Feminism | Posted by Anna D on 08/19/2011

Go East, Young Woman

Wellesley College

Wellesley College

Ever since I made my decision to attend Wellesley College, I find myself having to defend it to most of my high school classmates. Many of them know nothing about the school, and when I tell them about it they ignore its academic reputation and amazing alumnae. To them, it is simply a women’s college. And since I’ve decided to go there, they have surmised that I must hate men, am a lesbian or am doomed to life as a crazy cat lady.

It gets tiresome hearing my classmates’ reasons why I shouldn’t go. One boy even told me, “You won’t know how to interact with men past the age of 18.” (Forget the fact that I will have male professors and will interact with some of the thousands of male students at surrounding campuses.) Since I’ve also heard that women’s colleges are somewhat controversial in the feminist community, I thought I’d examine these reactions and the issue in general.

Perhaps I should explain why I chose to go to a women’s college. I applied and was accepted into both co-ed and single-sex schools. I ultimately chose to go to a women’s college because I was amazed by the strong community I found there and the notable accomplishments of previous graduates. Clearly, women’s colleges prepare women well for the world and encourage them to be passionate about what they choose to do. Of course, I understand that a same-sex college is not necessarily appropriate for every woman, but I do believe there are great advantages to attending one, if the college is a good fit.

Only 2 percent of college-aged women choose to go to women’s colleges, but those who do have overwhelmingly positive results. In spite of these positives, there is somewhat of a backlash against them. One of the common arguments I hear is that they are antiquated institutions. As the Women’s College Coalition explains:

The formal education of girls and women began in the middle of the 19th century and was intimately tied to the conception that society had of the appropriate role for women to assume in life.

But the need for these colleges has evolved over time, and now they hardly seem old-fashioned. The progressive mindset of these colleges helped educate many impressive women, including two icons of feminism, Gloria Steinem (Smith ‘56) and Betty Friedan (Smith ‘42), as well as some of the most powerful women in government: Hillary Clinton (Wellesley ‘69), Madeleine Albright (Wellesley ‘59) and Nancy Pelosi (Trinity ‘62).

Another opposing opinion states that women’s colleges no longer have a place in our world with the abundance of co-ed colleges, and that by continuing to exist are promoting sexism through segregation. But I see women’s colleges as filling a void that sexism created in the world, where women don’t get called on as often by professors and have to fight to be heard. I doubt many would be able to say this is no longer a problem. Women’s colleges are inherently feminist, not sexist, because they believe in advancing women’s position in the world. To those who then counter with, “Why aren’t there more colleges exclusively for men?” I answer, “Because men are not at a disadvantage in the common classroom or greater society and so there is no real need for all-male colleges. And yet, some still exist.” One day, women will hopefully be on equal footing with men and the remaining women’s colleges can go co-ed. However, that time has certainly not yet arrived.

When I graduate in four years, I doubt I’ll have had the cobwebby, sequestered experience my classmates envision for me. Rather, I’ll have years of practice speaking my mind and standing up for what I believe in–starting with my belief in women’s colleges.

Originally posted on Ms. Magazine’s Blog

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  • Emma E @ at 12:12 pm, August 19th, 2011

    A woman’s college sounds fun! Part of me kinda dislikes the idea–I don’t believe in segration, of anything or anyone, under any circumstances–but part of me thinks ‘Imagine how fun it could be. Imagine the friendships I could form without guys getting in the way. Imagine talking to girls about things that aren’t always guys.’ But I have plenty of amazing guy friends, and eventually my inherent hatred of separating people for sex, race, whatever wins out. Still, I wouldn’t mind attending a women’s college–luckily, I don’t have to think about it for four years…:/ I’m kinda dreading that. But oh well. Good luck!

  • Brenna @ at 4:15 pm, August 19th, 2011

    I just moved in yesterday to Stephens College, a women’s college in the midwest and I couldn’t be happier! Maybe in the past women’s colleges were just finishing schools in disguise, but now I believe that they’re ahead of the game. Women’s colleges are not about separating women from the world, but rather giving women special access to the world by empowering them. I already feel special and secure here; I know that when I graduate I will be a much smarter and stronger woman.

  • logoskaieros @ at 6:15 pm, August 19th, 2011

    Congrats on your admission! I refused to seriously consider all women’s colleges when I was applying to undergrad, but now knowing what I know, I wish I had.

    I find that when people ask me to defend decisions that seem ‘controversial’, pointing out how much They Do Not Know About It usually gets them to leave me alone.

  • Emily K @ at 7:18 pm, August 19th, 2011

    First off, congratulations!

    Secondly, I went to a women’s college (Scripps) for my undergraduate. Loved it. My classmates were (and continue to be) smart, funny, and passionate about the causes/jobs/research/etc they engaged in. Honestly, I didn’t really think about the same-sex aspect of it while I was there, but that was the amazing part. I was used to women leading discussions, heading committees, etc.

