Reacting to Rape in the Ivy League

I have always been a feminist — I did not become one at Princeton University. But during my three and one-half years at this seemingly enlightened school, I learned, for the first time, to fight. It has actually been easier to be a Jew here at Princeton than to be a woman, and this has surprised me.

My first year here, I spent a lot of time explaining Jewish customs to people — to hall mates who offered me pizza during Yom Kippur, and to my Texan roommate who wanted to know just when the U.S. had given Israel its freedom anyway? Ignorance about Judaism, however, rarely presented itself as prejudice; but ignorance about women often did. The word “feminist” was routinely defined by male students (and by plenty of females, too) as “lesbian bitch;’ and I remember one time being furious when a so-called friend asked me to leave his dorm room so that he could tell some ‘well-meaning’ misogynist jokes. Over the first year, I built up a terrible feeling of isolation.

Of course, there were places I could have gone to for support, like Hillel or the Women’s Center. But as a first-year student, I was still too insecure to identify so unequivocally with alternative campus culture. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that a couple of anti-female incidents catalyzed me into more self-confident identification.

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These hand-printed posters appeared all around my dorm, and suddenly I — who had never considered myself a political person in the least — was on the warpath. Around the same time, a campus group of marchers (“Take Back the Night” advocates protesting such issues as child abuse, harassment of homosexuals, and rape) were shouted at, mooned, and heckled with, “You can’t have the night, it belongs to Michelob,”

Before the end of that year, I had written a feminist letter to the campus newspaper, declared my minor to be women’s studies, and found myself a small community of women who shared my feminist views (including some women active in the Orthodox-dominated Jewish community). I also participated in the next “Take Back the Night” march. Hundreds of us, women and men, gathered and walked around campus, stopping at designated points where rape survivors got up and spoke, often for the first time in their lives, about their experiences. For me, the march was overpowering. I stood in the crowd and saw face after familiar face moving towards the microphone, and I was overwhelmed by a feeling of Oh no, not her. Please let it not be another one, not someone I care about

After the march, a flyer posted in my dorm read, “Take Back the Night, Part II: The Revenge.” What, I wondered, exactly is the revenge for those of us who speak out about rape? How differently most people would have reacted to the flyer if it had read, “Affirmative Action: The Revenge.”

In my third year at Princeton, I got very involved in a group called SHARE (Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education program). SHARE, with one full-time counsellor and one part-time one, is considered by other universities to be a model program, even though it is woefully inadequate.

SHARE’S mission, in a nutshell, is not only to counsel and offer legal advice to those who have been raped or sexually harassed, but also to run a serious program of consciousness-raising for first-year students, during orientation week. More generally, it works to educate and enlighten an often benighted academic community.

Because SHARE’S counselors couldn’t begin to adequately meet the needs of our community, several students organized to request a second full-time position. (One student even found a good deal of funding for it.) Our request was denied by the administration. A group of students then carried out a sit-in at the office of the university president, passing out petitions (we got over 4,000 signatures), wearing armbands, and camping out on the green outside Nassau Hall, singing and waving placards. I have never seen a more caring and united group of Princeton students. It was profoundly moving.

As the days went on, support grew. Armbands were worn everywhere; people slept out on the green every night; and encouragement came from unexpected places. I was heartened and surprised that some support even came from people in the Orthodox Jewish community on campus (after all, Jewish women don’t get raped, do they?). In this Orthodox community — where premarital sexual contact is ‘prohibited’ — each incoming religious Princeton student still receives, like each of us here, a cosmetics kit containing two condoms.

Well, the semester ended and with it our hopes. Not only did we fail in our attempt to expand the SHARE offices, but the administration (waiting until summer vacation when we troublemakers were gone) actually ‘let go’ the two counsellors who worked at SHARE. We felt devastated.

At this point, my final semester at Princeton is just around the corner. We have plans for another “Take Back the Night” march, and a new interim director for SHARE has been hired. Still, it’s been difficult to re-involve myself in activism this year. I spent a good deal of the Fall just forcing myself to feel hope. If there’s this much resistance to gender equality among the ivy, where is it any easier?

Rachel Kadish tells about sexual harassment at Princeton.