October
17th 2010
Why must women’s colleges exist? A personal reflection

Posted under: childhood, class, Gender, GLBTQ, race, students, wankers, women's history

This could be a very short post, with my answer being because they p!$$ off and disturb so many people!  But I’ll take the time to explain, for those of you who are curious.  As some of you recall, I linked to Tenured Radical’s series last week on the role of women’s colleges in women’s education, and jumped into the fray of the comments threads as well.  Knitting Clio has posted some further thoughts on this subject too–I objected to her raising the issue of class privilege rather than addressing the questions TR had asked, but she insists that we need to talk about the role of feminist education in co-educational institutions too.

This particularly heated comment thread–44 comments so far!–concludes with Dr. Cleveland writing, “This has been an amazing thread.  I’ll admit that I needed my eyes opened to how much resistance there is to the mission of women’s colleges. It’s shocking to witness. But it also makes a very strong case for why women’s colleges are still very, very necessary. If TR hadn’t persuaded me, the hostility of some of the commenters toward women’s education would have.”  I’ve been thinking about this all week long, and would like to share my personal experiences of my attendance as an undergraduate and brief affiliation as a faculty member with women’s colleges. 

When I enrolled in a women’s college 24 years ago, I wasn’t expecting that it would be all that different from any other small, liberal-arts college.  But I was wrong–not so much in the way that it functioned or educated me, but in the way that other people reacted to the existence of women’s colleges and to the fact that I attended one.  I came to understand that my college represented something deeply threatening to other people, most of whom were men.

As a freshman, I had a boyfriend from back home who had strange fantasies about what a women’s college meant for the everyday lives of students.  He’d say things like, “You’re all women in the dorm, why don’t you all just walk around naked all of the time?  Why do you need bathrobes?”  “Do you just sit in your dorm rooms topless?  Do you touch each other, and give each other hugs and kisses?”  I think he was serious.  (Needless to say, that boyfriend didn’t last long.)  I wondered, “why would anyone ask such dumb questions?  We’re college students, not nudists, and only some are lesbians.  Besides, this was Pennsylvania–not in the tropics.  Did he think that women clothed themselves only to prevent men from seeing them naked?  Did he think that all of us turned into lesbians the moment we got back to the dorm?  Comments like that made me wonder what other bizarre thoughts about women might lurk in his lizard brain.

Unfortunately, his wasn’t the only lizard brain I encountered.  A regular feature of life at Bryn Mawr in the 1980s and early 1990s was the fact that the moment we strayed more than a block from campus, we were subjected to verbal harassment, most of which was homophobic as well as sexist:  “Dykes!  Lezzies!  Fags!”  Our appearance was aggressively scrutinized by drivers on Marion Avenue as we crossed, both approvingly (rare) or less approvingly:  fat women, tall women, women with long hair, women with shaved heads–we were screamed at by men in cars.  I was never subject to any racialized screams, but it happened to my African American, South Asian, and Middle Eastern classmates.  There we were, college students in a leafy, expensive suburb of Philadelphia–I thought my experience was privileged, and I felt lucky indeed.  But I came to understand that our space was deeply and profoundly threatening to a lot of outsiders, all of whom (at this point) were male, and who apparently couldn’t let the opportunity pass to remind us that we were no longer on our privileged campus.

As I was finishing grad school a few years later, I made the acquaintance of a woman who was also finishing up her dissertation in history.  She was curious about my experiences at a women’s college, and also oddly fixated on the sex lives of women’s college students.  Her husband had attended Harvard, she said, “and it was so pathetic.  Every Friday night, the bus from Wellesley would pull up, and everybody knew why they were there.  The Harvard students called it the F^ck Truck.  So pathetic!”  What could I say?  So what if every single one of them wanted to get laid by men?  That’s not allowed?  (And weren’t you visiting your boyfriend from another campus?  Didn’t everyone know why you were there, too?)  Maybe they just wanted a ride into the city to see a movie or hang out with their friends?  Maybe they’re gay, and on dates with their girlfriends!  I thought, “who gives a crap?  If I were eighteen and someone offered me a free ride into Cambridge from the ‘burbs, I’d probably take it just for the heck of it.”  But it became clear that some women were unsettled by students at women’s colleges–they too saw the students as objects for their sexual fantasies and for shaming.

Once I finished my Ph.D., I was invited to teach at Wellesley College for a semester.  I took my research seminar students on a little material culture field trip to a graveyard just a few blocks from the campus to take a look at the headstones there.  Our journey to the cemetery was uneventful, and my students enjoyed getting out on that early spring afternoon.  But as the group of us were crossing back over to campus, a car sped by and we were assaulted with “Lezzies!  Lezzies!  Faggots!  Dykes!”  I’d like to know if this is still happening on the borders of women’s colleges today.  My bet is that it is, given the existence of gender and sexuality bullying in middle and high schools in this country.

