Feminism | Posted by Nellie B on 10/22/2009

It’s a Woman’s College, Not a Girl’s School

womens colleges

women's colleges

In the fall of my senior year, as I fill out the endless applications, I can look back on those endless college visits and breathe a sigh of relief at being done.  No more awkward waits in reception areas with other nervous teens.  No more interviews in which one must brag about superior academic, leadership and social skills.  And best of all, no more tours.

I’ve been privileged enough to look at and consider several small liberal arts schools.  As the archetypal teenage feminist, I tended to gravitate towards either very liberal schools or women’s colleges (the two often go together).  On the tours,  I stood out as the weird girl who kept asking about the libraries and double majors rather than the partying opportunities.  On a memorable tour of a famously lesbian-friendly college, another high schooler asked, “So, like, what about the boys?”  I suppressed a smirk.  Didn’t she know where she was? This was that school, the one that spawned all those mythical angry, hirsute man haters that people are always talking about.  Alas, the tour guide did not chide the girl for her obvious, heterosexist question.  Rather, she jumped to the school’s defense, assuring us that the place was rife with co-ed opportunities.  Boys abounded! It’s, like, totally easy to have a boyfriend and a social life!

Unfortunately, this response is all too common on the women’s schools I’ve visited.  The PR department bends over backwards to make sure that girls know that they aren’t signing up for a four-year convent. Boys are so easy to meet!  All-girls can be stifling, that’s why we connect with other schools!  We have co-ed parties all the time!  No mention is ever made about the LGBT scene, ever, unless one asks.  Then, the tour guides or interviewer extols the vague “diversity” of the college without ever actually saying “yes, we have gays here.  Lots, actually.  That’s why it’s an awesome place.”

Women’s colleges admissions tend to miss the point. They should not only recruit straight students but reach out to and acknowledge their demographic LGBT base that attends single-sex schools for a reason.  These places ought to expand the definition of “social life” to include students who, gay or straight, enjoy the company of other women and don’t necessarily include guys as the key element of a fulfilling social life or education.

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  • Toongrrl @ at 11:42 am, October 22nd, 2009

    I would have told that girl: “There’s some in town and in other schools, YOU can find them if you want to, any other questions regarding the dorms and academics?”

  • Deanna @ at 11:55 am, October 22nd, 2009

    I don’t think that was heterosexist. Why shouldn’t she be out about her straightness?

  • Shannon @ at 1:48 pm, October 22nd, 2009

    If I’m going to live someplace for the majority of four years, I will take an interest in social opportunities available there. If that place is all-female, I’ll ask about opportunities to spend time around men. Not just because of sex, though I am heterosexual, but because guys are fun and different and mostly good people.
    Most girls looking at colleges are used to a coed environment, so they would like to know more about the differences between coed and single sex schools before choosing a college. It’s as natural as asking about the dorms (most high schoolers live at home) or the differences between a small school and a large one.
    I have been to college, and while academics are important- it’s why you’re there- you will not want to spend all of your time in the dorm or studying. You’ll want to get off campus, meet new people, do different things, and have fun. If a tour guide or potential student will talk about nothing other than guys and/or partying, then they need to go to another, coed school and reevaluate their commitment to school in general. But there is no harm is wondering about a social life. It’s a big part of attending any school, but especially residential ones.
    You are correct about the LGBT issues, however. We’re getting there as a society, but we’re not there yet.

  • Steph @ at 5:38 pm, October 22nd, 2009

    So BE one of the volunteers who guide people around campus – they’re always looking for people to do that job, after all.

    IME, women’s colleges are cool, but ANYTHING gender-restrictive makes me feel damn uncomfortable, so they’re basically out.

    I’m not sold on on excluding guys, either. Sure, a lot of guys can be jerks, but there are a bunch of really good ones out there.

    Fuck, we just need a GAYMPUS(word coinage!). Campus where all the cool queer and feminist and so on people can hang out together without small-minded idiots.
    I’d go to THAT school.

  • Barbara @ at 6:26 pm, October 22nd, 2009

    I totally identify with this post. I think that what may be misenterpreted here (and perhaos has been) is the idea that giving (or asking for) the rant on where to find the boys is in and of itself heteronormative. It isn’t, because, as Shannon said, you should find out all about the social life and opportunities of a school. What is heterosexist, and what the poster was getting at, was the assumption that every woman looking into an all woman’s school will be really concerned with this. An All woman’s school is the last place where I, as a queer woman, want to be made to feel invisible. That is it’s so frustrating.

