Over the last 3 years, there has been a surprising new trend across student groups: back-to-back women leaders of student groups including the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), Whig-Clio, Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Princetonian, and Business Today.
Contrary to what we might expect from a place like Princeton, many of these organizations have not had women leaders for years. Take USG as an example. In the fall of 2014, Ella Cheng ’16 was elected to serve as the first USG woman President in 12 years. In fall 2015, Aleksandra Czulak ’17 became the first women to be elected USG President after another woman president, and Myesha Jemison ’18 continued the record in fall 2016 by being elected to the office on the first ballot with only women presidential candidates in Princeton’s history. These record three consecutive women USG Presidents already approach the total number of women presidents elected over 30 years from 1980-2010, according to the Report of the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership: only four women presidents in total, with two in the 1980s, one in the 1990s, and one in the 2000s.
This recent new trend poses the question: Is women leadership in student groups at Princeton truly an anomaly? Why are women representing now more than ever before? Based on both of our experiences running for and then serving as USG presidents, we believe that small moments of encouragement and discouragement — especially from fellow women — can make all the difference between no women leadership for decades and consecutive years of visible women leadership.
Like many women before us, we both faced moments when we almost didn’t take the leap and run because of discouragement from others — including women. After Ella joked on a bus ride the summer after freshman year about potentially ending up a USG-lifer and running for President in the future, a female friend responded, “You shouldn’t do that. Do you know what happened to the last woman who ran for USG president?”, proceeding to describe the extra controversies and hateful messages about motivations, appearance and social reputation that the last female presidential candidate had faced. Although Ella knew this friend had commented out of care and concern, these thoughts inevitably haunted Ella while she pored over running three years later.
While running for USG VP and President, Aleks faced both discouragements and assumptions about her choice. While she was deciding whether to run for USG VP, a few friends tried to encourage her to run for a different uncontested position, since they wanted to protect Aleks from the possibility of losing or having a more challenging campaign and workload. Going into the USG presidential election, she faced less discouragement, but instead was met with assumptions that she was only running for president as the natural, next step after being VP. Furthermore, she was often compared with her predecessor, Ella, and consistently asked how she would be different from Ella, as if women leaders could not have distinct leadership styles from one another.
Yet, there were also moments of encouragement that drove us forward, with some of the most memorable boosts coming from women we respected and looked up to. Arriving as an idealistic freshman on campus itching to help improve Princeton, Ella considered running for class senator, but had no idea how to run a proper campaign, let alone knock hundreds of doors. Only after Ella met Carmina Mancenon, a USG chair at the time and eventual USG Vice President, who offered to help knock the first few doors with her, did she manage to have her first few door-to-door conversations, and then many more on her own.
Several weeks before the deadline to run for USG president three years later, Ella had decided with 90 percent certainty to run for a lower position because of self-doubts and all the horror stories she had heard. However, it took a few women whom she admired and had collaborated with to change her mind. Ella’s twin sister encouraged her to run, after objectively evaluating that the presidency was the only platform she could use to significantly reform USG. Furthermore, Ella realized she wouldn’t be alone as a candidate, after speaking with fellow inspiring women candidates and future USG mates, Aleks and Kathy Chow, about running.
In deciding whether to run for USG VP, Aleks had a decisive conversation with Ella that ultimately pushed her to run. Even though the two of us had not worked closely together before, Aleks felt that, if both of us were to win, we would complement each other well and make a good leadership team, rather just competent, elected individuals.
From these experiences, we’ve become convinced that the words and actions of peers and women to one another can make or break someone’s choice to take a leap and stretch their boundaries, or to withdraw and play it safe. While we both have been more skeptical about the extent to which simply the presence of women leaders creates more women leaders through role modeling, we have also started to believe in this theory more after our presidencies. The numbers of women in both elected and appointed positions in USG have drastically increased during and since our terms, consistently outnumbering male applicants and candidates — a trend that cannot be solely credited to our individual and limited outreach efforts encouraging women to run one-on-one or through panels. More women have also stayed and become veterans within USG, chairing committees and becoming the majority of senior members.
Hopefully, this trend lasts, and extends across the campus and our country beyond USG. In the future, let’s hope that women and men alike will no longer have to warn other women about the risks of campaigning, but instead nominate women to run for leadership, pointing to the last kickass woman who led x-organization. It’ll take all of us to make sure that consecutive women leaders — whether it be 3 or 10 in a row — are no longer an anomaly in any organization, whether it be at Princeton or nationwide.
Ella Cheng ’16 served as USG President from January 2015-January 2016. Aleksandra Czulak ’17 served as USG Vice President from January 2015-January 2016 and USG President from January 2016-2017. Ella and Aleksandra were the first duo-women leadership team for USG and Aleksandra was the first woman to be elected USG President following a female USG President.