The Ivy membership has gathered in the library. One by one, they choose who will fill the positions on the club’s officer board: they elect a male president, a male vice-president, a female bicker chair, and a male social chair. One more position remains: house manager. The competition is between a girl and a boy whose respective campus affiliations wield significant social power in the club. All of a sudden there’s a rumbling, some movement, a dull hum that grows in volume as more and more people chime in. “More girls! more girls! more girls!” The dark-wood-panelled room turns clamorous. “More girls!” The club, with its various affiliations, joins in unity for a brief moment. “More girls!” Order is restored. The members vote. The votes are counted. The male candidate wins.
This year, eating club officers are predominantly male. Not that this year is anything special: the fact that officers are usually guys is just one of those facts of life on the Street that its denizens don’t talk too much about, in the same way no one mentions that the considerable expenses these clubs demand—even with the increased financial aid from the university in upperclassman years—cause significant socioeconomic stratification, or that the racial makeup of the clubs is homogenous, or that affiliations play a huge role in what is billed as a “fair” bicker process. But I digress.
The Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership issued a report in 2011 investigating a perceived lack of female representation in leadership and high-ranking scholarship positions. The 100-page report encompasses much of the gender dynamics present in daily student life, but one of the most striking conclusions the Committee drew was that women occupied plenty of leadership roles on campus, just not the “high-profile ones.” “Despite being less likely than men to stand as candidates for a presidency or other more visible posts,” the report states, “undergraduate women do a large proportion of the important work in the organizations to which they belong.”
Eating clubs are, technically, off-campus, but those students elected to leadership positions have some of the most influential roles on campus, an influence not restricted only to social life. Elections of senior officers, which usually take place towards the end of fall semester or the beginning of spring semester, are characterized by all kinds of political posturing, affiliated muscle-flexing, all-too-frequent devolutions into popularity contests, and—underneath it all—fascinating, complex gender politics. Beyond just a failure in general terms of gender equality, the imbalance in numbers of men and women in officer positions has real consequences, among which are the frequency of sexist themes, the clubs’ subtle codification of what it means to be a “Cloister girl” or a “Terrace girl” or a “Cottage girl” that can feel restrictive and exclusionary, and their failures to adequately address instances of sexual assault.
It is important to remember throughout this article that the Street—and Princeton, for that matter—was an old boys’ club until relatively recently. Princeton only let in women in 1971, and since then, campus has come closer and closer to being a fair place, not just for women, but for anyone who’s not a white Protestant male. That said, Sally Frank had to go to the Supreme Court in 1991 to compel Ivy and Tiger Inn to allow women to join, and considering the social prestige of these clubs, I feel a little sick when I remember they’ve only let women in for barely longer than I’ve been alive. Though now one can look around Princeton and see all kinds of people who never would have been allowed to attend the Princeton of old, that Princeton is ever-present, its appeal happily trumpeted by the administration and much of the student body. In the beautiful old buildings, the ivy-covered walls, the sumptuously carpeted halls of eating clubs, one can almost feel the Princeton that once was. And from these clubs—just as from Princeton—alongside access to experiences and people who will change our lives and make us better, we inherit a legacy of privilege and elitism, a history of intolerance and inequality.
I sought them through websites, through mutual friends, through Facebook, through repeated emails. I promised anonymity, off-the-record conversations, any kind of protection they wanted. I went to Small World, to back rooms in eating clubs I had never set foot in before, to darkened courtyards outside libraries. And I found them—not all of them, but some of them—the women who had been elected to eating club officerships for the coming year. They told vastly different stories and expressed vastly different frustrations and hopes: each club is a microcosm of its own gendered expectations, after all. My hope in this article is to highlight specific themes and patterns in how female officers deal with the inequalities that their position includes—and how the clubs deal with their female officers—in the hopes of bringing to light some of the underlying issues in these clubs. I don’t want to condemn specific eating clubs (they all have pretty tortured gender dynamics) nor editorialize the experience of anyone who agreed to talk to me. Part of the reason discussing gender dynamics is so important is that they’re so hard to talk about: they’re so subtle, so insidious, that sometimes we forget they’re even there.
