July 19, 2006: Features
By Merrell Noden ’78
Upon arriving at Princeton, they were each presented with a yellow chrysanthemum. It was a sweet gesture that now looks like a symbol of something else: The 37 women who would graduate in the Class of 1971 were destined to be canaries in a coal mine of powerful feelings about gender and tradition. So much was about to change for women — not only at Princeton but everywhere else — but when they transferred to Princeton as juniors in the fall of 1969, they were ahead of the curve. They had no idea how much would be asked of them.
“I don’t know how self-aware other 20-year-olds are,” says Deedee Eisenberg ’71. “But I just didn’t recognize how much of a burden it was to be a pioneer.”
When she talks about her two years at Princeton, Eisenberg sounds not so much bitter as rueful. She is proud to have helped organize the University’s first Earth Day celebration, but it was tough being the only woman in the biology department. “I just hadn’t realized that things would be so distorted,” she says. “‘Distorted’ is really the best word for it. There were no women faculty members [in the department], and some of the male faculty were uncomfortable.”
In June Eisenberg came back to Princeton for her 35th reunion. But like a number of women in her class, she came planning to see only the other women, 24 of whom gathered for breakfast Saturday morning at Prospect House. She was excited to meet again women she really had not gotten to know back then, but she was not planning to take part in the P-rade or other activities with her male classmates. Still, Eisenberg was willing to return to campus. Some female classmates have cut their ties completely.
“Isn’t that sad?” says Tina Sung ’71, who organized both the reunion breakfast and a smaller one in Washington, D.C., earlier in the spring. “I’d say one-third of them blame the University for not being ready [to admit women]. But it’s just like immigrants: You go; the country doesn’t know how to accept you; you don’t know what to expect; you’ve got to figure it out. Remember, the whole country was working through this back then.”
They were the first wave of women to have this opportunity. Their older sisters did not get the chance; their younger sisters would come in increasingly larger numbers. It’s impossible to measure exactly how that has shaped their lives: Did it burden them with unfair expectations, to prove they had deserved this opportunity? To prove they were equal to the men? Certainly the 24 women who came back for the reunion breakfast were an accomplished bunch: doctors, lawyers, professors, counselors, and senior federal officials. Rande Brown ’71, a translator of Buddhist texts, arguably is the most prominent Buddhist in the country. “Being here gave me the courage to feel I can do anything,” Debbie Mangham ’71 told the other women at the Prospect breakfast. When she decided one year into graduate school that a career in music wasn’t for her, she went to medical school.
The one thing this accomplished bunch couldn’t do at the time, they all agreed, was to get together and pull each other through. Now, at Tina Sung’s breakfast, they were getting another chance to do so.
The men of ’71 were somewhat puzzled by the women’s insistence on meeting without them. No men were permitted at the breakfast. Four daughters were on hand, but not a single husband or boyfriend or son. PAW was allowed in for the last 20 minutes to get a sense of the meeting’s tone. A number of the women felt they wanted to share their memories of two very challenging years with the other women and with no one else. What struck them all was how isolated they had felt, how each had assumed that everyone else was beautiful and content and that she was the only one in the bunch who wasn’t having a fantastic time. Even after 35 years it was good to know they hadn’t been alone.
They had started to reconnect two months before, when Sung’s Washington breakfast brought together six women. As they listened to the Princeton stories that came pouring out, it felt like emerging from a storm cellar and realizing that all along there had been other people in storm cellars just yards away: If only they’d known!
“I couldn’t tell you what any of those women do for a living, how many times they’ve been married, or how many children they have — all the normal things you might talk about when you get a bunch of women together,” says Barbara Elkus ’71, who attended the D.C. event but not Reunions. “All we did was take turns telling our Princeton stories for two hours. We all just had these pent-up feelings. And for 35 years, we all had thought we were the only ones who had felt that way.”
Those 41 pioneering women — one has since died —came from a wide variety of backgrounds and were chosen partly with an eye to their adaptability, as if Princeton were a strange land to which they were being banished. “‘Pluck’ was the operative word,” says Christine Stansell ’71, who came to Princeton from small-town Ohio by way of two years at Rice. “We were very courageous in the way that only an 18-year-old can be.”
They were also naïve and so, probably, was the University, which believed that after announcing it would admit women in April of 1969, it could actually pull it off just a few months later. Bathrooms were hastily converted (though not enough of them), pathways were floodlit, and locks were put on the doors of Pyne Hall, where the 171 women in the junior, sophomore, and freshman classes were to live, segregated but safe. Also awaiting them were little rooms fitted out with sewing machines, since you could never be sure when a woman would be seized by an overwhelming urge to put down Shakespeare and make curtains. Ze’eva Cohen was hired to teach dance. Proof that the women were not the only victims of stereotyping lies in the fact that of the 60 people who applied for Cohen’s class, 50 were men.