What was it about women’s colleges that turned so many apparently normal, decent people’s brains to indecent obsessions about sex sex sex?  The fact that these fantasies were mutually contradictory was all the more remarkable:  students at women’s colleges enjoy nudism and lesbianism!  (the kind that titillates straight men, anyway) but as soon as they’re on a campus with men, they’ll jump on any hard thing they can find, because everyone knows why they’re there.  (I’ve written about this before with respect to the World’s Most Famous Wellesley Graduate, and the odd sexual fantasies about her that have filled the national media for twenty years now.)  Obviously, because we women’s college students rejected co-eduation, we were sexually unstable, or even queer,regardless of our individual sexual preferences and practices.  Because we went to college with other women, people assumed we didn’t care about men’s judgment or evaluation of us as women or possible sex partners, and that made us dangerous.  Forget the fact that most of us were straight and many of us already had boyfriends, and forget the fact that too many of us cared too much about the male gaze–every third woman in my dorm had an eating disorder, I think–it didn’t matter.  That we had rejected affiliation with men as college classmates was all that really mattered. 

Now, it’s thirteen years since I taught at Wellesley and twenty-four years since I was a college freshman, and I’m researching the lives of religious women in France and New France.  And it’s clear in all of the secondary sources as well as in my archival work in Boston and Quebec that cloistered women–like women’s colleges in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and today–were seen as threatening and destabilizing in spite of the valuable work they performed  for their communities and the utterly conventional (so to speak) spaces they offered to women with relgious vocations.  (There are even familiar-sounding, oddly florid sexual fantasies about cloistered women in the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth centuries–see for example the anti-nun literature published by English and Anglo-American protestants, like The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.)  Yes, deeply and essentially conservative institutions like tony SLACs and monasteries are seen as disturbingly revolutionary or even dangerous if men are excluded in any way.

So, the fact that women’s colleges are still evidently considered radically countercultural is precisely why we need women’s colleges.  Until you’re in an environment where this kind of bizarre, public fantasizing (or even menace) about your sexuality unusual, you don’t realize how much you’ve come to accept it as part of everyday life.  The facts of Lezzies!  Lezzies!  Faggots!  Dykes! and “Why don’t you all just walk around naked all of the time?” and “everybody knew why they were there” mean that I want women’s colleges around for a long, long, long time.  Because as irritating as it was to be assaulted verbally by this kind of stupidity, cruelty, and resentment off campus, thinking about it now just makes me so happy that I never heard anything like this on my own campus.  I got to go to classes and to the library and be left alone with my thoughts.  And I can’t imagine what kind of suck on young women’s time and talent it is to have to try to go to classes, study, and work on campuses where they feel like they need to groom themselves and perform for men, or where they might hear anything like this on a regular basis.

Does this sound familiar to any of you, particularly those who attended women’s colleges or had friends who did?  I’ll be interested to hear your stories.

55 Comments »

55 Responses to “Why must women’s colleges exist? A personal reflection

  1. Tenured Radical on 17 Oct 2010 at 10:21 am #

    Great post. I, too, was interested in how much that series ruffled folks — and also by how many emails I got from women saying that they wished they had gone to a women’s school.

    I wonder what a world where we were not policing women’s sexuality would look like?

  2. Millie on 17 Oct 2010 at 10:50 am #

    I didn’t go to a women’s university (I’m Canadian, and there’s a whopping one women’s college in Canada) but I did live in a women’s residence in undergrad, and this post really resonates with me. If I had a nickel for every time someone asked about naked pillow fights, I’d’ve had enough to pay my tuition.

  3. Dr. Crazy on 17 Oct 2010 at 10:50 am #

    “And I can’t imagine what kind of suck on young women’s time and talent it is to have to try to go to classes, study, and work on campuses where they feel like they need to groom themselves and perform for men, or where they might hear anything like this on a regular basis.”

    See, this is what I don’t get. I went to a public, co-ed university. What you describe above was *not at all my experience.* Further, this is not the experience that my students at my current institution articulate to me. I’d venture that how women are treated on a campus might have to do with one or more of the following (among other things):

    1) Emphasis on fraternity/sorority involvement.
    2) Reputation (or lack thereof) as a “party school.”
    3) % of residential students/commuting students.
    4) % of non-traditional students.
    5) “campus culture” over time.

    The presence of men alone does not make an educational environment hostile to women, nor does it make women students act or dress like Stepford Wives in training.

    I’m not saying that there’s not a place for women’s colleges, that they don’t inspire weird/hateful responses from the public, etc. I am not disagreeing at all with what you have to say about women’s colleges. I do wonder, though, at the way you’ve characterized coeducational environments as a unilateral suck on women’s time and talent, and your portrayal of women who attend such institutions as grooming themselves and performing for men. I think that characterization/portrayal is ridiculously unfair, and I don’t understand what it’s meant to achieve.

  4. Historiann on 17 Oct 2010 at 10:54 am #

    Dr. Crazy–what this post “means to achieve” is to describe my experiences of the borders between women’s campuses and the rest of the world, and what the world looking into women’s colleges looked and felt like in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s all.

    I never said I thought that the experience of co-education was uniform, or uniformly like the quotation you pull out. This post is a personal reflection of my experiences (n=1). I’m just saying that it must be exhausting IF hearing and defending against comments like the ones I describe here is something that’s not confined to the margins of your life. In fact, I don’t characterize co-education in any particular way at all–I focus on the experience of being a women’s college student and faculty member, and my perceptions of what that space meant to people both on- and off-campus.

    If everything was great for you and is great for your students, that’s wonderful.

    Millie–I’m sorry this sounds familiar to you.

  5. cass_m on 17 Oct 2010 at 11:30 am #

    Is this an NA culture thing? When I was 15 (in the 70s)I visited Trinidad and their educational system was co-ed for elementary school equivalent then unisex (with uniforms) later. When I asked, I was told it helped students focus on school rather than socializing and there were mixed gender events.

