Lila Karp, a Remembrance

A few days ago I learned through a Google search about the death in 2008 of a woman I knew, admired and regarded as a friend. Lila Karp was the director of the Women's Center at Princeton University when I was a student there in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, we did not stay in touch after I graduated. Given that 32 years have gone by since then, I am saddened but not terribly surprised to discover that Lila has passed away.

The occasion that led me to search for her name is a meme that has been circulating now on Twitter for a week or two: a photo of an all-male panel of businessmen who spoke at this year's Global Summit of Women. The photo attracted a little mini-storm of outrage and sarcasm from some feminists who thought women should have been included on the panel. In fact, as Amanda Hess pointed out in Slate magazine, this one male panel was the exception rather than the rule at the conference, which was of course organized and led by women. The all-male panel was put together intentionally to bring together a "few good men" who have made it their mission "to recruit powerful men into the fight for gender equality" and who were invited to speak about why men should "take on the cause themselves."

Even with this clarification, some people still thought that the conference organizers should have included women on the panel. This made me smile and think of Lila, who was as strong-minded, outspoken and uncompromising a feminist as I have known but who nevertheless hired me, a certified male, to help staff the Princeton Women's Center as an undergraduate work-study assistant. Lila even encouraged me to organize an all-male event there once (an event that turned out rather badly, actually, but that's another story). I'm sure Lila would have laughed at the thought that there was anything unseemly about putting together a panel of men at a women's conference. It's the sort of thing that she would have done just to see if she could shake things up a bit.

I met Lila initially during the first week of my sophomore year at Princeton. During the previous year, I had gotten involved along with my mother in activism to support the Equal Rights Amendment. It was my first exposure to politics and brought me into contact with some of the feminist activists in my home state of Nevada. They were witty, bold, outspoken women, and the cause of equal rights inspired me as I had never been inspired previously. One of the first things I did upon returning to the university, therefore, was to visit the women's center and ask if there was some way I could get involved.

Lila was the only person at the center when I showed up. She was a middle-aged woman who liked to wear loose, drapey outfits and was struggling to quit a cigarette habit. She owned an immaculately-groomed, white-haired standard poodle that she had named Orlando, after the novel by Virginia Woolf. In the 1960s she had been part of the then-small group of women such as Kate Millett, Flo Kennedy and Ti-Grace Atkinson who founded what came to be known as "second wave" feminism. She was the author of a novel, titled The Queen Is In the Garbage, which is sometimes described as an early feminist classic. I didn't know any of these facts about her when we met, but I could tell that she was tough and salty like some of my mother's friends.

After a brief conversation and a few questions, Lila asked if I would help distribute some printed invitations. She was planning an event at the center to kick off the new school year and encourage women to get involved. She had a list of names of students who were active the previous year and needed them delivered to the students' dorm rooms. (This was back in 1979, back before we had email or the internet with which to send messages.)

Delivering the invitations gave me a chance to meet some of the feminists on campus. They were mostly friendly, but I did get an odd reaction when I knocked on one door. The woman who answered looked down at the invitation as if I had handed her a subpoena and then glared at me. "So, what is it, you're sleeping with Lila?" she demanded angrily.

"W-well, no," I stammered. My fumbling response was mostly strategic. It took away her excuse to stay angry. Her attitude softened, and she said that she'd see if she could find time to attend.

Not long thereafter, Lila asked if I wanted to take a work-study job at the Women's Center. I was a little surprised by the offer but was happy to accept and worked there for about 8-10 hours per week for the rest of the school year. My duties were to answer phones, keep the office staffed when no one else was present, and take care of various clerical and cleanup tasks. It was pretty light duty. The Center sometimes held events, and I would set up the seating or put out refreshments. Sometimes Lila would ask me to watch Orlando or take him for a walk. Occasionally they held women-only events, in which case I might help with the setup and then absent myself.

Even my leftist friends on campus sometimes wondered why I was interested in being involved with a place that they thought was simply a magnet for angry, ugly women. "They don't even wear makeup," complained one of my male friends, who was majoring in Marx with a minor in Trotsky. However, I didn't experience the Women's Center that way. The women I met there were angry sometimes about the things they were trying to change, such as the university's reluctance to install additional lighting in an area on campus where several women had been assaulted late at night. However, they were polite and respectful towards me, although I sometimes encountered puzzlement if a woman who had never met me dropped by when I was the only person staffing the office. The worst criticism I ever encountered personally at the center (in fact the only criticism that I can even remember) came from a woman student who also had a work-study job there. She thought I wasn't doing my share of cleanup chores around the office and asked if I would try harder to pull my weight. She was probably right.