Halcyone Bohen, the 31-year-old wife of a Woodrow Wilson School grad student, was picked to become assistant dean of students and help the women settle in. “She made a point of inviting me into her office and asking me how things were going and making sure I would come back regularly so that she could listen to any concerns I had,” says Eisenberg. “That was probably the best thing the University did.”
Today, while Bohen is remembered fondly by virtually all her charges, they insist that the University could have done much more to bring them together. “In hindsight, they could have had meetings and forums to hear what was going on and how people felt,” says Elkus, who was the only woman in the chemistry department, just as Eisenberg was the only one in biology and Laura Peterson ’71 the lone economics major. “But they just dropped us in. They said sink, swim, tread water. Whatever you want to do here, go.”
The odds were against the women for a number of reasons. For starters, they were transfer students, not an easy thing to be in the best of circumstances. Not only had their male classmates had two years to bond and to get to know the University, but when those men had applied several years earlier, it was to an all-male school. “I think they felt robbed,” says Linda Carroll ’71, who now is a professor of Italian at Tulane. “They felt they’d chosen the kind of institution they wanted and somebody else had changed it.” Says Elkus: “I was just trying to find friends, and it didn’t work.”
Many professors were kind, but others, mostly older ones, made awkward jokes or were ridiculously condescending. Jane Samuels ’71 recalls one professor telling her how delighted he would be to write a grad school recommendation for such a talented student, then adding, “But when you’ve finished it, I want you to get married!” That, after all, was what women did: At Douglass College, the women’s college at Rutgers University where Linda Blackburn ’71 spent two years before coming to Princeton, students aimed to be engaged by senior year. “You really did come right out of your mom’s house to marry and create your own,” she says.
Even if Blackburn’s estimate that “85 percent of the people did not want us there” was wrong, it surely felt that way. Men gathered outside the women’s dorm and chanted, “Girls go home!” Peterson recalls a disturbing incident, in which “a bunch of people invaded my room. I’m not sure if it was a type of hazing, but I did feel physically threatened and probably to some extent manhandled. I’ve tried to get the incident out of my mind.”
“It’s hard to separate being among the first women at Princeton from the time,” muses Eisenberg. “Ten years later we were that much further along as a whole society. It’s hard to remember back then, but so many circles were closed to women.”
Men in the class agree that it would be a mistake to forget the context in which this difficult transition was taking place. “The fall of 1969 was a time of frequently explosive unrest at college campuses around the country,” they say in their sober and respectful answer to some of the women’s comments, penned by class secretary Jeff Marshall ’71. “Prince-ton was hardly immune, and it arguably complicated their assimilation.”
Indeed, it would be hard to exaggerate what chaotic, confusing times those were. It was an unusual person who was neither exhilarated nor threatened by the perfect storm that already had been whipped up by civil rights, the anti-war movement, drugs, and rock music. In this muddle of ever-shifting alliances, grievances overlapped: When someone threw a brick through the window of the room Samuels shared with Kathleen Molony, they weren’t sure whether they were targeted because they were women or because, as members of the East Asian studies program, they had just helped organize a Vietnam War symposium.
Most of the slights were subtler. “Misogyny ran very deep in that world,” says Stansell. “It was jokey, kind of a bravado and swagger, made up of a sophisticated one-upsmanship. And it hadn’t come under any criticism because it was so widespread in the culture at large that nobody thought it was problematic — including the women! You didn’t really think you had a claim on the place. They owned the place and you were an interloper and you were just doing your best to take advantage of what there was.”
She remembers walking into a large Firestone reading room, eager to join the crowd, only to be greeted by “ripples of laughter that went up and down the room.” To this day, she can recall vividly the sensation of her face burning. “I couldn’t see that there was something wrong with this. I just tried to fit in.”
How they each fared depended, to some extent, on their expectations. Having gone to high school in San Francisco during the flowering of Haight-Ashbury, Elkus was bowled over by the strange preppy culture around her.
Debbie Tegarden ’71, by contrast, had a pretty good idea what to expect. She had grown up less than a block off campus and gone to Princeton High School. Indeed, when she and two of her male high school classmates completed the last classics course the high school had to offer, the boys went off to study classics at the University while she looked on in envy. She had no illusion that being a pioneering woman at Princeton was going to be easy. “I knew it would be an adventure,” says Tegarden, who went on to work as an editor for the Princeton University Press. She notes that successfully negotiating those chaotic times required a sense of humor and a willingness to roll with the punches. “Everybody believed we were remaking the universe,” she says. “It was not going to be easy, but it was going to be worth it.”
