I was particularly impressed by this Broadsheet post on women’s colleges. As a graduate of a women’s college that ultimately went co-ed in the years since graduation (a decision I have mixed feelings about), I identify with the dilemmas that Eby highlights. On the one hand, women’s colleges seem like an artifact of a time when women were unable to attend mainstream schools. On the other hand, so much of the criticism of them takes on overtly misogynist overtones, as Eby points out. Jerry Falwell infamously called the women who attended my college (while I was there no less) the “whores on the hill.”
Furthermore, arguments for their obsolescence tend to rest on the assumption that feminism has essentially accomplished its task, that women don’t face any obstacles in attaining a college education anymore. And while women appear to be on equal (possibly even stronger) footing with men in terms of enrollment numbers, it isn’t clear that all of the barriers have been beaten down. Women are still underrepresented at the highest levels of business and government and continue to make less money than men during their lifetimes. Female students, even at the most elementary levels of education, still do not speak up in class and are not called upon to do so as often as their male peers. At some elite universities, the top student leadership positions continue to be dominated by men. Women attending co-educational universities also face an unacceptably high risk of being raped, physically assaulted, or harassed and have to contend with college administrators who fail miserably at addressing those issues. While removing all women from co-educational environments probably is not a tenable solution to these problems, it does suggest that there are still reasons why a female student may prefer to opt for an all female environment before entering the work force, and she doesn’t necessarily have to be a wallflower in order to do so.
My own reasons for choosing a women’s college had to do with the viciously misogynistic educational culture that I grew up in. In many ways, it was just garden variety sexism: slut shaming, sexual harassment in the school hallways that was dismissed by the administration and parents under the logic of “boys will be boys,” male students elevated to leadership positions more frequently than females, practices of policing female dress and behavior in ways that were frequently humiliating and shaming, an intensely competitive academic environment in which female voices were often stifled and feminist viewpoints usually ridiculed and angrily shut down, girls who got kicked out of school for getting pregnant while their partners got to stay. Then when you add the hyper-conservative Christian nature of that environment to the picture, you get systematic misogyny sacralized by spiritual rhetoric. The moment when I finally said “Fuck this” came senior year, when a male student who regularly made me (and other female students) feel unsafe walking down the hallway experienced a dramatic conversion and was instantaneously elevated to spiritual leadership in our class. While his spiritual transformation may have been genuine, for me, it wasn’t enough to erase three years of routine disrespect and fear.
In short, I was through with that shit. It was a revelation to be able to spend four years in a kind of feminist oasis (in my experience, women’s colleges, thanks to their origins, tend to be fiercely feminist). I still interacted with men on a regular basis, and even met the man I eventually married while I was there, but it was refreshing to be able to build solid friendships with other women as women rather than as rivals, which all girls inevitably were at my high school. As one of those nerdy girls who claimed all throughout high school that I got along better with boys than with girls, I actually needed to be taught that all women were not, in fact, terrible, that there was no reason to hate other women just because my high school (also middle school and elementary school too, if I’m being completely honest) experience made me hate being one myself. In other words, my own misogynistic tendencies needed to be rehabilitated as well.
This was an environment in which speaking out, both in class and in Student Government meetings (I was eventually elected Treasurer and then President of SG), became habit, something that I took straight into a co-ed graduate program and mixed work environments. In addition to making me more confident around men, I firmly believe that my women’s college experience actually gave me a better, more compassionate view of the male gender. Being able to be selective with the men that I associated with (and finally meeting some feminist men) taught me that I could actually feel safe around them, that I could actually work and socialize with them without feeling awkward or threatened.
So, my defense of women’s colleges is, essentially, that I want other women to be able to have the same experience. In an age of anti-feminist backlash and still-rampant sexism, it is perfectly reasonable to want to spend some time in a kind of feminist enclave. And in my experience (which may not be everyone’s), doing so can make us more effective citizens in the long run, better able to happily co-exist with both our male and female peers.
Update: I just want to be clear on the fact that I don’t think women’s colleges are for everyone or that they are without problems. I do think that this is a matter of choice. There’s another pretty good discussion of this going on at Jezebel.
Update 2: Tevarre at the Fugitivus forums was kind enough to point out this post at Historiann from last year.