As a graduate of Wellesley College, I thought going to a women's college was about receiving an excellent education at an institution that's mission is to promote gender equality. Now a Wesleyan undergrad has opened my eyes to the horrors of single-sex education. How could I have failed to notice my fellow students "almost literally screaming 'Death to the Patriarchy!' all day, every day," and the "bloody tampons strewn all over the bathroom floor"? Unless of course, these are just ridiculous generalizations from someone who's unhappy with her personal experience at a women's college.
It's just about time for midterms, which means we're due for an East Coast liberal arts school smackdown. The controversy du jour is notable because it manages to drag three schools into an ugly controversy, thus distracting students from doing real work for hours on end. Recently the Wesleyan Argus published an article by Vicky Chu, Class of 2013, about her decision to transfer to Wesleyan, which is co-ed, after studying at Bryn Mawr, a women's college in Pennsylvania. Now Chu has decided to share the secrets of what it's like to attend a school full of raging feminists, and she's dragging my alma mater into it because Wellesley sounds kind of like Wesleyan.
Chu was pleased with the quality of the education she received at Bryn Mawr, and she notes, "Some statistics show that graduates of women's colleges perform better in their careers compared to women who graduate from coed schools." However, she's not convinced that schools like Bryn Mawr and Wellesley have anything to do with the future achievements of their alumnae. Perhaps the secret to the success of these schools is that they attract smart and confident women and manage not to damage them too much during their four years on campus.
That's an impressive achievement, considering what happens when you put ladies in a room and try to educate them. Chu writes:
So what makes a women's college as an institution different?
In terms of classroom environment, going to a women's college means sitting in a classroom with women in oversized sweatpants. Inevitably, there will be rumors about the relationship between the professor teaching your class and some student. There will also be one male from a nearby coed school who sits in the front row. He will wear a sweatshirt with the name of his school prominently displayed at every lecture and will therefore be even more conspicuous to his glaring female classmates. He will be applauded by the professor solely for his willingness to learn in a female-dominated environment.
Socially, going to a women's college means almost literally screaming "Death to the Patriarchy!" all day, every day. It means bloody tampons strewn all over the bathroom floor. It means glaring at the coed schools' sports teams who come to your campus to eat your chicken wings. It means taking a bus to other schools on the weekends to do unmentionable things with aforementioned sports teams.
It really isn't normal.
This actually bears little resemblence to my time at Wellesley, and as long as we're describing places we've never been, I'm going to go ahead and say this isn't what Bryn Mawr is like either. Thanks to Wellesley's exchange program I had some classes with guys from MIT, Babson, and Olin. None of my professors were visibly excited by the prospect of teaching a person with a penis. I never went to class without at least jeans and a bit of makeup on my face, and the dress code seemed to range from pyjama pants to coordinated preppy ensembles, like at any coed school. As a feminist, it's always been a struggle for me to put my used feminine products in the trash rather than thowing them on the floor so my sisters can join me in celebrating my menses, but most of my classmates managed to deposit soiled products in the trash.
As for being normal, Chu has got me there. Though one could argue that it's also unusual to live among people who frequently wake up around noon, spend a large chunk of the day reading, and have the majority of their bills paid for by distant benefactors, she's right that going to a women's college isn't like going to a coed school. Proponents of single-sex education often talk about giving girls the confidence to speak up in class, but like Chu, I never had a problem speaking up in front of male classmates in high school or later in grad school at Boston University. Yet, I value my time at Wellesley precisely because it exposed me to an abnormal social environment — one in which we didn't have to constantly scream "death to the patriarchy" because that went without saying.
While Chu refers to women's colleges as an "isolated bubble of women," there are still quite a few male professors, students, friends, and boyfriends on campus. The real value of a single-sex education isn't in removing men entirely, but removing people who disrespect women. That does create a situation that's isn't much like the "real world," but I know that I wouldn't have the same commitment to women's issues or understanding of the subtle ways sexism works if I didn't have a glimpse of what life looks like without it. I started Wellesley as one of those girls who doesn't really consider herself a feminist and ended up, well, here.
Women's colleges turn out many high-achieving women, but unlike 100 years ago, today there are millions of successful women who graduate from coed schools too. Yet, all-female schools still exist because we haven't achieved total equality. As Chu says, women "must seek to empower themselves by challenging gender inequities." There are many ways to do that, and it sounds like going to Bryn Mawr wasn't right route for her. However, I found it empowering to spend four years on a campus where banners with the phrase "women who will make a difference in the world" were fluttering from every lamppost. Like thousands of women's college graduates, I know spending four years in a single-sex environment made me better equipped to address the gender inequality I'll be dealing with for the rest of my life.
Wesleyan v. Wellesley: "Rather Dead Than Coed?" [Wesleyan Argus]