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Why do some women students settle for less?

Published in the May 11, 2011, issue

In March, a study group released its report about the underrepresentation of women among Princeton’s highest-profile undergraduate leadership positions and as recipients of the highest -academic prizes. The gender disparity has existed for a decade – a marked contrast to earlier days of coeducation. PAW covered the study in its April 6, 2011, issue; for a link to the full report,click here.

PAW asked two Princetonians from different eras for their reactions to the study: Christine Stansell ’71, a scholar of women’s history at the University of Chicago who spent many years on the Princeton faculty; and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11, who this year shared the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize – Princeton’s highest undergraduate academic honor.

Picture of Christine Stansell

Ricardo Barros

Even Princeton: The problem that never goes away

By Christine Stansell ’71

Christine Stansell ’71 came to Princeton in 1969, the year undergraduate coeducation began. She returned to campus as a history professor in 1982 and helped to found the Program in the Study of Women and Gender, now called the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She was the Edwards Professor of American History when she left in 2007 to teach at the University of Chicago. Stansell’s most recent book is The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present(Modern Library, 2010). This is a model report: lucid, thoughtful, well documented, easily digested. It’s exceptional at doing what reports are supposed to do: It explains a problem, documents an approach, and provides solutions that can be implemented easily. It maintains a balanced tone; neither lays blame nor obfuscates; nods respectfully toward counterarguments.

Still, there are bound to be skeptics. From one angle, announcing a problem about women and leadership could not come at a more surprising moment. The country has a formidable first lady from Princeton, and two Supreme Court justices are alumnae. We have the first female president among the Big Three Ivy universities and a college administration packed with accomplished, powerful women. It’s a vivid tableau of women as leaders.

But to scores of others — faculty, alums, current undergraduates — the report will come as old news. Women have a problem at Princeton, and it never goes away. It’s diffuse, elusive, and tenacious. True, it waxes and wanes, and the definition and intensity change over time. In the early years, it was the sheer absence of women students that seemed to be the issue; in the 1980s, it was the ubiquity of sexual harassment, ranging from actionable aggression to loutish male behavior. Attitudes on Prospect Street often were blamed: the early exclusion of women from clubs, the retrograde stereotypes of feminine behavior that lingered, the shameful treatment of women in bicker.

To this murmur of undergraduate complaint over the years has to be added the chronic grievances of women graduate students and faculty — at the low numbers of women in whole departments, at the veiled expectations that worked against them (men talk, women ask intelligent questions), at the depressing patterns of hiring and promotion that mysteriously, inexplicably, favored men. The uneasiness existed despite everything: despite an admirable woman president, and the luminous women among the alums, and the overwhelming satisfaction of Princeton women with their education, and the appearance of at least a token woman or two in the tenured ranks of every single department over the last 40 years.

And still the old order insinuates itself: men up front, women behind the scenes. Men at the top, women somewhere else. Men operating for public recognition, women for personal satisfaction. Men are presidents, women are vice presidents. Where do the rules come from? And who enforces them? 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,” as the report paraphrases undergraduates? In 2011 we shouldn’t have to ask the question.

Whatever the sources of the problem, it’s not overt sexual discrimination, at least on the academic end of things. Female students have female professors, and deal with female deans, and walk into classrooms where, more than likely, they will not be alone. They are not likely to be told that a woman doesn’t belong in any field that is taught at Princeton. There are no campus institutions barred to women, including the eating clubs. Half of each entering class is female — a fundamental change from 1970, when an administrator said that the University was pledged to preserving a male majority; in the future, he said, at most a third of any class would be women. That quota crumbled long ago.

But those were the old days, when women’s restrooms were as scarce as hen’s teeth, and the faculty had one tenured woman. Those times are long past, an antique history, banished by changes in American society but also by thousands of people who worked in large ways and small to make a different kind of university. The ranks included men, from the very beginning. Male undergraduates in the late 1960s did much to inspire the Patterson Report, Princeton’s 1968 study that brought on coeducation: A substantial body of students, when polled, firmly called for change, stating that they would not even encourage a younger brother to come to Princeton, so backward did they consider their all-male environment. Looking back over this long history, packed with good will, noble intentions, and solid successes, it’s dispiriting then to come upon a student’s description of a campus that “otherizes” women. The sentiment could come straight from 1969, although the language and the perception that something is wrong are far more cutting than any of the plucky, cheerful crew of coeds could have had back then.

In many ways, the pressures the report describes make up a much broader reality. If female mentorship is the answer, then we must be honest about what truths those mentors are going to convey. The world is not closed to talented women, but it is stingy with them, and it gets stingier the higher you go. The campus that envelops these young men and women has yet to become a place that demonstrates how different things can be. Regardless of well-meaning efforts and professed commitments, women still are a minority on the faculty. There is one child-care center, and it dates to 1969. Motherhood is a minefield in negotiating tenure. By my rough, quick count, a third of the department heads are female, and only a dismaying 15 percent of endowed chairs. Whole departments and scholarly areas still are deserts for tenured women. In this, Princeton is little different from its peer institutions. But then, Princeton should be the best place in the country for women, of whatever stage and status.