    In related news, I was told, point blank, at Hampshire College (a small experimental liberal arts school in MA) that “It’s a little abnormal to not be queer at Hampshire” and Smith College’s promotional material includes pictures of the “typical” students, many of which are butch and other variations of Obviously Gay. It was really exciting to see that, unlike other schools who had a large gay population but seemed ashamed of it, they valued students like me.

  • Maia @ at 8:54 pm, October 22nd, 2009

    I mean, I won’t call it heterosexist necessarily, but it does seem pretty disappointingly typical that the tour people’s priority is to reassure applicants that they won’t go into boy withdrawal at a women’s college… And when I ask a tour guide about social life outside the college, and they respond, “oh, tons of the girls have boyfriends from one of the nearby schools,” well, THAT’S just irritating.

    I agree that it’s freaking ANNOYING when schools rattle on about their diversity and don’t mention the LGBT community unless someone specifically asks… and then that someone (usually me) gets really weird looks from the rest of the tour group. Ugh.

    Though when I toured Bryn Mawr, at the end of the tour I asked about queer life (this was when I was young and stupid, you see, and didn’t know that liberal women’s colleges were some of the gayest places on earth), and my tour guide responds with, “Well, my girlfriend and I…” Aah, it was awesome…

  • Mara @ at 1:39 am, October 24th, 2009

    I don’t think wondering about opportunities to meet people of the opposite sex is inherently heterosexist, but I am surprised that they wouldn’t mention LGBT life on campus. All the small liberal arts schools that I’ve visited have been really proud of their LGBT community and tried to showcase that during tours and informational sessions. That’s really surprising.

  • Nellie @ at 11:13 am, October 24th, 2009

    Let me clarify: I don’t think it’s heteronormative for prospective students to ask about the opportunities to interact with boys. I find it annoying, however, when tour guides and publicity materials entirely ignore or quickly gloss over the queer community.

  • Mara @ at 2:11 am, October 25th, 2009

    Yeah, they should really try to make sure that the tour guides and their publicity fully acknowledge to LGBT community on campus. I know that that’s something that matters to me when I’m choosing colleges, and pretending that such a community doesn’t exist is really a turn-off for a lot of prospective students at schools like that.

  • Amy CT @ at 4:56 am, October 25th, 2009

    Wow. I don’t think we even have any all-women’s Unis in the UK. I know that Cambridge still has at least one all women’s college within their University, but that’s about it.

    I didn’t realise this kind of thing even existed!

  • Jim @ at 4:00 pm, October 25th, 2009


  • em @ at 8:03 pm, October 25th, 2009

    Great post.

    I am a recent graduate of the very school I assume you speak of, and even served as a tour guide.

    It’s important to remember that there is an unfortunate but very real (and very political) hierarchy pulling the strings behind the scenes. For example, the Board of Trustees at the womens college I attended were all old white women and men (whose wives had attended the school) who still thought of the school in terms of pearls and white-gloves – the homogenized and elite institution that they had attended. Those people are, at least in part, responsible for shaping the school’s image.

    Additionally, going to such a school does not mean that every one of your classmates will be the queer kid feminist I was. And I promise that most of those people are NOT serving as tour guides. That being said, I gave tours with my trans friend who was very open about his experience at the school.

    I’m getting off track – just don’t forget to think about who it is that’s delivering the message and who it is that’s directing them to. It’s not necessarily “the school” as an institution endorsing whatever message you may find objectionable.

  • Maggie @ at 8:14 pm, October 28th, 2009

    I attend Mills College, and even with our reputation, there is surprisingly little queer visibility in our admissions material.

    Believe it or not some of those women will choose the attend a womens college, and in my experience they make life miserable. For the most part they complain all the time and get defensive about how hetero they are, I routinely hear a group of them talk about feeling oppressed.

    Just know that a womens college is a special place. Class room dynamics really are different. I shamelessly plug Mills. Its awesome.

  • School guide @ at 9:32 pm, December 1st, 2009

    Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so! really nice post,and very informative

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