    Looking back with adult eyes, it was more likely a way to decrease the chance of teen pregnancy without having to teach much sex ed/contraception but the learning experience is still a bonus. If I had a daughter I would welcome the opportunity to send here to an all girls high school for all the reasons women’s colleges exist.

  6. rustonite on 17 Oct 2010 at 11:32 am #

    I’ll throw in here. I went to UMass, and there was a certain allure about Smith (but not about Mount Holyoke!) Smith seemed like a secret society, a place we weren’t supposed to go- even though I went there on a regular basis to use the library, it always seemed like I wasn’t welcome. Mt Holyoke was completely different. Everyone knew women who went there, sometimes they dated your friends, you went to stuff on their campus. But Smith was like a monastery, or a secret temple. Even the women at UMass were disturbed by Smith, but not by Mt Holyoke. I dunno what was going on there, just throwing my two bits in.

    Oh, and as for the walking around naked in your dorm: that’s men projecting what they would do if they were alone. I lived in both an all-male dorm and a fraternity house, and there is a lot of walking around in your underwear, just because you can. My favorite mental image of that time is one of my hallmates in tighty-whiteys standing in the hall eating a bowl of cheerios, like people just eat cereal in their underwear all the time. There is a certain amount of freedom that comes from only having women around when you want them there, and for 18 to 22 year olds, mostly it turns out it’s the freedom to be gross- don’t do your laundry, don’t clean your room, decorate the walls with the cardboard shells of 30-packs, etc.

  7. mandor on 17 Oct 2010 at 11:43 am #

    No matter what the context, women’s spaces piss people off. I participate in an online forum for group bike rides and the mere suggestion of starting a women-only ride brought about all sorts of complaints of “this is sexist!” and from women “I don’t need to ride with other women!” There are, of course, a myriad of rides everyday of the week (some of which are v. dudely). There is a comfort to women’s spaces that I value. I went on that hotly contested women’s bike ride and it ended up being an awesome few hours of bonding.

    I gave serious thought to applying to women’s colleges though I ended up at a co-ed one. I can’t say a I felt much pressure about my appearance, but I’ve always been a bit immune from that. The college was known for being gay friendly, so we still got the gay taunts when wandering off campus. What is with the homosexy fascination?

  8. Historiann on 17 Oct 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    No matter what the context, women’s spaces piss people off.

    It seems to be a historical constant! Something else I didn’t write about here is another reaction I’ve had since graduating, which are comments that go something like, “Well, I can certainly understand why some women go to women’s colleges, but I’m strong/I’m tough/I’m independent, so I never felt the need to do that.” There’s a perception that creating a women’s-only space = weakness or vulnerability, rather than an assertion of our interests/needs. That may to speak to your experience with the bike club, Mandor.

    And Rustonite–I get it that d00dz would want to do that, but does anyone ask about whether you hug and kiss and turn each other on when you’re walking around in your underpants? That’s the angle that’s most disturbing to me. As TR said above, what would the world look like if it didn’t constantly obsess over and police women’s sexuality?

  9. rustonite on 17 Oct 2010 at 12:23 pm #

    Historiann- That suggestion was made on occasion, and the response was inevitably violent. Not that I’m suggesting women get pissed off and hit people- maybe just the pissed off part, and then do something constructive, although what I have no idea.

  10. Historiann on 17 Oct 2010 at 12:23 pm #

    p.s. On the topic of “women’s spaces piss[ing] people off,” I’m also now flashing back to conversations a decade ago at my former university when we were in the process of creating a Women’s Center on the campus. It had been an all-male college (St. Mary’s College for Men) until it was bombed by the Klan in the 1920s, and then went co-ed and adopted a municipal-sounding, definitely not-Catholic name. The mere existence of something on campus called “the Women’s Center” freaked the uni leadership out. The prospect that not every single space would be all about teh menz was very upsetting–even though we never imagined or talked about the Women’s Center being an exclusively-female space.

    But the threat was there–if we call it a “women’s center,” then men won’t feel welcomed. Of course, the point that many of us tried to make was that a space like that *would* make women students and faculty feel welcomed on a historically male campus–but that was never the priority of that particular institution, of course!

    It was all about the men and their feelings.

  11. ladysquires on 17 Oct 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    Yep. I graduated from R-MWC (now coed) just 5 years ago, and this post pretty much exactly describes the attitudes I encountered. Also surprising was how people who lived in the area and were familiar with the myriad women’s colleges in the region would develop very staid (and inaccurate) opinions about the differences between each college. According to Jerry Falwell, the girls at Sweet Briar were the kind you marry (with the added implication that they were all there to get MRS degrees), and the girls at my school were the Whores on the Hill. Also lesbos (not sure how those two things went together in people’s heads).

  12. Historiann on 17 Oct 2010 at 12:30 pm #

    rustonite: what would you suggest that young women *do* when verbally assaulted, especially by men who are driving by in cars? I’ve tried a number of things when the assailants were stationary (ignoring them, confronting them, or asking if they kiss their mothers with those mouths), and the verbal assaults didn’t stop–they just got scarier in some cases.

