When Tilghman retires this June, she will leave behind an ongoing campus conversation about gender at Princeton, a discussion that was built and promoted by Tilghman’s social activism. While Tilghman’s gender certainly helped define her setting priorities as president, feminist leaders on campus were quick to note that gender issues were not the sole focus of her presidency.
Nevertheless, Tilghman’s tenure impacted the role of women at the University significantly. Though her appointment in itself broke barriers, she also appointed women to a number of high-profile positions that had been historically male-dominated, spearheaded a committee evaluating women’s undergraduate experiences and sought to even gender inequities in the sciences and engineering.
As a result, Tilghman said, gender is no longer an issue on the University’s agenda.
The most prominent and identifiable element of her women’s activism was the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership, which Tilghman called for in 2009. In February 2011, the Committee released its report, which argues that female undergraduates are less likely to pursue campus leadership opportunities than their male counterparts.
Committee chair and Wilson School professor Nannerl Keohane said that despite Tilghman’s on-campus advocacy, women’s issues were more of a peripheral issue for her administration.
“I don’t think gender was a crucial issue in her work, but it was an underlying background factor, which I think has been really important for Princeton and very healthy,” Keohane said.
Vice President for Campus Life Cynthia Cherrey shared Keohane’s perspective, saying that Tilghman’s presidency “communicates symbolically” and encourages young women to see themselves in these types of leadership roles.
However, she added, “you need to be effective in that role, and President Tilghman has done that very much so and will continue to do that in her 12th year.”
Catherine Ettman ’13, a former USG vice president who has a close relationship with Tilghman and served on the Steering Committee, praised Tilghman, “gender aside.”
“I thought it was really cool that people said they trusted her judgment. She’s very wise, she’s very thoughtful, and I think that’s just a good trait in a leader. It doesn’t matter what gender you are,” Ettman explained.
Tilghman explained that her gender was only newsworthy when she was announced but that the issue faded as she settled into her role and other issues came to the forefront.
“I think my gender was a topic of interest in the first year or so. It was novel; it drew attention to one aspect of my career … that caused some level of interest,” Tilghman explained. “I will be very surprised if the gender of the candidates [for the next president] who are assembled is of any interest to anyone,” she added.
Keohane noted two of Tilghman’s specific accomplishments that she believes are “rooted in her gender”: the appointment of a number of “strong women” in the administration and the creation of the Steering Committee.
Early in Tilghman’s tenure, she began to attract criticism for the number of women she appointed to top positions in her administration, including then-Wellesley College admission dean Janet Rapelye. Tilghman defended these appointments in the past, saying these criticisms implied it is not possible for women to be the strongest applicants.
Keohane noted that in the fall before the Steering Committee was formed, several administrators, Tilghman and herself were beginning to share concerns about how such a high proportion of valedictorians and salutatorians, the winners of academic prizes, the recipients of fellowships like the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships and holders of USG leadership positions seemed to “disproportionately” be men.
“A number of us had been struck by it, but Shirley didn’t just stop there,” Keohane added.
Ettman explained that it was “really important” that Tilghman recognize the underrepresentation of women leaders across campus. She framed the issue in terms of “empowering” all students — both men and women.
“I know that other universities have similar trends, but they were not as vocal about it. They weren’t as brave to say, ‘This is happening and we’re going to do something about it,’ ” Ettman noted.
The effects of the Steering Committee are already visible, Tilghman argued, though there is still a lot of progress to be made.
“The extraordinary success that we had last year with the Rhodes and Marshall shows that you need to shine light occasionally on issues, to just be self-conscious about the fact that men and women were making different choices,” Tilghman said, referring to the higher number of Princeton women that won the prestigious fellowships. “The benefits will be clearer in the next five to 10 years,” she added.
Keohane explained that while Tilghman and the committee focused on the undergraduate experience for women, there is more to be done by the next president.
“We’d like to know about high school experiences and after Princeton,” Keohane said. “It’s happening already at the high school level that girls are being careful about being too aggressive so we have to say, ‘Why is this happening, what are the costs of this, what are the reasons that people feel this way?’”
An accomplished molecular biologist, Tilghman worked during her term to encourage more women to enter science and engineering, fields in which women are typically underrepresented.
“I’ve worked on this issue for probably 25 years. There has been slow and steady progress, and we should celebrate that,” she said. “We forget that the slope is positive, but it’s small. If you asked me 25 years ago, I would have thought we would be in a better place.”
As for Tilghman’s legacy, Keohane noted that students should not take Tilghman’s leadership on women’s issues for granted. And as the first female president, she knows that, while the work is not yet complete, her mere appointment to lead one of the nation’s top schools was a major advancement in its own right.
“We have taken gender as an issue off the agenda, which I think is a very good thing,” Tilghman said. “I’ve never thought of myself as the female president of Princeton — I’ve always thought of myself as the president of Princeton. I represent the constituency of Princeton,” she said.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/28/31307/