Eighteen years ago, when Maura George Simpson ’01 considered joining the leadership of Cloister Inn, she initially saw herself as a vice president.
“I wouldn’t have run for president myself,” she said. “I tried to have one of my [male] friends run — I was going to put him up and run for vice president.”
Then, one of Simpson’s older female friends, who she described as vocal and strong, encouraged her to run. Simpson went for it. She won the presidency. The male peer she envisioned as club president ended up being her VP.
“It’s interesting to think back on that election, and that there really was some bias on my own part,” Simpson said.
In 2000, Simpson was one of the first female eating club leaders.
Her peer Melissa Waage ’01, former president of Colonial Club, said that male peers argued against her running for president.
“Because I was a small woman, they didn’t think I had the physical authority to handle interclub politics,” she said. “It’s interesting: I grew up in a fairly socially conservative area, and I never felt that being a woman would hold me back until I got involved in club politics at Princeton.”
In contrast, this past year, nine out of 11 eating clubs elected female presidents, and many of this year’s newly elected woman presidents eagerly began their eating club leadership journeys as sophomore officers last year.
Kimberly Peterson ’19, president of Colonial Club, became a sophomore officer a few weeks after joining the club and worked on recruitment with the officer corps.
“When elections came around I wanted to give back and show everyone the same warm welcoming feeling I had in sophomore year,” Peterson said.
President of Quadrangle Club Sarah Spergel ’19 also ran for sophomore representative and said that she loved the experience.
Hannah Paynter ’19, president of Cloister Inn, was an assistant to the club’s vice president last year.
“It was a lot of recruitment work and was so much fun to work with all of the officers,” Paynter said. “Almost all of the leadership now were assistant officers last year.”
Waage believes that women in leadership roles help reinforce opportunities for other women.
“Leaders gravitate towards multiple leadership positions,” she explained. “For women interested in building these [leadership] skills, to have that opportunity helps with women in leadership everywhere.”
Waage says that the eating clubs serve as an important training ground for leadership across the University, and she hopes that woman presidents on the Street will have a positive impact across the entire University.
The Interclub Council, which determines the standards for club policies and best practices, is composed of the 11 eating club presidents. So this year, its membership is overwhelmingly female.
One of the ICC’s main goals this term is improving how sexual assault at the clubs is handled. According to ICC co-president Paynter, the ICC is working with the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education office and SHARE peers in the clubs and experimenting with implementation of a consent pledge.
Rachel Macaulay ’19, president of Tower Club and ICC co-president, deferred comment to Paynter.
Jackie Deitch-Stackhouse, who has been director of the SHARE program for just over six years, said that she and the office began cultivating a relationship with the eating clubs early on.
“That relationship has grown deeper and stronger, in large part due to student interest in creating environments within clubs that are safe and respectful,” said Deitch-Stackhouse. “I’m very fortunate to be able to build off that foundation.”
According to Deitch-Stackhouse, the SHARE office uses a liaison-based approach. She said that most clubs have at least one member who is a SHARE peer. If there isn’t a peer, the club president is expected to act as that resource.
Deitch-Stackhouse said that a few years ago, the Interclub Council, along with the Title IX office, the SHARE Office, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, and individual clubs came up with a document she called a “best practice matrix” addressing issues such as new member and officer training, club policies and logistics, and club admissions.
Since the learning curve for the club president role is so steep, this common document is especially important when leaders have to make decisions in tough situations, Deitch-Stackhouse said.
This year SHARE is also piloting a new optional program addressing obstacles that bystanders might run into if they wish to intervene in tough situations.
Deitch-Stackhouse said the process of change is very student-driven and that the new training came about as a result of student requests.
“It’s how we approach our work,” she said. “We go into it keeping in mind that it’s students who are serving as the leaders and the clients, and we’re here to facilitate the process.”
According to Paynter, the ICC is currently working to establish consent pledges for all clubs. While Charter Club has an established policy of requiring Street-goers to read a consent pledge before entering their club, other clubs have been piloting consent pledge programs.
Paynter said that Maggie McCallister ’19, president of Tiger Inn, and RJ Hernandez ’19, president of Cap and Gown Club, have spearheaded the charge for implementing club-specific consent pledges.
“We’re trying to go with a data-driven approach, and whether we need to tailor the pledge to specific clubs, so we’re doing research for all the clubs,” Paynter said.
The efforts that the ICC and the SHARE office are putting toward fighting sexual harassment represent a significant departure from the past, according to Waage and Simpson.
Simpson says that she hopes things that happened two decades ago, such as the drinking atmosphere leading to problems with harassment, are less tolerated now.
“I think that if women who are having trouble can feel more comfortable coming forward to a female president, that’s great,” Simpson said.
“Sexual assault was a serious problem when my class was there, but it was being dealt with with not near as much energy and intensity,” Waage said.
Waage said she is confident that Prospect Avenue’s largely female leadership will positively impact the Street’s culture for women.
“As we’ve seen in business, entertainment, politics, and so on, having women in leadership changes both the tenor of the environment, and the actual policies,” Waage said. “Having women in leadership absolutely translates into a better environment for women, and how we deal with sexual assault.”
In addition, the ICC also intends to focus on multiple other goals, such as working to make the Street more accessible for underclassmen, especially during the daytime, and improving the sustainability of nights out by improving recycling programs.
