Women's education, part III

Tenured Radical has published her third and final post on women and single-sex education, “What is Our Work?  Towards a Feminist Future in Education.”  There’s lots to think about and debate, but I’ll just highlight this paragraph towards the end of her piece:

Equality is never a finished project. As women’s aspirations and achievements change, so do their needs. While a women’s college privileges a feminism that puts women at the center, we must remember the other piece of the gender equality equation that feminism attends to: providing spaces where men who care deeply about the advancement of women in science, or any other field, can come to recruit the best minds, to partner with them, to mentor them, and to learn from them. Gender equality is a project, and it is, as Mary Maples Dunn said to me, an unfinished one. But to believe and invest in a project like feminist education is to demonstrate optimism about gender equality by investing in the institutions that will create it. Gender equality is, in the most optimistic scenario, a feminist task that may remain unfinished as long as women continues to re-imagine and re-invent themselves to meet the challenges of their own generation.

A number of readers left comments over at TR’s place and here over the past few days describing many different journeys to feminism and to women’s colleges, which I found very interesting.  I was perhaps a little different from many of you, in that I was a committed feminist from early childhood through my teenage years.  I went to a women’s college not so much to engage with feminist politics as to find a space in which I wasn’t the token feminist in the room, as I was (or felt like I was) all through my school years.  I wanted to study history and literature, and NOT be the only student asking where the women are, or at least not be thought some kind of ideological freak because I asked feminist questions and expected reasonable answers.  Interestingly, I never wrote any research papers on women’s history there–in part, because I didn’t feel obligated to.  I was free to pursue my interests wherever they led, and they never led me back to women’s history until graduate school.

I was tired of fighting, and just wanted to read, write, and learn like a normal college student for four years, and I got that at Bryn Mawr.

0 thoughts on “Women's education, part III

  1. Most awesome shirt in the world. Where can I get one!?

    When I was 18 and choosing colleges, I didn’t choose Agnes Scott (Decatur, GA) because it was all-women and I was looking for like-minded feminists. In fact, there were plenty of students there I did not identify with, ideology wise. I went to college–surprise!–to get a damn good education and be challenged. ASC offered that to me, and offered me a scholarship which neighboring Emory (where I had also been accepted) didn’t.

    In the end, it was the financial aspect that guided my choice of ASC. But then again, I went to college for my Bachelor’s degree, not my Mrs. I was naive enough to believe all women were like me–college for education. Imagine my horror when, as a TA in grad school, I discovered female students after the Mrs. degree. (SCARY!)


  2. Like many other posters, I was raised in a household that promoted something like gender equity without being feminist. My parents didn’t make any distinctions between us based on gender in terms of our ability, though they did have deeply gendered ideas about behavior. (“No one will every want to marry you with a mouth like like,” a common family quip directed at me for being opinionated. Ah, the all-terrifying spector of spinsterhood.) Yet like you I self-identified as feminist from a young age. Where I got anything like a nascent feminist consciousness I have no idea – I read no feminists, knew no feminists, had no feminist role models in family or school. Yet I knew I was a feminist, and I was passionate about this. I think if I’d had an expanded sense of community I might have looked more seriously at women’s college, but I just didn’t know what they had to offer me in the way that you did. I didn’t really know what I was going to get out of college until I was there (intellectually, emotionally, politically, etc).


  3. I’ve often wondered, a little wistfully, what it might have been like to go to a women’s college, but it was my bad experiences in college and the similar painful things I saw happening to many of my female friends (these were all to do with male students and the social scene, not the professors and classes) that pushed me from a “Well, sure, I think women should have rights but haven’t we mostly won that fight by now?” type who didn’t quite embrace the feminist label to a full-fledged hairy-legged radical. In other words, I hadn’t begun to think about gender issues seriously enough to consider women’s colleges until it was already too late (not that I’m unhappy where I am either -it’s a “grass is greener” thing). I wonder if there’s a way to get a feminist message to more girls while they’re still in high school. Many schools these days have gay-straight alliances, but I’m not sure how many have clubs devoted more specifically to gender issues.


  4. I haven’t weighed in before now – either over here or at TR’s – because women’s colleges just weren’t an option that was on the table for me – nor was attending a single-sex high school. (I’d wanted to attend a single-sex high school, but the tuition would have been more than the tuition than it was at the state university that I attended 4 years later – even with the minimal financial aid that the high school would have offered. Ultimately, it was cheaper for my mother to a) let our house go into foreclosure and b) to move to a better school district so that I could go to public school than it was to put me in private high school.) Similarly, women’s colleges weren’t on the table at all when I was thinking about applying – not because I wasn’t a budding feminist or was totally unaware of them but because a) schools out of state were out of the question and b) private schools were out of the question. So where I got the sort of supportive environment that you and TR attribute to single-sex education was in my women’s studies classes and from feminist professors who made a point of setting up classroom environments where women were expected to contribute and were given a safe space within which to do so.

    I have a number of good friends who went to women’s colleges and they had amazing experiences, but I don’t envy them. Because I had a pretty amazing experience – even a feminist experience – too, albeit one that wasn’t in a single-sex environment. I suppose this comment is just to say that there are a lot of ways to create feminist contexts for young women, and single sex education isn’t the only one, and it isn’t necessarily an accessible one for the vast majority of women – I know it wasn’t for me. I don’t actually have any negative feelings about that, though, because, frankly, I think the fact that my educational path was what it was helps me now to support my students and to create a feminist safe space for them because I experienced their situation from the other side of the desk, and I know from personal experience that it’s possible to “read, write, and learn like a normal college student,” even if one has to go to a public, coeducational state school.


  5. Also loved the shirt. I wasn’t able to find out much about its provenance, other than that it’s available somewhere. Doesn’t it have its own wiki-page?

    On the road all day yesterday; these last three have all been very enlightening posts, though.


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