All but one female officer wanted anonymity. This was partly because of grad board bullying (in many clubs, the president is the only one who is allowed to speak to the press), but partly due to worries about ruining the dynamic in what more often than not was a majority male officer corps: they didn’t want to be the girl who had run to a reporter to complain about the people she would be living with next year. Some, like Claire Liu from Cloister, just didn’t agree with the angle of my article. “I don’t feel that gender was a factor in my election or decision to run,” she wrote back to me. “Feel free to quote me on anything I’ve said.”
Claire’s comment prompted a lot of murmurs of approbation from the women I spoke to, but the numbers suggest that something is going on here. Princeton is about 49% female, but by compiling lists of the eating club officers I’ve calculated that—depending on who you count as an officer—only a third of eating club officers are women (33-35%). There is only one female president: Sarah Pak, of Colonial. All of the eating clubs (except Colonial if you count only what they call the “Top 5” officers: president, vice-president, social chair, house manager, and treasurer) have more male than female officers. In Colonial’s Top 5, they have more female than male officers: in fact, females are in their top three positions: president, vice-president, and social chair. But the entirety of their officer corps has more male than female officers, though the relative power of these positions diminishes as you move downwards.
This “Top 5” structure is how many of the eating clubs work. Most clubs have a “Top 5” whether nominal or not, and then a series of lower-ranking officers, in positions like “Liquid Assets Chair,” “IM Chair, and “Activities Chair” These top five (or six) are usually: president, vice president, social chair, house manager, treasurer, with maybe another one thrown in for good measure. These are the people who get to live in the club, who get ICC stickers, who represent the club to both alumni and membership. They make a kind of mind-boggling commitment, out of love for the club and hope for it to be better, assume legal responsibility, agree to giving up several of their nights a week so they can be present at social events, deal with members, grad board, alumni. Everyone says it’s fun. I’ll take their word for it.
Over the course of about a month, I spoke to seven female officers (though I contacted—and was ignored by—many more). In this article, they all, except for one, have pseudonyms, and much of what they told me was off-the-record. Many of what will seem to be wild assertions are based in facts from conversations with the officers, though I cannot name specific events. Goldie, Fern, Ruby and Melody are officers of selective clubs; Robin and Hazel are officers of sign-ins, as is Miriam Pearsall, but that’s actually her name and she’s letting me quote her and say her exact position, and her club, which is Colonial.
Most officers I talked to shared a goal of wanting to make their respective clubs better places overall, but a few specifically highlighted the desire to make it a safer place for women. Several women recount tales of dealing with issues of sexual assault in their club, especially when it comes to legitimizing the experience of the victim and making sure appropriate measures are taken to prevent such instances from happening in the future. The position of TI “safety czar” was implemented in 2008 after a TI alum sued the club because she was sexually assaulted during pickups. Safety czar is usually a girl, and part of her responsibility is to make sure no one gets too drunk or assaulted on the dance floor; that no one passes out; that no one needs to go the hospital. TI isn’t alone in taking measures like this. Most clubs make sure they have one male and one female on duty at all times to go into bathrooms and make sure everything’s okay in there, that no one’s slumped by the toilet, forgotten by equally drunk friends, needing help. “That’s something that boys are really good about, too,” Ruby—an officer of a selective club—tells me. “It’s not just girls.” Hazel, an officer of a sign-in club, nonetheless stresses that this is one of the most important ways a girl can be involved in her eating club, and one of the most important reasons to make sure more females are elected to officer positions: for the safety of everyone in the club, whether they’re members or guests.
