Why Is There So Much Hate Toward Women’s Colleges?

By Lauren Young

We should celebrating schools where women don’t have to struggle for attention, resources, or respect.

When people find out I went to a women’s college, they immediately start trying to figure out why. “Oh, are you a lesbian?” (Did you choose your college based on how many of its students you were attracted to?) “But you’re so outgoing!” (Yes, we often socialized at women’s college; men are not the only people you can talk to.) Often they’ll just come straight out and ask me: “Why a women’s college?”

As traditionally male colleges have become co-educational, despite their relatively small numbers, women’s colleges have been a sustained presence in the biographies of many figures in America’s political, cultural, and business life. Yet, even as a women’s college graduate is running to become the next president of the United States, I am still prepared to have my judgment questioned every time I tell someone my alma mater.

Of course, everyone will have different personal reasons for choosing women’s college. But we could probably say all that needs to be said with one answer: “Because you felt the need to ask me that question.” Once we leave campus, we can expect to have our decisions challenged, our motivations underestimated, and our accomplishments treated as irrelevant. Women’s colleges are a temporary respite, spaces where women’s and non-cis individuals’ voices are not only welcomed, but the expected majority. Spaces where, for a brief time, we get to stop explaining ourselves long enough to get some learning done.

I am prepared to have my judgment questioned every time I tell someone my alma mater.

Today there are 45 women’s colleges in the United States. According to 2013 Forbes.com article, only 2% of American female identified college graduates received their degree from a women’s institution. Data collected by The Women’s College Coalition shows students at women’s colleges are almost twice as likely as their peers at co-ed public institutions to complete a graduate degree. Moreover, students at women’s colleges have consistently chosen traditionally male-dominated STEM majors at higher rates than their peers at co-ed colleges and universities. Kim Cassidy, President of Bryn Mawr College, notes in her May 2016 essay, “Where Women Thrive In Stem,” featured in U.S. News and World Report that, during the period from 2011–2013, the percentage of students graduating from Bryn Mawr with a STEM degree was two and a half times that of the national average. While nationally less than 1% of female students majored in mathematics, at Bryn Mawr nearly 9% of students did. Outside of laboratories and graduate school classrooms, women’s college graduates currently comprise about 10% of the women serving in Congress.

Women’s colleges offer students, along with faculty and staff, an unquestionably unique experience of academia — one where women don’t have to struggle for attention, resources, or respect. “Women’s colleges aren’t representative of the real world,” acknowledges an alum. “And that’s exactly why they should exist. The real world is…sexist and filled with so many other forms of discrimination. Why would I choose a college that mirrored that kind of environment?” For four years, students at women’s colleges can be exempt from trying to prove themselves to be as worthy of the attention given to their cis male peers.

Even at a women’s college, students will encounter cis men — students from consortium programs with which many women’s colleges are associated, professors, librarians, museum curators, mental health professionals, and other vital support staff. The difference is that these men are operating within a space that’s oriented towards women, rather than the other way around. The value of a women’s college comes not from the total absence of men, but from their absence at its historical, social, and intellectual center.

An institution where resources and priorities are entirely devoted to women benefits students both in and out of the classroom. When they’re not competing to be heard, women take greater advantage of academic resources: a 2003 study by Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research found that students at women’s college reported more interaction with faculty and higher student engagement than their peers at coeducational colleges and universities. And when women are a priority, their concerns are taken seriously. One alum noted that when she was stalked at her coed graduate school, her concerns were “dismissed or swept under the rug.” A women’s college, by contrast, can proactively address women’s safety, she said.

When they’re not competing to be heard, women take greater advantage of academic resources.

Women’s colleges can also be safer spaces for women who would be additionally marginalized in a coed school. They have a long history of encouraging non-traditional age students, who might have had to sacrifice their educations for marriage or childrearing. Programs like Wellesley’s Davis Scholars, Bryn Mawr’s McBride Scholars, Smith’s Ada Comstock Scholars, and Mount Holyoke’s Frances Perkins Scholars invite those students back into the fold. Transgender students, too, are a growing presence on women’s college campuses, with seven women’s colleges adopting trans and genderqueer inclusive admissions policies in recent years. Crucially, students who transition from Female to Male, Female to Non-Identified, or Non-Identified to Female or Male during their time at a women’s college may continue to attend and to live on campus. After a sometimes troubled road, women’s colleges are embracing their role as havens for people across a spectrum of genders.

Although all private institutions are disproportionately white and wealthy, women’s colleges commitment to inclusivity has led to greater diversity as well. A 2014 UCLA study cited in The Washington Post states that “women’s colleges as a sector enroll higher percentages of low-income, first-generation, and minority students” than public and private universities, co-ed liberal art colleges, and Catholic colleges. As reported by the Post, the same 2014 study found women’s colleges boast students with the lowest median household incomes, the highest percentage of African-American Students, the second highest percentage of Latino students and the highest percentage of first-generation college students. Women’s colleges are assembling exceptionally diverse student bodies that can help to nurture students’ recognition and understanding of myriad aggressions and experiences, equipping them with the tools to share their knowledge and combat these patterns beyond their college years.

Women’s colleges are “places where we are all valued,” one alum offered. “There’s no comparison to [an] arbitrarily superior gender.” Society looks askance at women-centric spaces; when men are always centered, an environment without men is mystifying. What is it for? But for the students at women’s colleges, the value is obvious: When men are moved away from the center, women have all the space to grow.

Lead image: Kheel Center/flickr

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