As for the women there being "ugly," that was another unfair stereotype. I thought most of them were pretty damn good-looking, although I did my best to pretend I didn't notice. My job was to provide administrative support and otherwise stay out of their way so that the women who used the center as an organizing space could lead and determine what priorities they wanted to pursue. It would have been inappropriate for me to try to take a leadership role there myself, and it would have been even more inappropriate if I had pursued them romantically or sexually. Bless their hearts, the women never pursued me either — with one exception, who I'll call "Janet." I thought Janet was so beautiful that she was out of my league even if I did dare to show an interest. One day, though, she struck up a conversation and was so friendly that I realized she might actually be flirting with me. I was young and shy and couldn't quite screw up the courage to express my feelings, so I turned to Lila for advice.

Lila gave me some suggestions ("invite her to lunch") and, unbeknownst to me, also took it upon herself to provide some unsolicited behind-the-scenes support. Months later, Janet told me that Lila actually took her aside one day and put in a good word for me, which unfortunately failed to produce the intended result. Janet was in fact put off by Lila's advice, which probably helped kill my chances with her. We became friends and remain friends to this day, but romance never bloomed, and now that we are both separately married, I'm pretty sure it never will.

Through conversations with Janet, I discovered that Lila was not universally liked by the undergraduate feminists. Some of them (including Janet) even questioned the depth of her commitment to women's rights. My own impressions were different. Lila was certainly brash and fearless about saying what she thought, but she was also very aware of the limits on what she could do. Unlike the student activists, it was her job to work as director of the Women's Center. The university had hired her for that position several years before I or any of my classmates were even admitted to the university. She got the job because some women activists who came before us successfully pressured the university to hire a strong feminist leader, and Lila certainly had those credentials. However, Princeton's administrators did not care for her very much, and they had the power to terminate her employment if she pushed them too hard. Unlike the professors at Princeton, she had no tenure. She served at the pleasure of the very institution she was trying to change.

When I say that Lila was "uncompromising," therefore, what I really mean is that she was as outspoken in support of women's rights as her job would permit her to be. The Women's Center was not very well funded, and I don't think she was paid particularly well either. She tried to get the university to let her teach a class on women's literature, which would have incidentally also provided her with additional income, but the administration refused. She delivered a paper in 1979 to the National Women's Studies Association, titled "Women's Studies: Fear and Loathing in the Ivy League." I had firsthand experience with the fear and loathing when she asked me to make a phone call to Aaron Lemonick, Princeton's Dean of the Faculty. Lila was trying to get students to lobby Lemonick to authorize her course and to add women's studies courses in other departments. As soon as he realized what I was calling about, he shouted at me and hung up.

The Women's Center's activism was therefore driven less by Lila's priorities than by the priorities of student activists and by various sex scandals that happened on campus while I was there. One incident involved Michael Ryan, a visiting poet in the creative writing department who was fired after making unwanted sexual advances towards several of his students. Another incident involved one of the university's eating clubs, which got a woman drunk at a party, videotaped her having sex with one of the men, and then played the tape later at meals for the men's entertainment. The Women's Center would react to incidents like these when they arose, which inevitably contributed to the center's reputation as a bunch of anti-sex killjoys. (Michael Ryan went on to teach poetry at other universities and eventually wrote a searing autobiography in which he said that he had finally reformed after spending 40 years as a sexual predator. Apparently even Ryan eventually agreed with the center's actions in his case.)

Maybe Janet was right in some of her criticisms of Lila. I don't know. I'm pretty sure, though, that Lila's job was just pretty damn difficult. She was very proud of an essay that she had contributed to an anthology titled Woman in the Year 2000. Titled "Genderless sexuality," the essay envisioned a world that was freed entirely from gender stereotypes. We didn't attain that goal by the year 2000, and maybe we never will. In her time at Princeton, though, Lila helped create a space where women and occasional oddball guys like me could come together and talk freely about the issues that mattered to us. Some of the ideas she championed, such as creating a women's studies curriculum, were dismissed at the time by the administration but adopted later. (The Wikipedia article on Aaron Lemonick today describes him as "a force behind the foundation of Princeton's Women's Studies program," based on some faculty hires that he apparently supported a few years after he hung up on my phone call.)

Advocating for women's rights was an uphill struggle back then because Princeton was still transitioning from its history as an all-male institution. Princeton did not even begin accepting women as students until 1969, and even by the 1980s the student body was still two-thirds male. Men and women were both frustrated by the gender ratio — men, because they had a hard time landing a girlfriend, and women, because they had a hard time getting respect.

I'm pleased to say that things have improved since then, although I'm sure there is still room for progress. The gender ratio of Princeton's student body today is very equitable. In fact, slightly more than 50% of the student body is female. In 2001 Princeton appointed Shirley Tilghman as its first woman president. Under her leadership, the university placed new emphasis on increasing the diversity of faculty and students. When I've returned to class reunions in recent years, I've been amazed and impressed at some of the changes. Whatever people said about Lila Karp back in the 1980s (and negative things were certainly said, some in my presence), I think the truth is that she was just ahead of her time.

After Princeton, Lila went on to teach literature and women's studies at other universities. I'm sure that to her dying day she never stopped dreaming of a world in which men and women are treated as equals. I can only say that I hope all of her dreams are someday realized.

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