At a glance, Princeton University seems like a welcoming place to be a female undergraduate. In 2007, the year I matriculated, Princeton boasted a record-breaking female enrollment (41 percent) in its School of Engineering. Shirley Tilghman reigned as Princeton’s first female president and the second female president in the Ivy League. Every semester, it seemed, another student was founding a group to promote gender equality and assault prevention. With a generous financial aid program and new cultural studies departments, 21st-century Princeton was shedding its image as an elitist, old-boys club.
But a late-night walk down Princeton’s Prospect Avenue would offer a different view. Here you’ll find the eating clubs, the heart of Princeton’s social life, a series of Colonial and Tudor-style mansions reeking of tradition and booze. The rooms are wood-paneled; the chairs are upholstered in leather; the air is redolent with the sour (yet not entirely unpleasant) stench of bad beer. For many freshman, walking into Ivy or Cottage or Cap and Gown confirms a sense belonging to a rarefied atmosphere: not only America’s highest academic echelons but, more coveted still, its highest social echelons. Here sat and ate and partied F. Scott Fitzgerald and John D. Rockefeller and—somewhat less eminently—Donald Rumsfeld and Eliot Spitzer.
The clubs operate, in essence, as co-ed fraternities. This makes them sound deceptively progressive. In fact, a current of casual, everyday sexism runs just beneath the surface of Princeton’s party culture. Last November, by way of example, an officer at the club Tiger Inn mass-emailed a sexually explicit photo of a female student. Another officer at the same club invited members to heckle the Princeton alumna whose 1991 Supreme Court lawsuit forced the club to admit women. “Ever wonder who we have to thank (blame) for gender equality?” the club’s treasurer wrote. “Looking for someone to blame for the influx of girls? Come tomorrow and help boo Sally Frank.”