It didn’t happen right away, but the women found corners of campus where they did fit in. “The men at Stevenson Hall [a non-bicker, University-managed dining club on Prospect Street] were amazing,” recalls Carroll. “They made a huge difference.” Wilson College was the center of antiwar activism on campus, and its residents tended to be open-minded about other matters. Elkus gravitated to the Graduate College, where she could hang out with some of the grad students she had met in the chemistry lab. Tegarden joined Colonial Club. Mary Azoy ’71 moved right off campus, into the house her boyfriend shared with some other students. That was another irony of the situation: “There were so few women,” says Stansell, “that everybody sort of gravitated to some group of guys.”
One female stronghold, relatively speaking, was East Asian studies. Because the department already had accepted a trickle of women as part of the critical-languages program (which aimed to boost the number of Americans with command of strategically important languages), no one seemed too bothered by the arrival of a few more. Just as important, there was a critical mass of women there, five from the Class of 1971 alone. They weren’t freaks in a fishbowl.
“East Asian studies had its own culture, and I had an amazing experience,” says Rande Brown, describing a decidedly un-preppy subculture of dinners and teas with Zen masters and poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. “We were insulated from mainstream Princeton culture.” And in Karen Brazell, a dynamic young professor, Brown found what was a precious thing for women at Princeton: a mentor.
Brown had chosen Princeton for a specific reason: “I was trying to legitimize my quest for enlightenment to my family,” she says. “It would have been totally weird if I’d dropped out and gone right to a monastery in Japan.” The day she graduated, Brown flew to Japan to study with a revered Zen master in Kyoto. She stayed eight years. She continues to work at translating Buddhist thought to the West. Brown recently had a best-seller with Geisha, A Life — the true memoirs of Arthur Golden’s geisha — and leads the Tricycle Foundation, which disseminates Buddhist teachings.
Given the scarcity of both women and African-Americans on campus, you’d think that being a black woman would be a double whammy of alienation. But things were a bit more complicated, says Blackburn, an African-American woman in the class. For one thing, the role of outsider was not exactly new to African-Americans. By the fall of 1969, the civil rights movement was in its second decade and was “further along in the process of reaching its goals,” she says. “There were more precedents. With the women, everything was really new. There was no sense of synergy around the political issue in the way there was for the African-American community.”
The other reason Blackburn says she “really enjoyed” Princeton was that the handful of African-American administrators worked very hard to build a supportive environment, creating a very tight circle, “a very loving, familiar kind of relationship with us,” recalls Blackburn, who was also a member of the Association of Black Collegians, which had chapters at other Ivy schools and provided members with a forum to compare notes.
But even some women with deep Princeton roots, like Azoy, found it hard to feel comfortable on campus. Her father, Geoffrey, had been a member of the Class of 1920. An uncle, a cousin, and her brother, Whit ’62, all preceded her to Princeton. In her family, “Princeton was the equivalent of a church,” she says. After two years at Bradford College, she had been all set to go to Duke when she got late word that she had been accepted to Princeton. “I thought, ‘Gee, I
qualify. I get to be part of this club,’” she says. Her father told her that even though he was opposed to having women at Princeton, if they had to take them, he was glad she was going to be one of them.
But Azoy found being in such an overwhelming minority distracting. “I was semi-flattered and semi-appalled by all the chauvinism and all the attention,” she says. “I think I would have been much more intellectually focused if I’d gone to a school that was more prepared to embrace women as an everyday thing, rather than as a spectacle.” To this day, Azoy has powerfully mixed feelings about Princeton. “I wasn’t brought up a Catholic,” she says. “But my relationship to Princeton is sort of like a lapsed Catholic’s [to the church]: It still has power over them. My ambivalence today stems from that, from [Princeton’s] having incredible power over me in ways that were both positive and very negative. I couldn’t be who I am without having to distance myself from it.”
Thirty-five years have passed and, with all those years’ worth of wisdom and generosity, most of the women agree that their male classmates were victims, too. “Nobody in society as a whole had really thought about what might
have to change for men and women to be equal,” says Stansell, who became interested in recording women’s history while watching the transformation of society going on around her. She would join the Princeton history department in 1982 and become the second woman in the department to get tenure. “These men were as old as we were. They were babies.”
Today, the men have grown to empathize with the difficult position the women were in. “Most of the men in the class were unaware of these complaints at the time,” notes Marshall, writing for the class. “There was, collectively, no inclination to discriminate against anyone or shun them. We were college kids wrestling with our own social issues on a campus with tremendous academic demands.”
“The whole question of women coming into Princeton may be just one thread in the larger fabric of women integrating into the whole society,” says Eisenberg. “Then the bigger question is: Will this transform the way society works?”
