In Defense of Women’s Colleges

All-female colleges aren’t sexist havens, but they are a place to foster better relationships between women.

Over the years, I’ve gotten used to explaining in detail what I consider to be very basic things about myself. For most of high school, it was my feminist identity that served as a point of confusion for my peers. By my senior year, I probably recited what I considered to be an informative yet caustic speech explaining that no, I didn’t hate men or have pyrotechnic tendencies or any kind of desire to burn my undergarments, but rather believed in this pretty basic concept of equality, about ten thousand times.

I hoped that exerting that much energy into defending myself and my beliefs might move others, might inspire them to see my point of view and hop aboard the Equality and Acceptance Bandwagon (otherwise, believe me, I wouldn’t have bothered). Instead, I was generally met with blank stares that had a Hollywood casting director been privy to viewing would have landed many of my peers as extras in the next zombie apocalypse movie. As high school drew to a close, though, I figured I was done with the explaining. After all, I had pretty much recited my pro-feminist spiel to most everybody, bestowing upon myself the permanent epithet of “feminist” (as in: “Yeah, that’s that weird chick Julie, The Feminist.”) But then college acceptance letters started rolling in and I had to start explaining myself all over again.

I applied Early Decision to Barnard College – the women’s college affiliated with Columbia University – and was accepted. And yet one of the most exciting moments of my young life (yes, there was some completely uncharacteristic jumping up and down and ridiculously girly screaming in my house the day that letter came) was quickly undermined once I started reporting the destination of my matriculation. It wasn’t just that nobody in Cleveland, Ohio was familiar with Barnard College – it was that they were at a complete stupor-inducing loss.

“You’re going to a farm in South America?” one particularly befuddled person asked me, thinking I had said I was attending a “barnyard in Colombia.” But even after extensive explanation on my part as to what Barnard is, it seemed that confusion lingered. Mostly, my decision to attend a women’s college was the hurdle most people just couldn’t clear.

The funny thing is, when I initially began the college process I had absolutely no interest in attending a single sex institution. In fact, I knew exactly what I wanted in a school. I wanted to go to a small liberal arts school in New York City that was full of intelligent, impassioned and driven students, dedicated professors who would take a personal interest in their students rather than put them on the backburner in favor of their own research or hand them over to T.A.’s, an amazing alumni network with plentiful internship opportunities, an excellent women’s studies department and an emphasis on writing across the board.  And that school is Barnard – a school that also happens to be single sex.

Now there have always been those who like to defame women’s colleges as sexist, outdated institutions – especially some vocal ones lately. Much like feminism itself, most people seem to believe that we currently live in a society of complete equality and that the idea of a college just for women is simply unnecessary. In fact, before I started applying to schools, I was one of them, to some extent. But now that I have a semester of a women’s college education under my belt, I have to say I’d be willing to defend my experience against the staunchest of opponents.

To be fair, I actually understand where some people are coming from when they say women’s colleges are sexist. It does seem at least a little hypocritical for women to denounce all-male institutions and demand they become co-ed (like we did with Ivy League schools) and yet insist on maintaining women’s colleges. But here’s the thing: despite many an ardent attempt on the part of some to convince the world we are post-feminism, we still live in a society that is overwhelmingly patriarchal and male-favoring. And while men are still in control, while only 12 Fortune 500 Companies are currently run by women  and women make up only about 17 percent of the United States Congress, it’s clear that we need to do something to counteract this reality and work towards a world of gender equality. This is where women’s colleges come in, by prioritizing the education of strong, motivated women and encouraging them to be the leaders of tomorrow.

While it’s true that successful, powerful women do (obviously) graduate from co-ed universities as well, that goal is not prioritized or promoted in the same way at those institutions. And sometimes, female students have the potential to be leaders, to achieve great things, but they need an extra push. The effect of attending a school that constantly holds up this standard for its students should not be underestimated – in fact, its effectiveness is reflected in the statistics of women’s college graduates.

But beyond the debate over whether single-sex education is sexist, many of my high school friends were more preoccupied with the idea of me isolating myself from men. Wouldn’t I get sick of girls? Didn’t I want a boyfriend? Or was I actually just a closeted lesbian, hoping to explore my sexuality (one of the many women’s college stereotypes)? And besides, they figured, the world is co-ed: how was separating myself from men helping me?

The truth is, I have met plenty of guys at both Columbia and NYU and live in a city that is full of men and Barnard is not the only women’s college near other co-ed colleges. In my opinion, the women’s college experience isn’t about isolating yourself from men as much as it is about really working on female relationships and women-based communities – something I think we could use a lot more of in this society. Young women today are encouraged to completely tear apart other girls.

We’re told we must compare ourselves to each other constantly and compete with each other – the effects of which are none too healthy. But at a women’s college, that sense of competition is slowly stripped away. Female friendships are more authentic and prioritized, the effects of which last a lifetime, even when we’re back in a co-ed world. As for the sexuality point, my sexuality did not factor into my decision to attend a women’s college in any way (nor did most of my friends here). I attend school with women who are straight, gay, bisexual and undecided, which is the case at any college in this country.

Guest writer Julie Zeilinger is founder of The F-Bomb, a website dedicated to giving voice to teenage feminist issues.

Image: Billy Hathorn