Why We Still Need Women's Colleges

Illustration for article titled Why We Still Need Womens Colleges

Why are women's colleges still relevant? As Salon's Margaret Eby points out, it's not because women can't handle playing with the boys.

Eby quotes Meryl Streep's recent commencement address at Barnard, in which she said, "I went to Vassar, and outside of competition for boys my brain woke up." To this Eby responds,

I don't doubt that Streep experienced those things, and that she made wonderful, encouraging friends who helped her find herself. And maybe it was separation from boys academically that made the difference for Streep. But, to my ears, her awakening sounded too much like the shaky reasoning behind women's only colleges that Morgan Smith over at Double X pointed out in 2009: that single-sex colleges are important because they allow women to flourish academically in a bastion away from the distractions of men. It's an easily debunked argument: Yes, the list of awesome lady-college graduates is long (Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Joan Rivers, Anna Quindlen to name a few), but so is the list of women graduates from co-ed school.

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Eby seems to be arguing not against the idea that women can flourish away from men, but against the notion that they can only flourish thus — and I appreciate her reasoning. I've never attended a women's college, but the piece reminded me of advice I've gotten several times in my life: that I should try to be a big fish in a small pond. Well-meaning people advised me thus when I was choosing colleges, and even when I was deciding where to live as an adult. I think the advice stemmed from the perception I was shy or anxious, and even though I am often anxious and I can be shy, I always bristled at the notion that I needed special coddling. Being told to seek out safe, unchallenging environments has always made me determined to be a big fish in a big pond, or at least drown trying.

But from everything I know about women's colleges I believe they can be extremely challenging environments. Eby writes that her Barnard experience and conflicts with Columbia students reminded her of "what women are still up against" — but I think women's colleges can also remind students of how the world should be. A friend of mine who attended one told me her college experience was free of stereotypes about what subjects women were good or bad at, because women studied everything. She also said her college had a culture of open, honest, and sensitive discussion of sex and sexuality, something I can't really say of my undergraduate institution, for all its benefits. Her four years don't sound coddled or easy to me — if anything, it sounds like women were encouraged to push the boundaries of their intellects, without the influence of sexism to punish them for overreaching. Of course, all colleges — and indeed, all of society — should be like this, but maybe we still need women's colleges to show everyone how it's done.

In Defense Of Women's Colleges [Broadsheet]

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DISCUSSION

I'm at Newnham, one of the female-only colleges at Cambridge University (England), and I've never been in such a diverse, friendly and welcoming environment in my life - not at all girl's school, not at mostly-boy's school, not at any of the internships, temporary courses or summer schools I've attended. It's enabled me to build my confidence, which was wrecked after two years of living with hundreds of English public schoolboys, to a level where I'm happier with myself than ever before, and I actually socialize far more with men than I did when I was outnumbered by them seven to one! Of course, we still have lectures with the rest of the University - so it's not nearly as girl-orientated as I expect all-female American colleges are - but my friends at mixed colleges have all commented on the difference in atmosphere here.

The ironic thing is, I didn't even choose it (I applied to a mixed college at Cambridge but got put into the pooling system due to their being oversubscribed for my subject). But they're pretty good at choosing girls from the pool who will flourish in an all-female (at least in terms of living situation/ supervisors) environment.

Also, despite female undergraduates in many subjects outnumbering men, the number of female graduate students, professors and fellows at other colleges is far lower than men - it is in this area that I think Newnham and other colleges like it still has a key role. Perhaps, when the number of women across the board at Cambridge inches more towards equal, the existence of all-female colleges can be called into question - but not until then.