Another way female officers seek to mitigate the gendered tensions of their social scenes is through themes. Ruby says she tries really, really hard to ignore “…and Sluts/Hos” themes when organizing an event. (Examples of past themes of this ilk—from multiple clubs—include: Rubik’s Cubes and Sluts, Jedis and Sluts, ConquistaBros and NavaHos, and one eating club even received the suggestion of “Dinosaurs and Sluts”). “It’s really hard,” Melody says, “because some girls find it offensive, but then other girls want to dress provocatively.” This is one of the issues facing modern feminism today: is the sexualization and objectification of the female body a means of domination or liberation? How do we decide?
Of course, any election is political, and gender dynamics aren’t always the most direct cause of the gender imbalance in eating club officers. One of the most common reasons I hear for girls not being elected is that guys are “just better” at organizing voting blocs, especially through frats. This is an issue that comes up over and over again, especially in selective clubs that are made up largely of affiliations, be they fraternities, sororities, sports teams, or other extracurricular groups. The nature of frats and sororities especially is such that frats create what are assumed to be tight groups of guy friends, who all “have each others’ backs” and whose friendships seem legitimate, strong, according to Goldie, an officer of a selective club with a significant Greek population. Sororities, however—massive amalgamations of over a hundred girls—are not perceived as such, partly because of their size and partly because “sorority girl” often codes for “shallow social climber.” In one selective club, a sophomore tells me, there was a close race between an affiliated girl and an affiliated guy this year. Girls of another sorority, the rumor goes, pooled their votes to vote for the guy, seemingly reasoning it would be better to have a male officer than a girl of a rival affiliation, though many of these same girls had articulated very clearly earlier that the club needed more girl officers. What they meant, it seems, is that they wanted more girls from their affiliation. Better a boy than their competition.
Guys, it seems, can get away with this partisanship more than girls can. “When girls stick together it’s perceived as more about social status than anything else,” Goldie explains to me, “whereas with guys it’s like, ‘oh, they’re brothers.’” In elections, she says, “girls are perceived as wanting a position for the wrong reasons, people think they want it to go one step further in social power,” whereas with guys there’s none of this. “They just think he’s probably a really good guy and that he cares about the club.” This applies to campaigning, too: no clubs have articulated rules about campaigning, but there are many subtle ways one can make it clear that one is interested in a officer position. With girls, these signs—being friendlier than usual, hanging around the club more—are often mocked in Goldie’s club, where with guys it’s not even mentioned.
In one selective club—in which Ruby tells me that “[affiliated] guys definitely want to see one of their own as president,”—this kind of behavior would be met with suspicion. “If a guy was suddenly, like, being super friendly, you would know it was because they were running. With girls, it was just what we would do anyway.” While this is nice for those girls who are super friendly, it implies that only popular girls run in the first place. With guys, the playing field seems to be more level: you don’t have to be gregarious and amiable to get elected. Instead, you just have to be flanked by an army of friends, and you only have to be nice to people for a couple weeks, until you’re elected. Then, it all can go back to normal, guys being taciturn and girls doing everything they can to be universally liked.
Fern, whose selective club is also marked by a significant amount of affiliated members, recounts a remark she heard an older member make in the couple months leading up to elections. A group of members were discussing who would run and who would win, and someone expressed a hope there might be a girl president. This older girl, Fern says, laughed and said “Why would I waste my vote on a girl when she would never get elected anyway?” Fern lowers her voice and holds my gaze. “Listen,” she says, punctuating each word by pressing her hand against the table. “Boys are not the reason that girls aren’t getting elected. Girls are the reason girls aren’t getting elected.”
