Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why Are Women’s Colleges Necessary?

A young woman from the United Kingdom asks the question, “Why are women’s colleges necessary?” and Gretchen Van Ness, a classmate of mine, answers.

There's no easy answer to your question, but I'll try. First consider the research that shows that women who have attended women's colleges disproportionately achieve success in their fields. Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and many other women "firsts" are women's college graduates.

We live in such a gendered world that it is almost invisible to us, but most would agree that women are still held to very different expectations than men, girls are treated very differently than boys, sexual harassment is prevalent in high school, middle school, and even elementary school, etc. There is virtually no time in a young woman's life when she can just BE -- be herself without having to look pleasing to someone else, be interested in something without worrying whether a boy will think she's weird or too smart, be adventurous without worrying that she's not feminine enough, be a leader without worrying about being called some pretty awful names. Ironically, women's colleges give women perhaps the only chance in their lives to be free of gender expectations and limitations.

When it's women everywhere doing everything, you are no longer a woman scientist or a female athlete or a girl gymnast -- you are a scientist or an athlete or a gymnast. Every leadership position on campus is held by women. Everyone who speaks in class is a woman. Every A the professor gives, in math or biology or Spanish or history, is given to a woman. If anything is done on campus, from the college paper to student government, it is done by women. Living and breathing that experience changes you because you get to be the norm, the universal, the assumed gender in every story you're hearing or telling.

And it's not a nunnery. Most young women who go to women's colleges have male relatives, attended public schools, worked jobs in high school next to young men, etc., and at college they have male professors, work jobs next to men, date men, etc. Most young women who go to women's colleges have a pretty positive view of men. Because they have had the experience of a women's college, they are prepared for the real world in a way that many young women are not.

Do you know what the best preparation for life is? Knowing yourself. It's just about impossible to grow up in our culture not knowing a lot about boys and men. But it's almost impossible in our culture to grow up knowing everything you are capable of if you are a woman. As long as that remains true, there will be a place for women's colleges.

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