Last Friday I went to a lecture commemorating the fortieth anniversary of co-education at Princeton University, my alma mater. The lecture, given by Jill Dolan, a Professor of English and Theater and Director of the Program in the Study of Women and Gender, was about how co-education happened at Princeton, and how campus life has changed since the first undergraduate women were admitted to the class of 1973.
Princeton is an old institution – 264 years old, to be precise – and the first official rumblings of co-education began in 1967, when the trustees formed a committee to investigate the possibility of admitting women undergraduates (the first women graduate students had been admitted six years earlier). By April 1969, the trustees had decided that Princeton would begin admitting women, making it the second to last Ivy League institution to do so (Columbia did not admit women until 1983).
Unsurprisingly, there was a good deal of resistance to the decision: Alumni and faculty were concerned that if women were allowed in, Princeton would no longer attract the best and brightest male students and professors, and more frightening still, that alumni would no longer donate to the University. One dismayed alumnus expressed his opinion that “Princeton should be–and forever remain–an institution for White, Male, Christians (preferably, Scotch Presbyterians).” But despite the objections of the rich old white men who were so threatened by their arrival, the women came, nine of them in a graduating class of about a thousand, blazing a trail for the thousands of other women who would follow.
In the intervening decades, Princeton established a Program in the Study of Women and Gender, an interdisciplinary minor that draws on Sociology, English, Anthropology, Psychology, History and Religion. In 2001, the University elected its first woman president, Dr. Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist and the third woman to be president of an Ivy League institution. And when the Class of 2010 graduates today, half the people sweating in black and orange robes will be women.
However, as Dolan noted on Friday, there are still very few women granted tenure, and as on college campuses across the country, a dearth of women studying the hard sciences. It’s incredibly rare to see a woman running for or winning the more visible student government positions, and in recent years, only one woman has been president of an eating club, the co-ed fraternities that are at the center of the campus party scene. Socially, the campus culture leaves much to be desired; let’s just say that there’s a reason why, after three years at Princeton, I felt the need to start a feminist blog, a place where students could think and read about gender issues that affected our campus. And those white male alumni donors haven’t changed their minds: When I was a freshman, I worked at the annual giving office, cold calling alumni to solicit donations to the University. It wasn’t uncommon to be told, when we called alumni who graduated in the 1950s and 60s, that they had stopped donating when Princeton started “letting the broads in.”
So why does it matter that, forty years after co-education, Princeton is less than perfect when it comes to gender? It’s still a really great school, right? Shouldn’t any woman who goes there – any person who goes there, really – just be damn grateful for the opportunity? Of course they should, and I am incredibly grateful, every day, for the things I learned, the people I met and the experiences I had at Princeton. But I’m not blind to Princeton’s failures. I’m not blind to low numbers of students of color, the overt and covert racism, sexism and homophobia on campus, or the spectacular displays of class privilege that go on every day. I’m not blind to the fact that the vast majority of my professors were white and that less than half of them were women, or to the fact that in any given classroom discussion, the boys spoke up a lot more often than the girls. I’m certainly not blind to the fact that the rates of sexual assault are, as on so many college campuses, unacceptably high.
Princeton’s failure to reach gender parity and to achieve equal representation for women and people of color matters because Princeton is one of the grandest and most respected institutions in American culture. And like many other such institutions, it is resisting the reality that women and other minority groups are capable of excelling and eager to lead. Like the military, like Wall Street, like countless other grand American institutions with long traditions of excluding everyone but white men, Princeton is grappling with this modern reality. As in those institutions, women and other minorities, once not even permitted to apply, have come a long way. And as in those institutions, they are still far from equal.
And it matters because, if Princeton has its druthers, the students who are graduating this very afternoon will one day be running the world. With the knowledge and connections that they gained in their four years there, many Princeton grads go on to be politicians, captains of industry and Supreme Court Justices (and, less impressively, feminist bloggers).
Is it absurd that the ranks of American power are full to bursting with graduates from just a few select schools, and that admission to those schools is decided by more than just intelligence, but by what high school you went to and who your parents are, creating ongoing systems of class privilege? Hell, yes. Is it ridiculous that the Ivy League mystique is so powerful that a C-average student from Yale can make it to the White House? You’re damn right it is. But as it stands, Princeton – like West Point and many other institutions that turn out leaders – produces people who will have power and influence in this world. And as long as that’s the case, I want those people to have spent the four most formative years of their lives in a place that’s not merely co-educational, but equitable too.