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Women studying women and the humanities

Leaves are falling in front of East Pyne.
Leaves begin to fall as the weather becomes colder.
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

Growing up, I quickly realized that the humanities are not as respected as their STEM counterparts in many spaces. For years, I told people that I wanted to be a doctor because I knew that it was a socially acceptable answer. I wouldn’t have to deal with someone interrogating me about job security or what I actually plan to do. Being a doctor was a safe, stable path. After applying to Princeton, I realized that I wasn’t passionate enough to dedicate the next decade of my life to studying medicine to become a doctor. I decided that, instead of studying neuroscience like I had originally planned, I was going to study English.

I’ve heard a wide range of responses to this change, such as “What can you actually do with that, though?” and “What’s the point of going to a school like Princeton if you’re just going to get a useless degree?” I learned that some people truly don’t value the humanities. I didn’t think it would bother me — I knew what I wanted to do with an English degree. I knew the goals I had for myself, so I didn’t care if someone who barely knew me thought that English was a pointless subject to study in college.


What did bother me, however, was something that I didn’t realize until I was actually able to take humanities courses at Princeton. In a recent English class I took here, I was one of three female students. One day, my professor told me that I needed to talk more. He said that, as one of the only girls in the class, he wanted to hear my observations, which the guys in the class would overlook. While it was a good way to get me to talk more — I will always have something to say about representation of women’s experiences in literature, I found it amusing that the things my professor wanted me to talk about, the things that I noticed as a woman reading these texts, were also the things that made people uncomfortable to hear. On the last day of class, each student was asked to talk about one theme that we noticed connected multiple texts from the class.

While other students talked about symbolism or literary devices, I was the only person who discussed the treatment of women in these texts. Sethe’s trauma in Beloved, Dewey Dell’s desperation to end her pregnancy in As I Lay Dying, Liz’s rape in “Up in Michigan”: these were all things that we all saw and discussed, but no one wanted to take the time to actually discuss them. Maybe my professor wanted to hear my thoughts as a way for me to talk more, but it felt relatively clear that the rest of my class didn’t care about what I had to say about representations of women in literature.

This problem doesn’t seem to be a new one. In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Melissa Haynes, a lecturer in the Classics department, described her experience in graduate school where she “thought anything [was]possible and [she] [could] ask any question, especially when it [came] to thinking about the representation of women in texts.” However, she went on to recount how “those types of questions were not being asked.” 

Just like Haynes, I wanted to talk about these things. For so much of history, women have been ignored and pushed to the side. Our stories haven’t been told, so why shouldn’t I want to focus on telling those stories now? Many women in the humanities have asked the same questions, and it is thanks to them and their work that we have learned and continue to learn about the historical lives and perspectives of women. 

Haynes articulated how her initial undergraduate interest in the “bubble of new work that was being done around women and gender in the late 80s and early 90s” and the suppression that the field of work faced during that time were both part of her journey of fighting to focus so much of her studies on the lives of women. As a result, Haynes proclaimed how she “ended up having to fight harder to do the type of work that [she] thought I wanted to do.”

In this conversation, all I could think about was the fact that no matter what, women have to continuously fight to tell our stories. Just as Haynes had to fight and argue her way into doing her graduate research on the subjects she wanted to study, which she still studies and researches today, thousands of other women have had to fight very similar battles. Women’s stories are no longer being pushed to the sidelines. We are allowed to explore our history and teach stories that have been forgotten or repressed. Although we sometimes still have to fight for those stories to be told, women in humanities have made it known that we will not ignore our history for the comfort of others.


Mackenzie Hollingsworth is an assistant editor for The Prospect. She is a member of the Class of 2026 and can be reached at

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