    I once got an apology from a construction worker in Philadelphia. Two or three guys yelled at me as I jogged by, saying “ooh baby, you’re looking tight today!” I stopped and quoted them back to themselves, and asked if they said that to their mothers or wives or daughters. One guy actually apologized, but I have to say: in all of my years of being harassed on the streets of Philadelphia (5 years in the late 1980s and early 1990s), confronting the d00dz only made the harassment worse. This usually meant that they mocked me as well as hassled me. I didn’t jog with a handgun strapped to my side, and I was a 120-125 pound woman usually confronted by more than one man. So what do you think would have worked? Are there some magic words I could have found that would have done the trick?

    I would think that it would be easier and more effective if men policed themselves, and when their friends did or said things like I’ve described, that their friends speak up and say, “man, that’s not cool.”

    I’ve always seen crime as the criminals’ fault, not the victims’ responsibility to stop.

  13. life_of_a_fool on 17 Oct 2010 at 1:00 pm #

    This is really interesting. My (quite probably naive) criticism about women’s colleges was that they would not prepare women adequately to deal with all the crap that comes with living a male-dominated society. Your experience here tells me that students (and faculty) at women’s colleges are very well prepared for dealing with a sexist world, given their interactions outside, and possibly more so than women at a co-ed institution (as I didn’t experience anything approaching that level of hostility at my co-ed schools).

    The most compelling argument that I’ve seen for women’s colleges in all of these discussions was TR quoting Mary Maples Dunn as saying “A women’s college is the place a woman can learn what gender equality really looks like.” I *love* that quote.

    I went to a co-ed university that used to be two single sex colleges (both of which still existed, officially, at the time, though they were entirely integrated). The women’s college had a better endowment, which allowed for additional women’s scholarships, grants, and opportunities. I always appreciated that, and I benefitted from it, but I appreciate it more now.

    So, I have gained a newfound appreciation for women’s colleges through this discussion. I do agree with Knitting Clio’s original comments as well (and i agree all the more because, given my current location, I acutely feel the class privilege of elite co-ed colleges. It’s most definitely not a problem of women’s colleges, but of elite universities, of which women’s colleges form a small subset).

  14. Anonymoose on 17 Oct 2010 at 1:01 pm #

    I did not attend a women’s college, but I did live in a sorority house on a large co-ed campus, and much of this sounds very familiar, except that sorority members are fair game for both male and female students to insult.

    It doesn’t matter how often you tell people that you joined (and subsequently lived in) a sorority because you valued the company of other woman, supported academic and persona excellence in your female peers, and appreciated their support in return, and because you wanted to be part of an organization that awards a million dollars worth of academic scholarships to women every year, the assumption is always a house full of sluts, whose only measure of self-esteem is the honor of being an unpaid sex worker to a fraternity house full of men. You know, when we weren’t undermining each other by drawing circles around each other’s fat deposits with a Sharpie marker, seducing profs to get an A (because we are all too stupid to just do the work) and making elaborate plans to torture women on campus who didn’t join a sorority.

    I agree completely with the idea that, as soon as women draw a boundary around a space for themselves, it becomes deeply threatening, and the only way to obliterate that threat is through some measure of public shaming.

  15. Dr. Virago on 17 Oct 2010 at 1:04 pm #

    Huh. I went to an all girls Catholic high school, then went to Columbia College @ Columbia University (so, not Barnard, but, obviously, I had Barnard friends, and Barnard classes, and also was on a sports team originally founded at Barnard), and spent a year abroad at Newnham College, Cambridge (one of the women’s college), all during the same period (80s-90s) and I’ve never experienced *most* of what you relate (see the exception below). But perhaps that’s because the two women’s colleges with which I was somewhat or entirely affiliated were so deeply integrated into otherwise co-ed worlds? Did this save them from being seen as threatening? As for my high school, perhaps the existence of two other single-sex high schools (one all boys) in the same city made it seem more normal?

    What *does* resonate here, though, is the assumption that women at women’s colleges are desperate for sex. I swear that every time I tried to have a friendly conversation with one of the English men at Cambridge, he would assume I was “chatting him up” (i.e., that I was interested in him romantically), especially once he heard I was from Newnham. Given that I had numerous healthy, friends-only relationships with men at Columbia (and so did all of my female friends, from Columbia, Barnard, and Engineering alike), I chalked this up to the English being a little behind the times in terms of gender relationships. But maybe I just wasn’t seeing the bigger picture of the threat all-women’s institutions posed?

  16. Susan on 17 Oct 2010 at 1:37 pm #

    I have no personal experience here, having attended a formerly all male university soon after it became co-ed, but it’s obvious that the real threat of these spaces is that men can only control them indirectly. Which may explain the extreme harassment.

  17. wini on 17 Oct 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    A discussion I’ve been following a little bit recently has been the issue of transgendered men and women at all-women’s schools. It seems to be mostly a matter of transitioning FTM during undergrad, but soon I would assume that soon/already MTF transgendered folks will apply to these schools as well. (Cue: Emma)

    From what I can tell, these schools have opened up and made their schools safe spaces for transgendered men and women. I am interested in this right now, but I don’t have any conclusions. Certainly one can be sympathetic to the freshman year roommate who finds herself living with a man, but it also has to hurt/trouble him as well. (This happened to my sister, but it was a large suite and he had his own room. I think the main issues was the shared bathrooms.)

    This whole conversation has surprised me so much, I think because my mom and my dad’s mom both went to the same all-women’s college, and the group of women they both met there remain central to their intellectual and emotional world. How could this not be a wonderful thing?