Necessary Dreams, psychiatrist Anna Fels’ brilliant book about young women and ambition, begins with the psychologists’ insight that the acquisition of mastery — including the desire to lead — requires an audience as well as a goal. A child does not learn to walk by herself; she does it in response to encouragement, smiles, and approbation. The cheering chorus follows girls through high school, urging them on in the big game, the science competition, the class election, and the term paper on Moby Dick. But then the volume of cheering drops, and anxious voices, internal and external, begin to pipe up. Will you have a life? A family? What about children? Can you really work? Or, can you really stay home to raise a family? Will you ever fall in love, anyway? Don’t you want too much?

Writing in 2004, Fels located this moment in women’s mid-20s. But this report makes me wonder if there has been a downward drift. Clouds of fearfulness about the future float over American campuses, and diminishing expectations seem to be hitting even the fortunate undergraduates of Princeton. The younger sisters of women who in the 1990s were feisty and determined in the face of belittlement seem to be battening down the hatches. Young men, too, are worried. But at this level of Ivy League achievement, young men are raised to lead, and they tend to press on, regardless. Young women go into the default mode, making do with second best — since it looks like the world is going to deal it out anyway. There are too many people, young and old, who give them the message that it’s just fine to aim for less.

My point is that the “gender-recognition differential” underlies the gender-leadership differential, and that it is driven by others’ expectations as well as women’s reticence. For an illustration, here’s a thought experiment. Flip around this report’s data, and imagine the mounting fuss if there had been only one male Undergraduate Student Government president in the previous decade, or if only one-third of the Pyne Prizes awarded went to men. When would the discussion have started? Long before now, I wager. That’s how much we recognize our need to have men excel. That’s how little we count on women to step up. Women students are like canaries in the mineshaft, delicate barometers of the state of the universities. Their entrance into the great bastions of male learning was critical to the wave of democratization that gave many of us, including me, the best educations the world had to offer — despite being the wrong sex, or race, or from the wrong kind of family. When they stop singing, everyone is in trouble.

May the report spur parents, teachers, boyfriends, classmates, and fellow spirits to re-energize the chorus. This university can be a liberated zone for women; it is precious precisely because it is different from the world in ways that allow women to thrive. There is no housework to burden them, no child care, no pay differential; they can walk around at night; they can study what they want; they can write about the most subversive ideas with a claim on the attention of their teachers and classmates. We want them to use this time to kick up their heels and take the jumps — to want and do more, not less. But the burden should not be on them — they do enough already, everything we ask of them and more. It’s up to the rest of us. We owe it to them. More important, we need everything they have to offer.

Picture of Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Ricardo Barros

Between ideals and reality, a crooked line

By Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11 is concentrating in religion, and pursuing a certificate in gender and sexuality studies. She is a co-winner of the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize.

I entered Nassau Hall for the first time on a bright, cold day in the fall of my junior year. The click of my high heels ricocheted through the entrance hall as I walked with some trepidation toward President Tilghman’s office. Folded in my bag was a copy of an op-ed that I had written for The Daily Princetonian a few days earlier, noting that out of the seven freshmen who had advanced their names for their class presidency, none were women.

This was, for me, a visible symbol of a more nebulous problem: Men and women seemed to construe their leadership roles and, indeed, their campus identities differently. The issues that concerned me were subtle and difficult to articulate, but I had decided to bring them to President Tilghman because they reflected my own experience, both as a female student and a leader.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been nervous. It turned out that President Tilghman, alarmed by the same dearth of female candidates for class president, already had asked a few others to do some investigating. When they turned up evidence to substantiate these concerns, she created a committee — the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership (SCUWL) — and charged it to explore them more fully. I was appointed to the committee, and during our year of research, I was not surprised to see myself in the women who spoke to us about shifting anxieties relating to gender and leadership. But I could not have predicted that our findings would lead me to question not just the subtly gendered norms that structured Princeton students’ existence, but the very conception of “success” after which I was supposed to be striving.

Like many freshmen, I felt adrift during my first year of college. The shock of adjusting to an intense academic environment, combined with a culture of heavy drinking that seemed, for the most part, to structure the norm of casual sexual encounters, made me feel — as a woman in the Class of 2012 wrote on the SCUWL website — “lost, overwhelmed, objectified, and intimidated.” I longed for connections with upperclass women who would help me navigate this hostile social world, to the point where I considered joining a sorority, simply so I could feel like I was part of a community. Academically I felt anonymous, too, with few professors or preceptors whom I felt comfortable approaching. I went home for winter break and realized that something was wrong with the way that I was “adjusting” to Princeton. As a third-generation Princetonian, I had a keen sense of disappointment that I still felt like an outsider at the university where my parents met, while simultaneously, my family’s stake in Princeton kept my tenacity alive. After briefly flirting with transfer applications, I decided that if I was going to stay on campus and still keep my sanity, I needed to start speaking out about the elements of Princeton that made me so uneasy.

