocate. I wasn’t known for being a rabble-rouser. I was kind of an unknown to the administration. There was somebody else in the room, I can’t remember who now, who fit that same kind of mold. We were the ones who applied and were accepted to be on this committee. I don’t think the administration knew of our firm belief coming in, that we thought this was an important thing.
I joined the committee, and it was really interesting. I got to go to all these meetings with faculty members and other students. We did a lot of research on what was happening at other schools that had women’s studies programs. What would it look like? Who would the University need to hire – not necessarily individuals, but how many, what types of people? Would it be a program or a major? Would it be a certificate? What would it look like if we did it? What were the reasons for having it? Part of it, of course, was responding to the fact that “Now we’ve had 10 years of women on campus, and what’s wrong with us that we’re not doing any education about the issues of women?”
It was a success. We ultimately convinced the committee, and maybe even turned around some of the views of people who came in against the program. I don’t know that it was a unanimous committee, but it was a success. At the same time that the committee work was going on, the people who were the out-front advocates and so-called rabble-rousers continued their pressure. It was a lesson for me, and maybe my first lesson, on the power of a strategic, multi-pronged approach to an advocacy issue.
It continues to be a part of campus, and I feel very proud to have been part of that legacy of creating something on campus that I hope is meaningful to young women and young men who are studying here now.
Canter went on to attend law school and practice commercial litigation before moving into work in nonprofits. She says that she has been a feminist for her entire adult life. Contrary to her professor’s prediction, she never did “grow out of it.”
Our thanks to Edie Canter for sharing her story. The interview was recorded at Reunions last May, and we’ll be speaking with more alumni at Reunions this year. If you have a Princeton story to share, email us firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brett Tomlinson produced this episode. The music is licensed from FirstCom Music.