  18. Flavia on 17 Oct 2010 at 2:01 pm #

    Regarding the fantasies and hostility that cloistered women provoked: unfortunately, the past tense isn’t appropriate. Not many female religious are cloistered any more, but in the past couple of years the Vatican has been initiating serious investigations into many religious orders in the U.S. — concerned, basically, that the good works these women are doing as teachers, social workers, and the like are being done too independently, without male direction or oversight.

    And. . . they wonder why vocations to the religious life are declining!

  19. Historiann on 17 Oct 2010 at 2:10 pm #

    Flavia–that’s right. The Church is largely to blame for the absence of Catholic women with vocations. There are so many more options for women now–they don’t need religious orders. And the Church’s continuing hostility towards them that you mention is a big factor.

    Most North American convents will become museums in the next few decades. (Either that, or they’ll be sold and condo-ized.) There’s no one under 70 living among the Ursulines of Quebec, the oldest women’s house in North America. Unless we’re all living in medieval-style walled cities again in the next few decades, due to global warming or pandemic disease. In that case, religious houses might do just fine!

  20. Knitting Clio on 17 Oct 2010 at 2:16 pm #

    Like Dr. Crazy, I don’t get the comment about women at coeducational institutions supposedly dressing and grooming themselves and acting just to please men. That doesn’t fit with my experience either.

  21. rustonite on 17 Oct 2010 at 2:17 pm #

    I think in that case (120 pound woman versus crowd of morons) the appropriate response is tactical retreat. But just because you win or lose one battle doesn’t mean the war is over. Even the rebels abandoned Hoth.

    I think you’ve got the wrong metaphor. This isn’t crime. Crime implies a violation of societal norms. Men yelling lewd things at women, feeling threatened by women’s spaces, those ARE societal norms. American feminism is barely skin-deep.

    To get back around to the original point of all this, this is why women’s college must exist: as beacons of feminism in a dark patriarchal world. The real question is how to spread feminist thought to the point that yelling lewd things at women becomes against the norm.

  22. The Rebel Lettriste on 17 Oct 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    Harrumph. The taunts of “lezzie, dyke, faggot” are not unique to the women’s college. Sometimes they are just directed at students in towns with poor town/gown relations.

    I went to a co-ed fancy Midwestern SLAC–the first college west of the Mississippi to admit blacks and women, as the promo. literature likes to crow.

    I lived in women-only space the entire time I was there, in a women’s dorm and then later in off-campus housing with other women. Once, we tried a feminist utopia house that was a squalid failure of repressed anxieties and a whole lotta disordered eating. And yes, I looked the feminist part–short hair, overalls, no makeup, hairy legs, &c.

    One day, in my senior year, I was buying groceries at the local cheap food store–the one with an entire back whole consisting of local pork. I got to the checkout, and my cashier sized me up and looked across to her colleague. They both nodded in my direction, and said, “DYKE!” affirmatively.

    Those were good times, for sure.

  23. Dame Eleanor Hull on 17 Oct 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    When I was applying to college and grad school, the women’s colleges never even made it onto my radar; I think I’d heard of Vassar and thought it was not for people of my class (whatever that was at the time). But for a time, by some accident of admissions and graduations, my graduate program was all female, and it was a great experience in “discovering what gender equality really looks like.”

  24. truffula on 17 Oct 2010 at 2:49 pm #

    Dr. Crazy and Knitting Clio: I don’t get the comment about women at coeducational institutions supposedly dressing and grooming themselves and acting just to please men. That doesn’t fit with my experience either.

    Well, it fits with mine at a public university with a relatively diverse student population. More importantly, given the pervasiveness of popular media messaging to young women about the right ways to dress, decorate, coiff (I know, it’s not a real word), and otherwise perform femininity, I’m not sure how I’d tease apart which part of any particular cleavage display is for whom. I’m the first person to defend a woman’s right to dress however the heck she wants, but I’m not so quick to assume I know what she wants really means, even when it comes to my own performance.

  25. Historiann on 17 Oct 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    I think trying to generalize about the experience of education at co-ed schools is probably pointless–and that wasn’t the point of one sentence in an entire post, whose main point was my reflection on my experiences of being affiliated with women’s colleges.

    To be clear: I don’t think that every single woman attending a co-educational institution is experiencing exactly the same thing, nor that they all necessarily “feel like they need to groom themselves and perform for men, or where they might hear anything like this [harassment] on a regular basis.”

    I think those pressures are more common in co-ed rather than single-sex colleges, but it’s really not the point of my post. (As I said in the post, the pressures of heterosexuality and the male gaze were still present on my campus–it’s not like women’s colleges in fact solve all problems for women students.) I don’t really care to talk about co-education at all–I wanted to talk about the perception of women’s-only spaces by the world at large.

    Susan raises a key point about the harassment directed at women’s institutions: I think she’s right that it has to do with male control and influence, and the perceived absence thereof. As The Rebel Lettriste suggests, there are also class and town-gown aspects to this kind of policing. But as Dr. Virago’s, ladysquires’s, and Anonymoose’s comments suggest that the obsession with the sex lives of women in women’s institutions is indeed widespread. (Anonymoose–I agree with you that women as well as men have these reactions–that was the point of my anecdote about the woman with the Harvard boyfriend. But in my experience, I’ve never been hollered at by women on the street.)