I founded organizations and sought out leadership roles, organizing events and conversations around issues of gender and sexuality. Suddenly, I was no longer anonymous: I had a respected if sometimes-controversial identity as a campus feminist activist. This was a mixed blessing; my activism could be a lonely enterprise, especially on a campus where the most moderate, conciliatory attempts to de-stigmatize “feminism” left me branded as a radical. But the real difficulty was that even as my self-confidence grew, I could not stop comparing myself to everyone else around me, and finding myself wanting. Emerging as a leader raised the stakes. With every success, I kept measuring myself by how much more I needed to do. I existed in a haze of e-mails and event-planning and academic anxiety, unwilling to forgive myself for being, well, imperfect. My work on the steering committee showed me, with stark clarity, that these feelings were not unique. This “intensity of self-effacement,” in the words of one alumna, seems to erode women’s confidence and dampen our willingness to take risks.

A similar exploration of college women’s leadership, conducted at Duke in 2003, used the phrase “effortless perfection” to describe a phenomenon that seemed to be equally ubiquitous at Princeton. Not only were women expected to be, as one undergraduate reported on the steering committee’s website, “pretty, sexy, thin, nice, and friendly,” we needed to make it look like we weren’t trying — that our impressive academic, extracurricular, and social achievements came naturally to us. Visibility as a leader worked in opposition to this model of success. We weren’t supposed to need or desire accolades, nor should we draw too much attention to ourselves. Since such a high standard of achievement was the norm, women seemed to have the sense that they could always do better.

But something else was equally clear: This leadership problem, although it perhaps affected women more visibly, was bigger than the number of female Rhodes scholars. Unreachable ideals, projected by peers, as well as the sense that Princeton students must be “successful leaders,” shaped the fabric of men’s identities, too. Men were limited by a different set of expectations that encouraged them, like women, to be goal-oriented and individualistic. Just as women were expected to lead in particular ways, so were men; the difference was that for men, ambition and visibility — the normative values of “success” — were required, not discouraged. Neither ideal left much room for variation. I floundered until I realized that I needed to work not just toward a bright future for myself, but toward a community that would value me simply because I cared about my peers. And I was, surprisingly enough, very effective. Students responded to my insistence that everyone’s voice be heard, regardless of how much I personally disagreed with them. And although it was often difficult, I tried to stop holding myself to the highest possible standard, and instead applied that standard to my community.

My own role was hard to navigate. I learned that, above all, a woman leader on campus cannot be effective if she is not seen as “nice.” This was not a natural skill. I had to tamp down my anger and indignation at moments when I felt condescended to, and to learn to disagree without seeming hostile or aggressive. This kind of leadership was plainly gendered, and I may have conceded too much. For better or for worse, I learned to walk a crooked line, embracing the parts of myself that made me a generous, authentic leader. I was bolstered by the knowledge that I was speaking out because I genuinely cared, and was willing to suspend my own stake in order to include more voices. In other words, I started to become successful when I stopped caring about traditional conceptions of “success.”

From the comfortable vantage point of my senior spring, though, it’s easy to assign motive where none existed. In many ways, becoming a leader was a survival mechanism, the only way to regain my fragmented sense of self. I always had been a feminist, and after the dizziness of my freshman year, calling for a community ethic was the only way that I could see to address the unquantifiable issues that seemed, in particular, to affect women, especially the gaping silences around eating disorders, mental health, and sexual assault. It was the gap between polished ideals and messy reality that led me to put self-discipline first and self-care last. I heard fears of inadequacy echoed by women throughout the steering committee process. Although they were, by their own admission, juggling tough academic loads, developing their extracurricular activities, and trying to sustain their friendships, relationships, and social lives, women were not demanding credit or visibility. Many needed encouragement before they saw themselves in prestigious fellowships or graduate schools, and that encouragement was lacking.

These, of course, are issues that extend beyond the orange bubble. In many ways, the women of my generation are haunted by our mothers’ successes and limitations. I know few women who have not thought about whether they would pause their career to raise a child, follow their partner to a foreign city, or postpone childbearing until the demands of the career ladder eased. I know even fewer women who have good answers to these questions. I am caught between the image of my parents telling me that I could be anything, and the realities of my young adulthood, in which I have struggled for four years to be the “right” kind of woman: articulate but not overbearing, feminine but not girly, accommodating but not spineless, and above all, nice, not angry, and not strident. I still wrestle with the silent postscript: If I can be anything, then I must be everything.

In the end, I had to reconsider what “success” meant. I wanted to be a guide as well as a visionary, exploring unknown territory without a linear goal. It took me four years to accept that this kind of leadership did, in fact, constitute “success.” My struggles have stemmed from trying to measure myself by an unattainable standard, one that happens to be different for men and women. The challenge is for Princeton to be the kind of place where neither gender nor an impossible ideal structures its students’ lives; where being breathtakingly busy is not the only marker of success; and where emotional health is not an indulgence, but a necessity.

In finding my voice at Princeton, I discovered a kind of leadership where sincerity, efficacy, and visibility were not incompatible. I can’t offer easy solutions to the steering committee’s report — and since my first steps outside FitzRandolph Gate in June will mark a beginning, not an end, I’m not going to try. What I know is that when I begin life outside the gate, I will strive to be a leader who creates an ideal, rather than letting an ideal shape me.