Why must women's colleges exist? A personal reflection

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.

0 thoughts on “Why must women's colleges exist? A personal reflection

  1. Pingback: Thursday Links | Interrobangs Anonymous

  2. 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.


  3. 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.


  4. 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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