The work girls put into being perceived as friendly and approachable may be exactly why they aren’t elected to the head positions. Over and over again, girls tell me that there is an expectation that the president will be a boy. I hear it from female officers of sign-in clubs and selective clubs, athletes, sorority girls, and unaffiliated girls. Especially in the cases of girls who ran for a more powerful role than what they
eventually were appointed or elected to (and this is the story of almost every female officer—and symptomatic of the way elections work anyway—you start from the top and work your way down) one of the big reasons these women think they didn’t win president, or vice-president, or any of the subsequent positions, is that they just didn’t “seem” like presidential material. They don’t say that necessarily codes for “man,” but the suggestion is obvious. The girls are confident, and maintain they would have been just as good in a more powerful position as they are going to be in the one they were elected to, (they all stress they are happy in their current ones, and seem it) but they know that they were, just by virtue of being female, fighting a losing battle. Colonial was the only eating club with a female president last year, and some of the other clubs have had at least one female president in recent memory (except Cannon). When this class ran, though, there were no female presidential shoes to fill. The glass ceiling, which had been cracked in years past, was newly smooth, imperfection-free.
That said, according to Fern, “nobody thinks it’s okay to have no female officers.” In another eating club, I hear, a position that was usually held by a girl was held by a guy last year. During elections, at least half the club heard him say it would be better for a girl to have it. Realizing he’d made a faux-pas, he backtracked, saying he just meant that girls were kinder, better with people (a girl would eventually be elected to it). This idea of girls’ kindness suiting them for some positions is the classic double-standard: it’s exactly this that (male) opponents use to imply they wouldn’t be good in more powerful positions. The well-liked women who run for these positions are sometimes called out for being too friendly, too kind, and sometimes people wonder loudly whether—given their girl’s history of being amiable, likable—they’d be able to assert themselves where it matters. As sexist views usually are, this proves inconsistent. Female officers report over and over again feeling that they do more work than their male counterparts and take their position “more seriously,” and that they receive more backlash when they assert themselves than guys do.
Fern, when asked why she thinks fewer girls run in the first place, mentioned that she thinks girls take commitments more seriously. Being an eating club officer involves legal responsibility and social and extracurricular sacrifices that it takes a certain kind of person to make. “I had to carefully consider the impact being an officer would have on my academics, and I’m involved in a lot of activities. The list of people willing to make that kind of commitment is very small,” Fern says.
Another officer of a selective club agrees. “There’s just an impression that guys can handle it, more,” Lucretia says. Goldie tells the story of the time when an election came down to a very close call between a boy and a girl, and many members of the club worried aloud that the girl might be overcommitted, though no one had even mentioned this concern when a popular, busy frat boy was elected to another position.
Another matter is how these female officers create an identity within their respective positions. The girls I talk to uniformly express irritation with the reflection of their power they see in the eyes of the people who voted for (or against) them. Goldie is irritated that people keep calling her “HBIC,” a popular acronym for “Head Bitch in Charge,” usually meant to gently mock women who decide they’re calling the shots, and then do so. “It kind of made me livid that because I’m a woman in power I’m a bitch, just because I have ideas and opinions and an authoritative position and don’t take bullshit. ‘Bitch’ is used pretty colloquially these days, but it still makes me crazy,” she says. She mostly hears it from girls, and says she cannot help but hear derision in it.
This is echoed by Ruby, who just has embraced the fact that her outspoken, no-nonsense nature means that people are going to comment on it. “I’m a sassy bitch,” she remarks in a joking way, but she admits she’s being truthful. She’s aware that’s how she’s perceived, so she tries to soften her tone in the emails she sends to her eating club, and how she takes care of her tasks.
But if you’re not a bitch, you’re also a kind of maternal figure. “I’ve been called a mom before,” Melody says. Robin, an officer of a sign-in club, embraces the identifier, saying “I behave like a mom, making sure people are nice by just being nice, plus I know where everyone’s shit is.” Girls are supposed to be more responsible, cleaner, more considerate. And none of these are bad things: Hazel—who mentioned that, during elections, she got the idea that she was understood to be “nurturing,”—wishes that those characteristics didn’t necessarily code for second, third, or fourth in command. “There’s no reason you can’t be nurturing and not also be a good leader,” she says. But that’s what people seem to think.
