This post is by Melissa Bellitto and is a part of the Feminism & Education series jointly hosted by Equality 101 and Gender Across Borders. Archives of the Feminism & Education series are here.
If you are a young woman or care about women’s education and a feminist, then you owe it to yourself to take a serious looks at women’s colleges. This discussion makes many people roll their eyes and assume these institutions are quaint reminders of an outdated age. In an era where more women then men attend college, why do we need women’s colleges? Most of these colleges have worked very hard to divorce themselves from stereotypes of being bastions of feminism. Yet, women’s colleges graduate women who are self-assured and intelligent. They are women with a voice who understand that they are the drivers of their lives. They are not waiting for the knight in shinning armor to save them. As Selena Rezvani in The Washington Post writes,
When one studies in an all female environment, there is less reliance on someone sailing in and fixing everything. Women are not waiting to be saved, believing that outer forces will help them, rather they are steering the ship, making cause and effect moves that actively sculpt their lives. Is it any wonder then that women’s college graduates have developed a self reliance that serves them time and again in their careers?
An impressive list of women who are graduates of women’s colleges include Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Women’s colleges create highly confident women, women who have the self -awareness to engage in healthy relationships, women who raise strong women and respectful men, women who do not buy into traditional notions of femininity. Most of the women’s colleges have honor codes that imbue women with honor and integrity. At my alma mater, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, my classmates and I all came to college from various parts of the country and from different life experiences. We did not always agree with each other then, and we do not now. We were encouraged to disagree and to question each other, our professors, and what we were learning. Those disagreements happened with other women, not with men who bullied us into submission. The success of women’s colleges is also born out in the statistics.
While women’s college graduates make up only a small minority of the college-educated population, one-third of the women board members of the Fortune 1000 companies are women’s college graduates, and women’s college graduates are twice as likely to earn Ph.D.s., more often going on to study the sciences and attend medical school. Of Business Week’s list of rising women stars in corporate America, 30 percent are women’s college graduates and of women members of Congress, 20 percent attended women’s colleges.
Also look at the Notable Firsts section of the Women’s College Coalition website:
- First woman Secretary of State
- First woman to receive the Noble Peace Prize
- First African American woman judge
- First Nobel Prize in Literature
- First woman secretary of the Democratic National Party
- First CEO of a major commercial Airline
- First environmentalist to awaken public consciousness
- First civilian woman on a space shuttle mission
Despite these accomplishments, only 2% of college age women choose to attend a women’s college. Women’s colleges are struggling to stay relevant and attract students. When I started looking at women’s colleges in 1995 there were 87 of them, now there are 60. My Alma mater went coed in 2007. Wells College also began admitting men in the same year. Their argument for doing so was that women no longer want to attend women’s colleges and to stay viable, they need men, which is the antitheses of what they taught generations of women. The reason so many people dislike women’s colleges is the simple fact that they have always held to the belief that women are smart and can be well educated. When women’s colleges began, they were the only place women could get an education comparable to what men received. The founder of my Alma mater, William Waugh Smith, made plans for a “college where our young women may obtain an education equal to that given in our best colleges for young men and under environment in harmony with the highest ideals of womanhood.” That was 1891. Since then women’s colleges have been places where women could obtain an excellent education in an environment where they were respected as smart, autonomous individuals.
Women’s colleges focus on women. As soon as a young woman sets foot on the campus of a women’s college, she is coming to a place with a history of female role models. She enters into a world of her own. It encourages confidence and self-awareness that creates women who are better able to cope in the “real-world.” At women’s colleges, women hold all the leadership positions; they do all the talking in class. Women find their voices, whether they want to or not. From womenscolleges.org:
True to their word, these colleges appear to have created a climate where women are encouraged to realize their potential and become involved in various facets of campus life, inside and outside the classroom. They are respected for their intelligence and not their looks. Unlike women at coeducational institutions, women at single-sex colleges assume all the leadership roles on campus, form study groups composed only of women, and take charge in laboratory exercises and classroom discussion. Our findings lend further support to Fassinger’s (1995) conclusion that classroom conditions at coeducational institutions reduce women’s level of participation, whereas women’s colleges seem to create classroom conditions in which women students are more likely to be actively engaged.
If we want a truly equal society I believe we need to educate more woman in a single sex environment.
At my women’s college the professors used the pronouns “she” and “her” rather than “him” and “he.” This conscious use of the feminine made me very aware of the respect accorded to me by my professors. That’s the thing with women’s colleges, they respect and honor women. We have made many gains in our society, but women are still not equal. I spent four years in an environment that focuses on and respects women. I knew once I graduated I would most likely never find such a female friendly environment again. If feminism is about respecting women, then women’s colleges are the place where that ideal comes to fruition. My experience at a woman’s college changed my life. It is the best thing I ever did. It’s something I wish for all women.
Women’s College Coalition website http://www.womenscolleges.org/
- A comprehensive website on women’s colleges
- There is information on the 60 remaining women’s colleges, including searching by major and by college. There is also a tab to request info from the women’s colleges. There are also links to information and statistics on women’s colleges
Selena Rezvani Are Women’s Colleges Still Needed The Washington Post September 3, 2010 http://views.washingtonpost.com/leadership/panelists/2010/09/are-womens-colleges-still-needed.html
A Modern Mission for Traditional Women’s Colleges NPR Interview with Smith College Professor Helen Horowitz http://www.npr.org/templates/player/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=16104602&m=16104568
Helen Grant Halvorson The Trouble with Bright Girls The Huffington Post March 1, 2011 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/heidi-grant-halvorson-phd/girls-confidence_b_828418.html
Charlotte Huff Pink School, Blue School: Single Sex Education in the Public School System-Is it Logical or Stereotypical American Way Magazine , February 15, 2011 http://www.americanwaymag.com/national-association-for-single-sex-public-education-dallas-independent-school-district-us-department-of-education
Eric Ferreri Careful Growth At Peace The News & Observer August 24, 2010 http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/08/06/616674/careful-growth-at-peace.html#storylink=addthis
Katie Zezima Women’s Colleges Shift Gaze to Less Well Off The New York Times May 29, 2010
Melissa Bellitto is a 2000 graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, which became Randolph College and began admitting men in 2007. She has a long standing passion for women’s rights, which she indulges on a volunteer basis, but wants to turn that passion into a paid career. She also holds and LLB and LLM with Distinction in International Human rights from City University London. Her blog on women’s issues can be found at http://mb13.posterous.com/.