Those two years at Princeton were a blessing for some and a burden for others. For many it was both. “I really did feel that the women from our year were being watched and looked at and a great many expectations put on us,” says Samuels. “One was that we had to do something other than the conventional role for women.”
After Princeton, Samuels finished her master’s at Yale in East Asian studies and then did what many of her male classmates did when they weren’t sure what to do: She went to law school, and had a brief but unfulfilling career as an antitrust lawyer. Her greatest satisfaction has come from home-schooling her two children: finding the materials to get them through advanced-placement calculus, painstakingly translating French history with them, and even smuggling a pig into Italy, where the family was living at the time, for dissection on the kitchen table.
“I was so grateful to Princeton for teaching me how to learn,” says Samuels, who now works as a disability analyst. “I feel I could teach myself anything.” Princeton must have taught her well: Her daughter is a grad student in microbiology, while her son is studying history at Oxford.
Some of the women have come full circle — or at least are finding ways to connect different parts of their lives. Eisenberg, who left Princeton with the aim of studying Buddhism, earned a Ph.D. in environmental epidemiology and worked for a time analyzing data involving Agent Orange and cancer clusters. More recently, she has been teaching yoga, meditation, and Feldenkrais, a healing method that uses movement to develop awareness.
“Princeton made me a feminist,” says Molony, “though I don’t think like that as much any more. I go where my instincts take me.” After earning a Ph.D. in modern Japanese history and teaching, she worked as an economic consultant for Standard and Poor’s. She now runs the fellows program at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Like many of these women, she is aware of the much-hyped, much-debated trend of highly educated women opting out of high-powered careers, something she says has never once occurred to her. Indeed, she was on a business trip to Japan shortly before her daughter Elizabeth Hollingsworth ’09 was born. That, she thinks, was overdoing it. But her determination to work has never wavered.
“I was never torn,” says Molony. “I was always going to work. I felt a sense of duty and obligation to work. I’d had an opportunity to go to an outstanding school at the very beginning, when women were allowed to enter Princeton.” Like others, she cannot imagine giving up any part of a life as rich as the one she’s made.
“I look at my daughter and her friends and they are much more self-possessed than I ever was, than my friends were,” says Elkus. “It was all new to us. Now, one of the scary things is that they are going to lose a lot of the things we fought for so hard those years ago because they take it all for granted. They grew up with it.”
The women’s reunion breakfast was a celebration of a new friendship being forged by these pioneers. They all wore special ribbon leis, symbols of friendship that Sung had had made for the occasion. President Shirley Tilghman was on hand to welcome them and to acknowledge, as she surely knows, that it was not easy to be a pioneering woman at Princeton.
“I’m not really a woman-bonding person, so I was leery,” Tegarden allowed afterward, adding that she has been in touch with male friends from Princeton ever since graduating. “It turned out to be amazing, really.” The women went around the room and told their stories. Carroll lamented the fact that one casualty of Hurricane Katrina is that Newcomb College, the historically female undergraduate college at Tulane University, is being merged with Tulane College.
Pam Oelschlaeger Mushen ’71, who spent years as a litigator but now teaches high school in Seattle, noted with a chuckle that after Princeton it did not seem unusual that all her opposing counsel were men. The girls she teaches cannot believe the hurdles she and her pioneering classmates had to contend with.
Sung describes herself as a builder of bridges between cultures, and that is what existed at Princeton in 1969: two separate cultures — a strong male culture and a fledgling female one. Sung is a slender dynamo of cheery good will and iron determination, and as an Asian-American woman she has been a pioneer many times. “I think of myself as a catalyst for change,” she says. When asked at her first job whether she could type, she answered cheerfully, “Of course I can. I can do anything.” And she has proved that. After years as a high-ranking administrator in the Department of Health and Human Services and then helping to create the Federal Quality Institute, she has moved into the private sector and now owns two businesses, the second of which, Life After Government, helps baby- boomer federal executives find new jobs in the private sector.
“We need to create new systems, and a lot of these women have done that,” she says. “I think that through the changing nature of work, the free-agent nation, and the virtual network, [women in the future] will be able to have it all through the efforts of these pioneering women who’ve struggled and said, ‘This doesn’t work for me.’
“By bringing them together for a dialogue, they’ve realized those two years were a shared experience. Now they’re going through some life issues — parents with Alzheimer’s and major health issues themselves — and here is this network of brilliant women who can help them.”
After everyone had spoken at the breakfast, some praising their experience and some lamenting parts of it, Sung stood up and challenged them to get together again, at least for their 40th reunion — no, before that. There was a round of enthusiastic applause, a sign that perhaps they’d made peace with the past and were ready to start a new relationship, with each other and, maybe, even with Princeton.
Merrell Noden ’78, a freelance writer, is a frequent PAW contributor.