  26. wini on 17 Oct 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    Hmmm, what about virtual all-women communities? Right now, my main exposure to a women-only space is a handful of parenting websites.

    No male parents allowed, names like “Mommy” and “Mama.” All structured and discussed as safe spaces, but virtual ones.

    I have never witnessed any reactions against these spaces, where discourse (and obviously membership) is highly policed. Neither is dominated with or about the working/staying at home mom conflict. And, after two years of being a parent, I found it necessary to reject both of them and most of the community I found around them.

    But, what I don’t have a grasp of is how they are perceived by the world at large. That’s not why I stepped away from them. Is the largely straight world of child rearing a kind of protection from scrutiny? Does the “virtual” aspect of the community make criticism more invisible? Frankly, I’m no longer interested in anything that places women alone in the mother role, especially when originating in a self-identified “radical” parenting community.

    I’d be interested in comments on this, or not.

  27. Historiann on 17 Oct 2010 at 4:19 pm #

    Wini–how can anyone police an on-line community to ensure only one kind of user? I think that’s the difference between on-line and RL communities. Anyone can be anyone on-line, whereas it’s harder to pass in RL. (More difficult, but not impossible.)

    I don’t have any experience with motherhood blogs. I would guess that because motherhood is a pretty unthreatening identity for most women to claim that there’s little interest in policing or disrupting these communities. Why did you “reject” them?

  28. Notorious Ph.D. on 17 Oct 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    Reading the sub-thread about the degree to which women at co-ed institutions may be subjected to gender performance all the time, I wonder if the harassment that young women at women’s colleges experience when they step off campus isn’t more intense simply because they are at a women’s college.

    In other words, maybe the performance standards for those of us at co-ed institutions were there, but usually incredibly subtle, because it’s an extension of the outside world. But when women at women’s colleges in essence opt out of that for a portion of their lives, the perceived need to reinforce that (and hence the degree of harassment) becomes more vitriolic.

    In other other words: women at co-ed colleges don’t need to be forcibly brought into line as a class (though individual women might), whereas women at women’s colleges do.

  29. Historiann on 17 Oct 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    I think that’s right on, Notorious. (And relates to Susan’s comment upthread.)

  30. Notorious Ph.D. on 17 Oct 2010 at 4:27 pm #

    Ah — Yes I see Susan there now. I was skimming the comments too quickly, it seems.

  31. Bing on 17 Oct 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    Wonderful post. My sense of the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk is that it was primarily anti-catholic, not anti-woman as such, as the Jesuits and other papists were getting similarly smeared.

    As an aside, I thought I would mention that Maria Monk’s mother, despite the popularity of her daughter’s book, said that her daughter had since a child been “somewhat addled” after getting a pencil stuck in her head. I think that’s in Hoffstadter’s essay on the paranoid style.

    HJ

  32. Historiann on 17 Oct 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    Maria Monk‘s intent was clearly anti-Catholic, but it mobilized all kinds of misogyny and anti-nun propaganda that went back centuries to make its anti-Catholic points. (Babies buried under the convent to conceal sexual sin! Because protestant society at large doesn’t believe that celibacy is a legitimate or earnest sexual identity.)

    Protestants think that monks and priests are disreputable sexual freaks too, but they don’t burn down their monasteries in the 19th C U.S., or publish the same kind of sensational stories or porn about them. (Although as I noted above, the Catholic former men’s college I taught at was bombed in the 1920s by the KKK. It was and is run by the Marianist Brothers.)

    Great story about the pencil! Excellent pickup.

  33. Dickens Reader on 17 Oct 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    I wish I had went to an all-female college. I am going to do all I can to track my daughter into one.

  34. history_mom on 17 Oct 2010 at 9:55 pm #

    Wini: having worked behind the scenes on a large network of mom’s groups, one which had face-to-face events (thus, one, albeit totally imperfect, way to screen members), we often had male parents threaten to sue us for sex discrimination for not allowing them to join. One guy went so far as to pose as an attorney and send us a subpoena in order to scare us into letting him join one of our groups. The lengths some men went to were definitely creepy.

    Female-only spaces are threatening to men. They fear what women are talking about or doing in these spaces. They fear they are being made fun of, that women are conspiring against them. They fear that they are un-needed.

    I have seen this go the other way, though, with women obtaining entry to men’s-only spaces in order to spy on a spouse/boyfriend. Usually, it insecurity about the relationship, rather than a generalized reaction to “men’s spaces”.

  35. Historiann on 17 Oct 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    history_mom: sadly, I’m unsurprised. I agree with your analysis of the stalkerish behavior.

  36. Katie on 17 Oct 2010 at 10:47 pm #

    I lived in the all-girls dorm of a co-ed college, and we definitely got our share of comments. However, I remember more of them being in the vein of, “oh, and does everyone ask you if you have naked pillow fights” accompanied by an eye roll, as though the asker was aware of the absurdity of the idea. Not always, but often.

