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Questioning the unquestioned

After the release of a report from the Duke Women's Initiative, a Duke graduate remembers her struggles as a woman on campus and advocates for all to challenge old stereotypes.


It finally hit me on a Saturday during my junior year at Duke University. I was on the phone with my parents, almost in tears because I couldn't fit the mold of today's college woman, when I suddenly realized: I didn't even want to anymore.

I was tired of trying to be perfect at everything. I was tired of feeling like I was supposed to sit quietly and nod as the men discussed politics or sports. I was tired of going to parties where it seemed women's primary function was to wear minimal clothing and drink a lot.

I was tired of hearing men championed for weekend sexual escapades while women were chastised for it.

Most of all, I was tired of feeling like my role as a college student had already been defined by a status quo that favored men over women and caused harm to both.

My senior year, I found out I was not alone. As part of the Duke Women's Initiative -- a project launched by President Nannerl Keohane to examine the status of women at Duke -- I chaired a committee of undergraduates charged with assessing the role of gender in the lives of Duke students.

In our research, we conducted 20 focus groups, speaking with hundreds of male and female students throughout the campus. The results were troubling as we quickly found that most women were dissatisfied in varying degrees with the gender expectations that are placed upon them.

Many women, for example, said they felt intense pressure to achieve academically and socially. They believed they had to be at once smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, and to do it all with no visible sign of effort -- to live lives, as one student described it, "of effortless perfection."

For me, that quest had known no bounds. Sometimes, I would sleep only four hours so I could squeeze classes, studies, parties and everything else into a day -- all while trying to look unstressed and happy.

Other women talked about the roles they played in their relationships with men. Some said women students get more attention from men when they "dummy up," acting needier and less intelligent than they are.

If they didn't downplay their intelligence, these women told us, they risked intimidating -- and losing the attention of -- men.

Apparently, they're right: Men in the focus groups agreed. Many said they felt more important and needed when women acted this way.

The focus groups also discussed other aspects of gender that characterize life on university campuses today: the prevalence of a near-anonymous "hook-up" culture between men and women, acquaintance rape, alcohol abuse, and excessive concern with weight and body image.

In one group, a senior told us how a small frozen yogurt had become the standard dinner among her peers and how she felt guilty for wanting to eat an actual meal. That struck a nerve as I recalled trying the same yogurt diet my freshmen year.

As I looked back, I realized how powerful these forces had been in my life. For too long, I had not realized they were just unspoken rules begging to be broken.

But the good news from our research is that these same women are now challenging these ideals. The women in our groups thanked us for the opportunity to talk about these issues. Many said it was the first time they had talked about the impact of gender in their lives.

I am proud of Duke for having the courage to take a hard look at the lives of its students. The report from the Duke Women's Initiative, released Sept. 23, is a gift to universities everywhere, an opportunity for all students to rethink and to challenge these roles and expectations. Only with efforts from both men and women can we break down long-standing guidelines for how women "should" live their lives.

Can a college woman today be healthy and strong while trying to live up to the idealized body images that today's media tell her she should have? Can she pursue her own dreams while trying to live a life of "effortless perfection?" Can she display her intelligence without intimidating men?

The answers would seem to be obvious, but perhaps we shouldn't even be asking such questions. Instead we should work to establish roles for women that have no inherent limitations. Instead of asking if a woman can meet our society's gender expectations, we should instead create a society in which these expectations no longer exist.