Women, class, and the problem of privilege: Everything I learned about sexism, I learned at boarding school

The New York Times reports on sexism and leadership at Phillips Andover Academy.

In short order, the number of girls in the student ranks did roughly equal the number of boys. The faculty today is more than half female. And until her retirement last summer, the head of school was a woman, for nearly two decades.

And yet some of the young women — and men —   at the 235-year-old prep school feel that Andover, as it is commonly called, has yet to achieve true gender equality. They expressed this concern several weeks ago in a letter to the student newspaper, The Phillipian, and like a match to dry tinder, it set off a raging debate that engulfed the campus.

The proximate cause of concern was the election, held Wednesday, for the top student position, called school president. Since 1973, only four girls have been elected, most recently in 2003. (The other top student position, that of editor in chief of the newspaper, has had nine girls and 33 boys.)

The letter writers said this was an embarrassment, especially at a school considered so progressive. The paucity of girls in high-profile positions, they said, leaves younger students with few role models and discourages them from even trying for the top.

When I went to boarding school, in 1983 at St George’s in Newport, Rhode Island, there were 5 school prefects: 4 males to 1 female. The same ratio I would write about thirty years later on this blog posting on sexism in children’s films, calling it the Minority Feisty. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As a thirteen year old girl, I remember thinking about how hard it was for females to become leaders. Out of that group of 5 prefects, there was one “Senior Prefect.” There had never been a female Senior Prefect when I went to St. George’s. I don’t know if there’s been once since.

My sister, a year and a half older than me, went to another boarding school, Groton. That school also had never had a female Senior Prefect. After my sister graduated, Groton started a policy that students had to elect one male and one female Senior Prefect. The first female Senior Prefect of Groton appears in a fictionalized version in Curtis Sittenfeld’s book Prep. If you read Prep, you can see how Sittenfeld struggled with and was influenced by the gender politics of boarding school. I’m happy she had the courage to write a book about it.

What else do I remember about prejudice and boarding school? Boys sitting on a bench and rating girls who walked by from 1 – 10 on how hot they were. Dressing up as a bunny, along with all of the other new girls, including fishnets, ears, and a tail on “Casino night.” Being called “nappy face” by a boy because I had big lips and not knowing what that meant. Feeling exotic because I had dark hair. Learning the word “spearchucker” for the first time when one of the tiny minority of African-Americans was mocked.

I came from a rich family but, still, from the left coast of San Francisco. I was amazed by the gender roles I saw kids my age on the East coast fall so easily into, even the minor rituals. As I rushed to class, all the boys opened doors for me. Every single male had the elastic waistbands of his boxers peeking out above his khaki pants. It seemed like all of the leadership positions were held by boys. If you got their approval, you had it made.

My best friend and I desperately wanted attention and validation from of any one of those male prefects. Here’s our misguided quest referenced in the yearbook with the caption “Todd’s toys,” referring to one of the elected school leaders.


For his senior bequeath in the same yearbook, Todd got “a twenty year sentence,” the penalty for sex with a minor. Just a joke, of course.

The New York Times reports:

John G. Palfrey Jr., the headmaster, said in an interview that Andover was only a reflection of other schools and society at large as it grappled with these issues. “We do not live in a post-gender, post-race, post-class society,” he said. “Girls have not had equal access to top leadership positions.”

What’s telling about boarding school is that it doesn’t reflect the power structure at all levels of society. Boarding school reflects the sexism that exists at the very top. When parents are considering sending their kids to get the “best” education available, they may want to think about whether or not they want to pay that kind of money so their kids can be exposed to that level of sexism that young.

For myself, I’m grateful I couldn’t follow the rules and was expelled my sophomore year.

Here’s the letter the students wrote to the Phillipian:

Letter To The Editor

Friday, March 1st, 2013


To the Editor:


A powerful silence hangs over our student body. This silence pervades our halls, our dorms and our classrooms, and it affects the very nature of leadership among our students.


This letter is meant to break that silence, once and for all.


Student Council recently made a significant structural change by implementing the new co­presidential system. There are many explanations for this change, but one of the primary factors was the staggering gender imbalance in the student leadership of the past 40 years.


This gender inequity is a critical issue we face as a student body. Andover students like to subscribe to the myth that we are the best, the brightest and the most forward thinking students in the world. The past four decades, however, evidence the shortcomings in our beliefs. Having four female school presidents since the 1973 merger of Phillips Academy and Abbot Academy is embarrassing.


What is worse, however, is the casual attitude surrounding this issue. The arguments behind these trends, which include, “Perhaps the students just wanted a male president,” “Andover is a meritocracy—if a girl deserved it, she would win” and, of course, the omnipresent “But there isn’t a gender problem at this school,” are simply ignorant.


Students have not elected female leaders because female candidates have been in short supply. Last year, only two out of the 14 candidates were female. Strong role models create a positive cycle through which young students, male or female, are inspired to become role models themselves. Boys have myriad opportunities to look up to the established, visible—and male—student leaders at this school. Sadly, our current female students lack these public figures. They have not seen a female student body president. In fact, there has not been a female in that office since 2004. Our future leaders of both genders have yet to see a woman lead the Student Council—that fact works to the detriment of boys and girls alike.


Since conversations about the Student Council change focused significantly on gender inequity, we were dismayed that some students running for the most public student role on campus chose not to seize the opportunity to address this issue. For students to take the issue of gender lightly, or worse, to ignore it, will only further exacerbate the problem and ignore the proverbial elephant in our collective room. Candidates should embrace a paradigm shift toward more equal representation in the school’s Student Council.


To the student body: this election season presents us all with an opportunity for immediate change. As younger students begin to assume the responsibilities of every senior class, the future of our Academy must remain a primary concern. We charge you to think critically about the students you will select as representatives. Keep in mind long term consequences—the pair you select could set a precedent and break down any remaining barriers for both boys and girls to run in the future.


Let us truly live up to our forward­thinking ideals. Be empowered in the knowledge that you can be part of something monumental, something bigger than all of us. Make your vote count.


Written by:


MJ Engel ’13, Gabbi Fisher ’13, Samuel L. Green ’13, Maia Hirschler ’13, and Henry Kennelly ’13




Unwana Abasi ’13, Angela Batuure ’13, Meaghan Haugh ’13, Haonan Li ’13, Lucia McGloin ’13, Laz Nyamakazi ’13, and Jing Qu ’13


Update: Since the learning about the sexual assaults at St. George’s when I was there, I’ve written more posts. Here’s a list of all of Reel Girl’s posts on St. George’s:

St. George’s, how should law enforcement respond to 911 call about possible rape at your school?

Open letter to Bishop Knisely about sexual assaults and cover ups at St. George’s school

Why is a justice who argued against statutory rape laws on the R. I. Supreme Court?

St. George’s school continues to hold back information in sexual assault investigation

St. George’s releases report on sexual assaults at the school

St. George’s alumna creates fund for survivors sexually assaulted at school

Comments on petition asking St. George’s for fair investigation into assaults make me cry

St. George’s School continues to flub investigation into sexual assaults

Lawyer investigating St. George’s sexual assaults is partner of school’s legal counsel

‘There’s no sense of why so many assaults happened at St. George’s, what the school did to create cultural backdrop that allowed and encouraged rape.’

Prep school alumni respond to St. Paul’s rape trial verdict

Women, class, and the problem of privilege: Everything I learned about sexism, I learned at boarding school

Tucker Carlson, Jerry Garcia, and me