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Herstory at Penn
President Rodin Speaks about
125 Years of Women

Judith RodinIf there is any doubt that women are assuming greater leadership roles at Penn, one need look no farther than the office of university president and SAS alumna Judith Rodin, CW’66. Behind her desk, seated on a pedestal, is a sculpture of a boy looking down at the flute he is holding in his hands. “That is young Ben Franklin,” says Rodin. “Isn’t it wonderful? It’s called Franklin and His Whistle.” Before being informed the artwork is Penn’s founder, a visitor to the president’s office could easily mistake it for the Pied Piper. Rodin is not only the first woman to be president of Penn, she is the first woman to head any Ivy League institution. Brown and Princeton have since followed, dancing to yet another tune first piped here.

Franklin and His WhistleQ. Why is 125 Years of Women at Penn something to be celebrated?
Women have made extraordinary contributions to this university, and Penn, of course, is one of the first Ivies to have women as undergraduates. There were wonderful women’s colleges [in 1876], but the opportunity to conduct research simply wasn’t available on such a wide scale to the women who attended them. As a university, we gave women access to extraordinary research opportunities, and that really differentiated us. I think it’s a reason to celebrate Penn, and that’s partly what the celebration is about: it’s a celebration of Penn as well as a celebration of women.

Q. Tell me about your efforts as an undergraduate to unify the men’s and women’s student government.
A. I was president of the Women’s Student Government. The president of the Men’s Student Government, Tom Lang, W’66, WG’68, and I both felt that separate governing bodies had started to feel anachronistic in a co-ed environment. We thought bringing them together would give us more access to the administration and a stronger voice as spokespeople for the whole student body.

There were many women who felt they would lose position, that they would always be secretaries rather than presidents, as they had been in the Women’s Student Government. I think that speaks to a kind of experience that women have had in many organizations.

It is interesting that next year the heads of three of the major student organizations at Penn will be women. Five years ago, that wasn’t true, and women talked to me on this campus then about the fact that women weren’t getting elected to leadership roles. I hope this change is telling us that talented, capable people will rise—and sometimes they’ll be men and sometimes they’ll be women—and as we’re a little less self-conscious about which is elected, I think that will be a good thing.

Q. What are the most important changes that have happened for women in your lifetime?
A. Certainly, more opportunity at the very top of so many professions is one major change. Women had reached certain levels, but very few were at the top of their chosen professions. The second is that many more career paths have opened to women. When I was growing up, there were so few imagined career paths, and one of the wonderful things about Penn for me was that it opened a world of opportunities that I didn’t know existed, partly because I was a woman and partly because I hadn’t yet reached a great university whose role it is to open young people’s minds.

Q. Do you see any obstacles that remain for women?
One is that there are still more subtle forms of discrimination. When they were more overt, in a way, it was easier. You knew the enemy; you could figure out what to do about it or what not to do.

The second is that young women are really struggling with their multiple roles—more than we did. To my generation, it was so clear that all these professional opportunities had opened, and we just charged in. I think young women now are looking at their mothers and saying, “What were the costs of making those choices?” When I meet with undergraduate women, that’s what they want to talk about: Did I make the right choice? Why did I choose to have my child at the age I chose? I think this is a period when both men and women are asking themselves: What does it mean to have a fulfilling life? And how do career and family and relationships all play a part in that?

Q. How do you see the future for women at Penn?
Oh, I think the future for women at Penn is wonderful. Women are experiencing the opportunity to enter every sphere, not as path breakers but because it’s now expected. I’ve had experiences, particularly when I was younger, that required me to demonstrate my seriousness as an academic and my commitment to my research aspirations. Today, women will clearly have to work hard and prove themselves, but they won’t have to prove themselves because they are women. That is a very different moment—and one that’s long overdue.

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