Melody, who proudly calls herself a feminist (the only girl I speak to who offers this self-identifier of her own accord, though I did not ask the others), also voices frustration with this bitch/mom complex. She’s well-known in her club for her outspoken views on feminism, but—she says—“I’m really girly, and sometimes that means people don’t take me seriously.” Another irritation is the mocking she’ll get for doing certain things—say, wearing make-up or liking pink. “That’s not feminist!” people say to her. Melody rolls her eyes when she recounts these interactions. “It’s not about doing stuff that guys would do,” she says. “It’s about girly things being okay to do.”
Melody mentions emails as a particular medium through which she tries to gain respect, and the issue of emails is a loaded one for female officers. The primary way they communicate with their clubs, they have to strike just the right balance: warrant respect, but still seem approachable, but not in a way that makes them seem like a pushover. Almost every female officer tells me that in emails guys get away with a kind of humor that’s unreachable for girls, a mix of bullying and sex jokes, underpinned by a constant kind of fratty ethos about raging face that it’s harder for girls to pull off. For those who don’t send out social emails, the challenge is “not looking like an aggressive bitch,” Ruby says. “I’m always trying to add exclamation points.” Melody, however, says that her tendency to use exclamation points means that she loses respect.
In comparison to the failures of other eating clubs to fairly and equally represent their female members, Colonial Club seems like a dream come true. Where some female officers were dismissed in elections as too “nurturing,” relegated to vice-president because that was a “subordinate” position, Colonial has filled their highest-ranking positions with three women. Colonial has a history of progressivism: they were the first club on the Street to allow women membership and the first non-bicker club. This is something they’re really proud of, Miriam Pearsall, the social chair, says, and the tradition of equality continues today with the club’s reputation as “the Asian one,” something of which everyone in the club is very conscious. Not everyone in the club is Asian, of course, but the perception of the club as such is essential to its identity, whether in the embrace or rejection of it.
Though what it’s like to be Asian on this campus does not fall within the scope of this article—and certainly not the personal experience of its author—I have been shocked to see and to hear from Asian and Asian-American friends the prejudices they confront on a daily basis. These dynamics have received more and more attention in recent years, from major news outlets like the New York Times and student-led initiatives at colleges like Duke, meant to push back against these problems, but still, there is a lot of work left to be done. It fits right into Colonial’s ethos of progressivity and acceptance that a group of people who have had to confront a never-ending stream of campus prejudice find themselves here, where people just like this have found themselves for decades, now.
“Colonial’s Asian stereotype is for some reason seen as negative,” Miriam says. Members are well aware, and race was something that came up frequently—though obliquely—during elections. “I remember someone asked me a specific question about how I would convince someone that they should come here and I remember saying, well, it’s not about race. People here are very diverse in their own ways, part of different parts of campus, different talents … and in the end personality transcends race.” Miriam is black, something she acknowledges is surprising for a club stereotyped to be full of Asians. She is one of few black officers overall (the racial makeup of eating club officers, too, is a topic for a whole other article.) “It’s really interesting to me how our officer corps doesn’t really represent the demographic of the club,” Miriam says.
Miriam ran against a boy in a frat and people who had been officers for parts of their sophomore year, which she had not. In the elections, she was the underdog. Her election is a testament both to her charisma and passion and the fairness of Colonial’s elections. She is proud to be one of the few black officers in Colonial’s history and on the Street but knows this is a problem. “The people I’ve talked to in the black community are pretty vocal in how they don’t feel welcome in a bunch of eating clubs, and it seems wrong to me that certain areas are off-limits for people still, even if it’s implied,” she says. “There’s this invisible barrier [that] is really unfortunate, and perpetuates a lot of misunderstandings and exclusion.”
