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Beyond 'having it all'

Princeton tradition defines Reunions. And although female alums are excluded from some of Princeton’s older traditions, the women on campus this weekend have formed their own legacy over the last 40 years. Princeton women, especially older alums, are resilient trailblazers — women who entered and dominated traditionally male arenas, including this campus, despite structural sexism and discrimination.

This is not only a narrative of success but also of challenge and conflict. And so, another Reunions tradition is the women’s panel. In various iterations over the years, female alums have used Reunions as a forum to examine gender discrimination, women’s academic and professional success and whether Princeton women should attempt to “have it all.”

This year, faculty and students discussed women’s leadership at the University on a panel called “Leadership, Gender and Sexuality: What, When, Where, Why and How?” and several female alums and faculty discussed work-life balance after Princeton in the alumni-faculty forum “The ‘Invisible Syllabus:’ Should Princeton Women Do It All?” Though both of the panels provided insights into the challenges women face on campus and beyond, the leadership panel acknowledged the truth that the “Invisible Syllabus” panel avoided: sexism and discrimination are structural problems, and women (and men) need to agitate for structural change.

The faculty, administrators and students on the leadership panel all advocated for this structural change. They suggested implementing administrator and faculty training in gendered leadership, orientation programs so that freshmen understand from day one that gender equality is a problem on campus and leadership options that allow all students to take on more and diverse leadership roles without feeling overcommitted and burnt out.

The women at the “Invisible Syllabus” panel also acknowledged that many of the challenges women face in the workplace and in achieving a work-life balance have structural roots. But instead of proposing structural changes, many of the women discussed their personal coping mechanisms. One woman talked about the value of finding time for herself to relax and recharge during the day; another credited her support network of family and friends for making her success possible.

Undoubtedly, it is important for women to engage in self-care and develop strong support networks when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. It’s also much easier for Princeton students and faculty to propose practical solutions to the problem of gender equality on this campus than it is for anyone to propose solutions for society at large; the world of corporate America is obviously bigger and messier than a university administration. But on a panel like “Invisible Syllabus,” in which many of the women acknowledged the societal barriers to women’s success, it is insufficient to center the conversation on self-care and support networks.

Instead, we should center the conversation on activism and systemic change — both on campus and beyond. In the leadership panel, Amada Sandoval, director of the Women’s Center, said it’s not part of the Princeton culture for students to complain or aggressively agitate for change. We take care not to rock the boat. Instead, Associate Dean for Campus Life Tara Kinsey explained, Princeton students perform happiness and competence. Students are always “on,” she said. Princeton students, women included, do not lose this mentality when we graduate. It makes sense: This façade of effortless perfection is often one of the key components of success, both on campus and off. But removing this façade and publicizing the struggle can be the first step toward change.

One of the women on the “Invisible Syllabus” panel guessed that all of the other women on the panel with her had encountered obstacles on their paths to success. “We have experienced pain; we have experienced frustration, loss, anguish,” she said. Although they disrupt our image of perfection, these challenges should be discussed frequently and publicly. Identifying the flaws in the system and how these flaws work against women allows women to express this pain, this frustration — and anger. Discussing challenges debunks the myth that women who can’t “do it all” aren’t trying hard enough, and it allows all women to mobilize for change around shared obstacles.

Because change is imperative. But in order to truly address gender inequalities, we need changes in law that will better the lives of all women, not just Princeton women with our distinct set of advantages. Completely absent in most discussions about “having it all” are women who have no choice and must do it all — for example, women who work two jobs and don’t have the option of paying for childcare. When we discuss necessary changes in childcare, reproductive rights, equal pay, flexible working schedules and better benefits for part-time workers, we fail to make true change if we do not consider the needs of all women. We should not be asking whether we, as Princeton women, can have it all. Instead, we should ask ourselves how we can change society so that all women can have the life that they want.

Sarah Schwartz is a history major from Silver Spring, Md. She can be reached at seschwar@princeton.edu.

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