“We’ve been talking in ICC about getting people in the door so that it’s a less mysterious process. I fear that some underclassmen never really see the Street through anything but nightlife, and we’ve been talking about making the Street as a whole less mysterious and secretive,” Paynter said.
Hernandez expressed excitement about working with the new cohort of presidents.
“Through our first few ICC meetings, it’s already clear that they are going to bring creative and inspiring ideas to their clubs, and to the Street as a whole,” Hernandez said.
The ICC of today tackles a much broader slate of issues than that of 20 years ago. According to Waage, the ICC of 2000 focused mainly on Street governance: managing sign-in and Bicker, calendar mechanics, and adherence to Princeton Borough policies.
“I believe that there was one other female president at that time,” she said.
With the recent influx of female leaders, though, ICC may face more scrutiny and pressure than usual.
“I think that there’s going to be a lot expected from ICC this year, having so many women on board,” Spergel said.
Spergel said she is confident in the ICC’s power to enact change this year however.
“I think that we can turn this into something big with Princeton’s eating clubs’ positive image overall,” Spergel said.
These women hope to make changes in their individual clubs as well.
Paynter emphasized the importance of making sophomore members feel as comfortable as possible by asking for their input on group bonding activities.
“We’ve been tailoring our members’ nights to sophomores, trying to make them feel like they have ownership of the club,” Paynter said.
“I’m most excited to get to know everyone and build relationships in the club. No year is ever going to be the same, and we just got a fantastic group of sophomores, and next year they’ll be here every day,” Paynter said.
McCallister shared similar sentiments. “My goal is to foster a community that forges strong bonds of friendship that members can carry with them beyond their years at Princeton,” she said.
The cohort of presidents is also working on accessibility and community-building outside of the clubs themselves.
McCallister said that she plans “to approach this year with a willingness to engage in authentic conversations between the University, our graduate board, and our membership.”
Spergel said that Quad has “a new position called outreach chair, whose goal is to reach out to professors and bring them to meals, and work with student groups to host events such as Latin dance night, to diversify the club’s experience.”
“We want to make it part of a larger Princeton community, so people don’t have to choose,” Spergel said.
Macaulay said that Tower recently hosted a study break which raised $1,700 for HomeFront, a nonprofit that assists the homeless.
Conor O’Brien ’19, president of Charter, said he wanted to “work on communicating what the eating club process entails and what the overall culture is like, to underclassmen,” because it seems to him that many people are still mystified by the entire experience.
Though these election results are historic, they are not surprising to those elected.
“It’s not that it’s nine women, it’s that these institutions elected 11 capable, wonderful individuals and nine happened to be women,” Macaulay said.
Her peers, male and female, agree that the group represents a qualified and deserving group.
“I already knew a lot of the women who were elected to the presidency in their respective clubs, and I know them all to be brilliant, intelligent, and determined people, so I was thrilled to find out that they had been elected,” O’Brien said.
Similarly, Hernandez explained, “I’m excited to be a part of this moment and to learn and grow from all of the different takes they each are going to bring to the role.”
“I had previous relationships with most of the women elected, so it makes the relationships and discussions and projects and goals even more exciting,” he added.
Similarly, Spergel focused more on the group’s leadership than on its gender composition.
“I think that men are great leaders as well, but this is really refreshing and a sign of progress,” Spergel said.
“I shared the news with everyone I could find in Charter, so that they could all see just how far the clubs have come, because really it’s very cool to have a large majority of the presidents be women,” O’Brien said.
For Paynter, seeing her fellow women attain leadership roles beside her was especially exciting.
“I was excited to see young women stepping up and taking those roles, especially in open clubs. I feel like we have a bond of similar mentality,” Paynter said.
For McCallister, this year’s elections are a sign that the eating clubs are changing with the needs of the student body.
“Having been historically underrepresented in the eating club system, it is amazing to watch the eating clubs transform to become increasingly inclusive environments for women,” McCallister said. “Three years ago, TI elected its first female president, Grace Larsen [’16], and I feel honored to follow in her footsteps as the second.”
Peterson agreed, saying, “It’s exciting, and it’s not necessarily unexpected. I think that eating clubs are much more egalitarian and gender-balanced now, and that will continue into the future.”
For both Simpson and Waage, female leadership is a self-strengthening cycle.
“It really took someone who was vocal and strong, who told me ‘You should run,’ for me to do it,” Simpson said. “It helped me go on to other positions in leadership, and to push my boundaries more, and I hope that these current presidents see themselves in more leadership roles during and after college.”
“These things come in numbers. Once you look around and see other people doing it, you think you can do it too,” Simpson said.
Though both celebrate the advances made by the recent slate of elections, Waage and Simpson also both inquired about the number of women of color in eating club leadership, noting the need for continued progress toward improved diversity.
“At the time we really thought we were trailblazers, and yet clearly there’s a lot more work to be done,” Waage said.
In the present, though, Waage encouraged the women presidents to believe in themselves, and Simpson advised these leaders to focus on standing up for what is right.
“Don’t worry about how you look as a female president,” Simpson said. “Just be a president, and make decisions that you are going to be proud of going forward.”
Casey Swezey ’19 of Cottage Club, Julia Haney ’19 of Cannon Dial Elm Club, Mimi Asom ’19 of Ivy Club, and Liz Yu ’19 of Terrace Club did not respond to multiple requests for comment.