This is not something that other clubs are often forced to confront, given the their overwhelming homogeneity. It seems that constantly confronting the prejudices of others has led Colonial’s members to create a more inclusive climate. “There were people who applied for certain positions and in other clubs they wouldn’t even consider them,” Miriam claims, “but we consider the holistic view. At other clubs it’s more about your image of being a partier.”
It’s easy for one eating club to criticize another, but I think Miriam might be on to something. In other clubs (and in Colonial, too, I’m sure) there’s a real concern with how the officers will make the clubs look. It’s just that, in Colonial’s case, it wants to look accepting, open, and progressive, so it’s easier for females (and un-affiliated, non-white females, no less!) to be elected. But in other clubs, the history they’re so proud of is a history of all-male uber-selectivity, wealth, and social prestige. And that’s the reason, I think, that many of the female officers I talked to are the kinds of girls who are confident enough to demand what is still not a traditional role for women, and qualified enough to earn it, and also pretty attractive. They’re the kinds of girls straight guys probably want to have sex with, but if that’s not going to happen they’re fine with just hanging out with them. Many of the girls I spoke to were “chill,” that definitionless, omnipresent word that reveals more about the person saying it than the person called it. A “chill” person is just a person who doesn’t stress you out. And girls—it is clear—stress people out.
When “chill” is used to describe a girl it means she’s not high-strung, not self-promoting. She probably smokes weed or can chug a beer. In Terrace, where I am a member, it’s a word that I am told used to be used in a desperate, searching sense: “Where are the girl chillers?” dudes would bellow down the hallways, waving around pitchers of beer. “WHERE ARE THE GIRL CHILLERS?” Since then, they have appeared: girls who smoke, girls who hang, girls who drink beer, girls who aren’t worried so much about their hair or their dresses or their romantic lives that they kill dudes’ vibes, girls who—effectively—have capitulated without complaint to male forms of socializing. In a way, being “chill” is a status symbol, a mark of social privilege: guys can “chill” because things are easier for them, because girls—in every part of campus—are still trying to prove themselves equal to a standard guys have set, because to be a well-liked girl used to mean being a girl immaculately dressed and well-mannered, a light and fascinating conversationalist, filled with all kinds of amusing and diverting skills, and that meant girls were often stressed out. In their attempts to be the kind of girls guys would want to be around, they became the exact opposite. Now, guys say, it’s time to chill out.
I ask many of the officers I talk to articulate what the stereotype of the typical girl in their eating club is—and with the exception of one of the most elitist clubs on the Street (guess which)—the answer is usually “girls who don’t take themselves too seriously,” or “girls who can take a joke,” or “girls who are comfortable with themselves.” When I asked the same question about guys, I usually received something along the lines of “smart, funny,” and then the respective affiliation that characterized the eating club, whether it was “athlete” or “frat bro” or “theater person.” This difference could be attributed to the fact that I only spoke to female officers—guys surely feel pressure to present a kind of maleness that girls are less able to articulate—but the definition of what makes an “X Eating Club Girl” rests on the apparent achievement of the girls to be a different kind of girl than “the average one,” who—I suppose—must be defined by opposites: unchill, unable to take a joke, uncomfortable with themselves.
Every female officer I spoke to was friendly, open, intelligent, articulate—and a little jumpy, a little nervous. Much of it was just anxiety about being interviewed, but much of it was because they were saying, out loud, what you’re not really allowed to say as a woman, these days, especially if you’ve been elected to a representative position by a group of your peers: that you really, really are worried about being liked.
I ask all of them whether they’re worried about moving into a house full of dudes for the next year, and they all gently roll their eyes at me. I ask them whether they’re worried about living in what is essentially a frat house, where wasted and inconsiderate people come to be belligerent, and they smile and say that doesn’t scare them either. They’re not afraid of alums or grad boards. No: Melody tells me that “the most terrifying part is not doing a good job and having people not like you,” but Ruby tells me that it’s “doing your job and having people not like you because of it.” Both of those sound about right.