    I chose an all-girls dorm because I had few male friends or relatives growing up, and figured that college would be enough of a chance, I didn’t have to throw living in proximity to men into the equation at the same time, too. And it wasn’t because I was weak, or less of a feminist, or had “issues” with men as others in my life have insinuated. It was what I wanted at that time. And to this day I’m thrilled I did it. I found a community of women who were interesting, capable, strong and opinionated. What stood out to me what how girls in the coed dorms acted compared to the girls I lived with. I saw many coed girls hide the fact that they studied, refuse to leave their room without makeup on, and dramatically change their behavior whenever they were around guys. More often than not, I’ve seen this as typical behavior for girls in the first years of university, but I always happily noticed its absence in my dorm. I’m not saying that women are only truly themselves in the absence of men, but at that time and at that age, I saw a change.

  37. z on 18 Oct 2010 at 12:09 am #

    Well, women’s colleges are feminist but much of the public at large perceives them as patriarchal, something like harems.

    I’d not have considered one because I wasn’t interested in private school & believed in open admissions, a school with all students, all departments, all everything, the world. But.

    Harassment for being at a women’s college, seems to be like harassment about not being married; no visible man to keep you from doing something transgressive.

    Interesting how my conditioned expectation about all womens’ environments still is that they will be prim.

  38. Dr. Crazy on 18 Oct 2010 at 4:55 am #

    Historiann – I just wanted to pop back in to apologize if I derailed the comment thread yesterday. That wasn’t my intent at all. I did understand the point of your post – that you wanted to reflect on your experience of women’s colleges – but didn’t understand why you chose to characterize experiences other than yours as you did toward that end, and in the conclusion of your post. That was all I was attempting (although apparently ineffectively) to question in my comment. At any rate, I’m going to do a post over at my place today about the things I’m thinking about, but I felt like I should follow up before I did that.

  39. Historiann on 18 Oct 2010 at 6:50 am #

    Dr. Crazy–no problem. I would welcome discussions on other blogs about women’s education and creating feminist communities at co-ed colleges and unis.

  40. Feminist Classrooms and the Education of Feminists « Reassigned Time 2.0 on 18 Oct 2010 at 6:50 am #

    [...] been brewing since Tenured Radical began her series on single-sex education for women, and since others have followed up on her posts, because for me it illustrates a few different things.  First it [...]

  41. Prof. Pushbutton to the rescue! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 18 Oct 2010 at 6:51 am #

    [...] and commenter truffula sent this along last week.  She writes, “A colleague dared me to send the attached page from [...]

  42. Sue on 18 Oct 2010 at 8:35 am #

    I went to Wellesley College and graduated in 1985. I don’t recall any of this type of harassment–directed at my choice of college–at the time.
    I did ride the Harvard shuttle on the weekends, and the guys that I met in town seemed fascinated by the idea of a women’s community. There was an “expose” at the time in Esquire about what it was like to be a male exchange student at Wellesley that didn’t really expose anything.
    My friends and I smuggled a male friend of ours in to a woman-only party, but that was because he was not a jerk and respectful but curious.
    The only time I felt “accused” of doing something unusual by attending the school was in a much-later interview with a law firm, and the male interviewer glanced at my resume and asked, “Wellesley? Isn’t that a girls’ school? Why’d you go there?”
    I was so surprised by the question it was hard to answer. Why wouldn’t I go there? It was academically sound and a beautiful place, etc., etc. Because of his attitude, I didn’t explain how it was empowering for a young woman to be in a woman-only environment and to view the entire world strictly through a feminist’s eyes, and that even though that view attenuated over the years, it never went away completely.
    But never heard the homosexist stuff; if anything, the guys at the time seemed enthralled and challenged by our separateness.

  43. Emma on 18 Oct 2010 at 8:40 am #

    but soon I would assume that soon/already MTF transgendered folks will apply to these schools as well. (Cue: Emma)

    This feels like a dig. But I’m not going to be defensive about my interest in and understanding of trans ideology and political issues.

    I could go into my thoughts on the the issues of women’s boundaries and who gets to set them and the category “woman” becoming the dumping ground for everybody who doesn’t live up to masculinity. But, suffice to say, isn’t it part of feminism to analyze how the concept of “gender identity” is deployed against women who don’t fit the social norms of femininity and womanhood? Deployed to our great detriment, I might add.

  44. Emma on 18 Oct 2010 at 8:42 am #

    “Female-only spaces are threatening to men. They fear what women are talking about or doing in these spaces. They fear they are being made fun of, that women are conspiring against them. They fear that they are un-needed.”

    Like comments about how two African-American students talking must be “plotting”. I wonder how much HBCUs are subject to this type of controlling behavior around race?

  45. JackDanielsBlack on 18 Oct 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    I personally think that many men would do better academically and socially in all-male colleges (of which, unfortunately, there are now very few secular examples in the U.S.) Having women around can be distracting and there is a lot to be said for the bonding that occurs in all-male environments. I remember my years at an all-male college preparatory school (that still exists, tough with difficulty) with great fondness, and I think I learned in a unique way. This was also true of my stint in the Marine Corps; Parris Island was a unique character-building experience. In the same way that womens’ colleges build self-esteem and self-confidence among women, I believe that mens’ colleges and other all-male institutions and organizations have a similar salutary effect among men.

  46. Historiann on 18 Oct 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    I don’t disagree with you, Jack.

  47. Emma on 19 Oct 2010 at 9:06 am #

    This was also true of my stint in the Marine Corps; Parris Island was a unique character-building experience.

    Yeah, I remember Parris Island fondly, too. Women-only basic training was a unique bonding and character-building experience for me.

    Then I entered the Fleet populated by so many bonded and character-builded male Marines who thought women in the Marine Corps was superfluous at best and an abomination at worst. End of the bonding and character-building for me.

