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The Background for Our Work

Over most of its history, Princeton was specifically and firmly dedicated to educating male students. In 1969 the Board of Trustees decided that Princeton should admit women to undergraduate education. A thoughtful passage from the Patterson Report, which recommended coeducation, reads as follows:

It would be a disgrace to Princeton were the University to admit women only because it believed that this would serve the interests, however broadly defined, of its male students. Unless the University, its trustees, its faculty, and its students are ready to give continuous and serious concern and effort to what it can offer women for their intellectual growth and development, unless we are willing to accept as desirable that women will demand a quality of education in no way inferior to that offered men; unless we are prepared to acknowledge that the restricted roles of women in the past are outmoded, and the intellectual talents of women are "an important personal and public resource to be developed and used with care and courage," unless we can embrace all these things, Princeton should abandon all thought of admitting women. In point of fact, we believe that Princeton can meet this charge.

From the earliest years of coeducation, undergraduate women were involved in major campus activities including student government, the Triangle Club, varsity athletics, and The Daily Princetonian. Some traditional activities, including some of the eating clubs, remained closed to women for a number of years, but in other areas of the University women made their mark. At Commencement in 1975, both the valedictorian and the salutatorian were women.

Students at Commencement; Bass player

This pattern of female participation continued through the rest of the 20th century, with an upward trajectory in the numbers of women in the most visible offices. If we combine prominent posts (including being president of the student government, chair of the Honor Committee, editor-in-chief of The Princetonian, and president of the freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior class), we find that six women in the 1970s, 18 in the 1980s, and 22 in the 1990s held these posts.

However, one of the facts that first attracted our attention was that this trend was reversed in the first decade of the 21st century, when only 12 women held such offices. As we will emphasize throughout this report, women are interested in many kinds of activities, and it is misleading to assume that only these most visible posts "count" in assessing student leadership. Nonetheless, it is notable that after decades of gaining more visibility in such prominent positions on campus, women were less well represented in the past decade. Since the numbers of women increased steadily until almost 50 percent of the undergraduates were female in 2000, the downturn in the following decade is especially striking.

Figure 1. Representation of Princeton Undergraduates in Highest-Profile Leadership Positions on Campus, 1970-2010, by Sex and by Decade*
High Profile Positions: 1970s 6 women 64 men; 1980s 18 women 52 men; 1990s 22 women 48 men; 2000s 12 women 58 men
* Positions represent major elected positions and include Undergraduate Student Government president, Honor Committee chair, Prince editor-in-chief, and presidents of the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior classes. There are 70 positions in each decade.

The Pyne Prize, the highest general distinction the University confers on undergraduates, shows a trend similar to the leadership positions discussed above. The prize recognizes leadership, extracurricular achievement, and impact, as well as high academic achievement. The prize is normally awarded to one or two seniors each year. From 1970 through 2009, 68 students received the Pyne Prize, 25 of whom were women: four in the 1970s, five in the 1980s, 10 in the 1990s, and six in the 2000s.

Figure 2. Winners of Pyne Prizes, 1970-2009, by Sex and by Decade
Pyne Prize winners: 1970s, 4 women 12 men; 1980s 5 women 11 men; 1990s 10 women 8 men; 2000s 6 women 12 men

These and other data (available in the full version of our report) convinced members of the committee that in order to fulfill the president's charge we needed to learn much more about attitudes toward leadership and practices of leadership as well as patterns of academic achievement on our campus today. We approached this task through focus groups, surveys, conversations, background readings, and thoughtful deliberations around our meeting table. In the next sections, we present a summary of our findings.