On Women’s Colleges

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.

9 thoughts on “On Women’s Colleges

  1. A friend of mine forwarded this blog post to me saying that it sounds like we went to the same woman’s college and as soon as I read the bit about “whores on the hill” I know we had. I too have very mixed feelings about this school going co-ed. While I grew up and went to high school in a pretty liberal part of the country (I took a girl to my junior prom and it was, wait for it, no biggie) I was still annoyed by the way I was treated by male classmates in high school. My older sister had gone to this same woman’s college, so I applied and went too. It was a great experience, and I made some profound lifelong friendships. Your post really articulates several of the issues surrounding single sex high education, thank you!

    1. Thank you for your comment! It’s great to meet a fellow alum.

      Your comment raises the also-important point that, in many ways, women’s colleges are safer spaces (though still not completely safe) for lesbian or bisexual women or women who are otherwise not traditionally gender conforming. I can’t speak to that issue from personal experience, but I think I can say that part of the backlash against women’s colleges is precisely because it provides that kind of safe space.

  2. Why is it okay for all the women’s only colleges to discriminate against men, but it wasn’t ok for the Ivy League schools to discriminate against women? I’m a feminist but I really believe that women’s colleges make us look really hypocritical.

    1. Tim, in a world where exclusively male educational institutions still exist, where one Ivy League college remained exclusively male until 1983 (in other words, in my lifetime), I’m not sure it’s feminists who are being hypocritical here. Women’s colleges emerged at a time when sex segregated education was the norm, when you HAD to have colleges exclusively for women because there was nowhere else for them to go. So, in some respects, they are artifacts of an older, more sexist paradigm, a sexist paradigm that had negative consequences for both men and women.

      My argument for why women may still wish to have the option to attend a single gender college (men have that option too) is because we still live in a sexist world. While we have made huge strides forward, mixed gender education (at all levels) still creates a somewhat hostile environment for girls and women, for all of the reasons I listed in the original post. The reason to have women’s colleges is not to enact discrimination but to have some space where women are safer from discrimination. I would really like us to live in a world where women’s colleges weren’t a little bit necessary, but we don’t. Since you say you are a feminist, I’m just assuming you’ll grant me that last bit.

      But I have a question for you, actually. Why is it that whenever women’s colleges decide to go co-ed (as the vast majority of them have been doing), the first big question is “Ok, now how are we going to get guys to go here?” If you are my alma mater you change the name of the school so it’s not so woman-y. Other colleges have changed mascots, masculinized their recruitment materials and distanced themselves from the school’s history as a women’s college. Trust me, there are no indications that male students are standing outside the doors of women’s colleges clamoring to get in. In fact, the perception is that men, as a rule, want absolutely nothing to do with them, even if they do open up their doors. To me, this has everything to do with the stigmatization of anything perceived as too feminine, the belief that men are tainted by association with them.

      1. As a male feminist (and by feminist I mean I support full equality between the genders) I admit my perceptions are going to differ a lot from yours. I graduated from a respected state college and honestly did not notice any treatment of women that would make me feel they would be better off at woman’s college. I honestly have a hard time accepting that a country where significantly more women then men are graduating from college is as sexist as you argue.

        But I hear that same argument over and over to try to rationalize the blatantly discriminatory behavior of women’s colleges. “Women have been discriminated against in the past, so now we will discriminate against men to make up for it.” Two wrongs don’t make a right. I don’t believe in Affirmative Action. You say that women’s colleges are still needed because the world is still sexist. The world is still racist, so should we allow colleges that discriminate on the basis of race? What about the military’s abhorrent ban on open gays in the military? Should we have gay-only colleges that can legally discriminate against straight people?

        The other question I had was who is considered a woman when admission to these colleges is being determined? Should a very feminine male-to-female transsexual (such as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaniity) be admitted? How about a very masculine female-to-male (such as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_Angel )? I am enlightened enough to recognize that gender is a fluid continuum and not a binary category. (Actually I was so curious that I actually just emailed Smith about this.)

        Men really don’t have the option of a men’s college any more. Your list really only has 3 4-year colleges on it, the rest are 2 year, trade schools, or religious seminaries. Those 3 schools have a combined enrollment of about 5000.

      2. Though you say you are a feminist, your unwillingness to listen to the experiences of actual women on this matter makes it seem like you aren’t arguing here in good faith. Just because you personally did not observe any negative treatment existed where you went to college, does not mean that mainstream colleges are completely safe spaces for women, which is why I cited outside sources when I described problems in the original post. And I never said that the point of women’s colleges was some sort of retributive discrimination. They are there to protect women from discrimination. Traditionally black colleges exist for the same reason, and I respect their right to exist (though they don’t turn away whites, if I understand the situation correctly).

        If you say that men are being discriminated against by women’s colleges, then you must feel that men are losing something by being unable to attend these colleges? What is it exactly? What are you missing out on there that you wouldn’t get from a co-ed college? Or is it just the symbolism that bothers you? Men have the option of joining all-male organizations–such as sports teams and fraternities. Unless you also want to integrate those types of organizations (and the Boy/Girl Scouts, etc.), I’m not sure your argument holds up.

        I recommend reading the following if your intent is to contribute constructively to this conversation:
        Is feminism going to far?
        Male Privilege
        Aren’t feminists just sexist against men?

        And I am actually fully supportive of trans women who want to attend women’s colleges.

  3. I just Googled gay-only schools for the hell of it and found this: http://www.academia.org/gay-only-school-must-admit-straights/

    So it has been tried and found to be illegal. I also now of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamehameha_Schools#John_Doe_v._Kamehameha, a Hawaiian prep school that only admits Native Hawaiians. Read the Wikipedia article about it, its fascinating. They won in court, 8-7, with the majority ruling making a lot of the same arguments that women’s colleges make. But they also apparently paid a white person $7 million to NOT attend. Wow.

    What is your opinion about these two examples?

    1. My opinion is that gay students have been beaten and killed in mainstream high schools for being gay. Native Hawaiians have faced an appalling history of colonization, elimination, and discrimination and currently face high levels of poverty while they drive tour buses for rich Americans. If those two groups want to carve out a safe space where their kids can be educated without dealing with that shit? Hell yes.

      But if you’d like to line up behind Fred “God hates gays” Phelps on this matter, be my guest.

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