    It was interesting to me that during my days in the Marine Corps there was saying that there were no Black Marines or white Marines — just Marines. But there were definitely Marines and Women Marines, with all the second-class status that implies. Why, when the first Gulf War was fought, the Second Marine Division left all their Women Marines behind at Camp Lejeune. I guess all those women were too distracting for our highly trained fightin’ men.

  48. JackDanielsBlack on 19 Oct 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    Emma, I fully agree that women should be given the same opportunity to fight and die as men. A Marine Corps truly integrated by gender would not be the Marine Corps I knew, but I would be OK with it, as long as everybody met the same high standard.

  49. Emma on 20 Oct 2010 at 8:28 am #

    Jack,

    I agree with you. The obscure point of my post was that male bonding is often done around misogyny.

  50. Historiann on 20 Oct 2010 at 9:12 am #

    I b’lieve I just saw a winged pig fly past my office window. . . Jack and Emma agree!

    Snuggles ‘n cocoa ‘n slankets for everyone!!!

  51. Emma on 20 Oct 2010 at 12:35 pm #

    Hee!

  52. Thursday Links | Interrobangs Anonymous on 21 Oct 2010 at 5:07 am #

    [...] women’s dorm in undergrad, and while that’s not the same as a women’s college, this post by Historiann on her experience at Bryn Mawr really resonates with Millie. The assumptions about our sexuality? [...]

  53. Anassa kata '05 on 26 Oct 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    Bryn Mawr was the first place I was able to see women’s sexuality as an extension of personality rather than as a gendered performance. What had always bothered me in high school–girls changing their tone, outfit, interests to flirt with boys–was conspicuously absent from campus life, or at least relegated to frosh exploration of Swarthmore and Haverford parties.

    That exploration, after the first year, just seemed so boring to me and many of my peers. Getting to know the relatively small undergraduate body, getting caught up in “lesbian drama,” getting to witness women’s easy affection for each other (sexual and non-sexual) was a revelation for me. Any stories of “Lezzie!” taunting that I heard took place in Philly or NYC, not on the Main Line.

    Upperclasswomen would tell stories of alumnae whom they derisively referred to as LUGs or BUGs (lesbian/bi-sexual-until-graduation, for the uninitiated). And yet! Many of those self-same women dated or married men after graduating. I don’t actually think of this as hypocrisy. It feels more like a mourning of the bubble that mutes compulsory heterosexuality, where women’s sexuality actually looks like a continuum. That bursting bubble pops you back into spaces where men say “I’ve never met a woman like you,” and I sigh, “I used to be surrounded by them.”

    Thanks for this post! I’m totally thrilled you’re an alum. Saw that pic–indubitably taken out of a Denbigh window–and m’heart skittered.

  54. Caitlin on 31 Oct 2010 at 7:29 pm #

    In Edinburgh, there are a couple all-girls boarding schools and one all-boys boarding school. When I was going to a co-ed boarding school the boys’ school (Edinburgh Academy) was viewed by my friends as an elite institution, whereas the girls’ schools (Mary Erskine and St. George’s) were looked at with suspicion. I was told that the girls who went to St. George’s were “boy-crazy” and that they were mostly “bitches.”
    I assume that most of the boys at Edinburgh Academy were girl crazy and a bunch of them were probably d-bags, but that never came up in conversation.
    Weirdly enough, no one ever questioned if we walked around naked or engaged in lesbianism, even though we lived in an all-girls boarding house. I guess since we saw boys every day people weren’t suspicious.

  55. Kelly on 16 Nov 2010 at 10:30 am #

    I attended a Catholic women’s college for undergrad (during the late 1990s), and then worked for seven years as an admission counselor at a women’s college.

    High school college fairs were environments where young men would often visit my table with the expressed intent of harassing me because I was a representative of a women’s college. The high school setting was often a space where young men could perform and enforce particular kinds of masculinity and heterosexuality. Young men would often harass women who wanted to learn more about opportunities at women’s colleges. I learned that one way to handle this kind of environment was to take my time packing up my bags at the end of the college fair. I sometimes met the most amazing students after the crowds had dissipated and the college fair had ended. Some young women seemed to need the near-anonymous environment provided by an empty high school gym just to do their college search.

    Furthermore, other admission counselors were sometimes complicit in the harassment. Given the proximity of the display tables, the other counselors saw and overheard my exchanges with high school students. Time and time again, counselors would welcome young men to their table, even after they had witnessed them harassing me or other students. On one particular occasion, a young man took one of my brochures, wrote “dyke school” under the College’s name, and then returned it to my table. A nearby male admission counselor from another university witnessed the exchange and called the young man over to his table. I overheard them schmoozing about football, computer science and engineering.

    It is interesting that even though each academic year brings with it fewer women’s colleges, the lingering public preoccupation with them does not seem to diminish. Women’s colleges are such a tiny fraction of the overall number of institutions of higher education in this country, so I find it hard to believe that such knee-jerk reactions are the result of massive numbers of students having first-hand experiences with women’s colleges.

    I believe that our national policy discourses about “college preparedness” and “college readiness” need to be critically interrogated. Our educational systems, structures, policies and practices continue to presume that “college choice” is rational and self-evident. I see women’s colleges as spaces that continue to push back and complicate these normalizing discourses.

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