    Yes, you can have an amazing experience at a co-ed college. But at occasionally at some of the co-eds I taught at since then, I notice women who do not speak out on feminist or political issues (or sometimes just a random classroom topic) because they think it might make them seen too unattractive, too forceful. I’ve also seen some backlash towards those who do identify as feminist.

    This was the opposite of my undergraduate experience. There, women were expected to speak up, to debate, to challenge. I’m still a bit shocked when people balk at the word “feminism,” and I think this is large part because where I went to undergrad. The greatest gift I received from going to a women’s college was that it reinforced my belief that being a feminist is a positive and normal thing to be.

  • Katie @ at 8:24 pm, August 19th, 2011

    I really like this article. I’m applying for college this year and have looked at a few women’s college, but this has makes me a bit more curious. Also, despite what many people think there actually still are some men’s only colleges, like Wabash and Deep Springs.

  • Bryn @ at 6:01 am, August 20th, 2011

    As someone who attends an all-girls school (I know, not university, but I’m almost there anyway), a public, academically selective, all-girls school, and can I just say it’s pretty awesome?

    I think you’ve made a great decision, because all-female environments are pretty fun. People say that women are more bitchy in all-female environments, and that the estrogen imbalance makes everything crazy, but that is NOT TRUE. As Wellesley shows, it really fosters an environment for strong women, and like you said, plenty of men around should you feel the need. Not to mention most people have fathers, brothers, uncles, male friends, boyfriends, cute check-out guy etc.

    And tbh, I don’t see such schools as “segregationist” – how is fundamentally different to being part of a women’s football team, or working in a female dominated environment? My brother goes to an all-boys, and a lot of my out-of-school friends go to or went to all-girls/boys schools. I honestly think it helps you feel more comfortable in your skin without having that weird sexual stuff that often comes up, and it removes a lot of stigma from discussing women’s issues.

    I’m not saying co-ed is bad, I just think that there is some weird stigma around all-female schools, and until you’ve been to a single-sex school, or a single-sex environment, you just can’t speak about it.

  • Sargasso Sea @ at 1:07 pm, August 21st, 2011

    To be sure women’s colleges are fantastic and produce smart, strong women who are used to being, and EXPECT to be, heard.


    But there is a growing trend that maybe not a lot of young women are aware of and that is the increase of young women who enroll at women’s colleges, then begin to transition (having *top* surgery and injecting testosterone), female-to-trans* while still at university.

    I’m curious to know what you think about that, Anna, because your chosen school is very, very accommodating to this particular class of students.

  • Alpha @ at 12:51 am, August 22nd, 2011

    First, congratulations on your admission! I hope you have a great time at Wellesley.

    Second, I really liked this article. It was interesting to read because I haven’t heard much about female-only colleges before (practically zilch), and I’m nearing the end of high-school, so it’s an option that I might have to read up on. So, thanks for that!

    Third, reading this brought up a couple questions for me. You referred to it as both “women’s” college and a “female” college. And those terms refer to two distinct things, one being a gender identity and the other being a biological sex. So, I was wondering: how does your college (or other similar colleges) differentiate between the two? Is the distinction made based on who is physically female, or who identifies as a woman, or who is both? I’m just curious. Does anybody know?

  • Elizabeth @ at 5:51 pm, August 22nd, 2011

    This piece is really great – one of my relatives goes to Wellesley and she is having an amazing time. One of the reasons she chose it was because of the smallish number of undergraduates, which means that there is a lot of individual attention and a really close-knit community – which is important especially for her with her parents living outside the USA. Apparently the boys of MIT and Harvard are ever-ready to socialise, and their absence during lessons aids focusing on academics during the day! Good luck with your Wellesley experience :)

  • EHungerford @ at 9:32 pm, August 22nd, 2011

    Congratulations!! I am a proud Smith alum and applaud your decision to attend Wellesley. Seven Sisters!! Going to a women’s college changed my life in many wonderful and unexpected ways. I agree that these institutions help to fill the significant void created by sexism. A void that still very much exists.

    I also share the concerns expressed by the commenter above. For all of the many reasons women choose female focused environments in the first place, trans *men* do not belong at women’s colleges. Respecting identities must go both ways. I hope that more women will proudly support the woman-only boundaries envisioned by the founders’ of these necessary sanctuaries for female intellectual exploration and growth.

  • Jen @ at 12:52 am, August 28th, 2012

    Do any of them offer degrees in computer programming or engineering – in the fields in which women are really needed? If not, does anyone know if they’re thinking of adding such courses? Those were the only classes in my coed university that made it feel awkward to be a girl.

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