Space to Breathe: Why I Went to a Women’s College

The first time I remember being sexually harassed, I was walking out of my 8th grade history class when Eric came up behind me and snapped my bra.  Loudly.  Painfully.

For 13 year old me, it was humiliating and shameful.  I was so struck that I didn’t know what to do in response.  Later that year, Dan Cohen and his friends cornered me in the hallway to ask if my twin sister and I had the same bra size?  They stared unabashedly at my chest while I angrily pushed past them, trying not to cry.

13 year old me was smart, friendly, and incredibly outspoken.  Both 6th and 7th grade had been torturous years for me as I struggled through the Queen Bees and Wannabees syndrome that seems to plague all middle school girls, but by 8th grade I’d found a supportive and amazing group of friends, had started to come into my own, and developed a reputation as well.  It started after a science class in which we studied the effects of helium, releasing balloons into the air on the playground behind school.  I wasn’t a huge environmental buff or anything, but something about having pieces of rubber and string flying around and getting caught in trees where birds would try to eat them didn’t strike me as quite right.  I asked my teacher about it in front of the whole class, and later brought it up with my principal.  Needless to say, I wasn’t the type who had trouble raising my hand or speaking up in class.

By high school, I was calling out my classmates’ sexist comments, writing my research papers on slam poetry, and organizing petitions to fight international child labor.  I had become “that girl,” and frankly, that was ok by me.  When junior year came around and I started looking at colleges, single sex schools were high on my list.  Not because the only thing I could think about was having my bra snapped when I was 13, but because the Seven Sister schools were academically rigorous, socially aware, politically active, and seemingly a natural fit for me.  My mother and older sister had both attended Barnard College, and in a household that included four women, dinner conversation frequently reverted to how long it would be until we had another woman on the Supreme Court, or when was Equal Pay going to become a reality.

Too often, I hear that women’s colleges are for girls who are too shy and intimidated by boys to get the most of their education.  Or I learn about a study that claims single sex education does more harm than good.  Or that it’s just a fake hamlet of specially-sorted people yelling “death to the patriarchy” all day long.

From the minute I stepped onto a women’s-only campus, I felt like I could breathe for the first time in 18 years.  Breathe freely.

The concept of  “space” has always been very intriguing to me.  At a woman’s college, I suddenly felt like I had space for the first time in my life.  Space to explore myself, space to think, space to converse, space to understand the world around me and my place in it.

This last piece is important.  I’ve always been a firm believer in a liberal arts education.  To me, this means engaged citizenship – not just understanding how the world works, but viewing yourself as a part of that world.  Understanding your place in the world and how you contribute to it.  Being in an all-women’s environment for the first time made me feel like I had the real space to explore such things, this time without the pressure of gender conformity or the discomfort of persistent sexual objectification.

Nobody should think for a second that women’s colleges are safe havens from all the evils of mankind.   One of my good friends at school was a conservative Republican who was mercilessly bullied by some of the liberals on our campus.   I know of one student who was sexually assaulted by another.  Bike theft was a problem.  And as fellow Fem2.0 blogger Maggie Arden has pointed out, sometimes “Mean Girls” never really do grow up.

All of that said, never once do I recall saying something in a class and having another student step in to repeat what I’d said and be credited with it.  Never once did I not stay late at the library because it was the middle of the night and I was worried about walking back to my dorm room alone.  Never once did I have to sit in a class and listen to a bunch of jerks make sexist jokes about the breast size of their classmates (as happened during one of the classes I took at a nearby co-ed school).

In my feminist theory classes, I was comfortable talking about my sexuality and my understanding of gender roles.  Never once in any of my other classes did someone roll their eyes at me when I brought up issues that specifically affected women, or ask a question about the role of gender.  As I wrote previously about my experience asking Governor Johnson about his stance on reproductive health, addressing such issues in a public space can be difficult for anyone, no matter how confident or passionate or secure she is.

One argument claims that single sex education deprives students of the opportunity to learn how to function in the real world.  The real world is co-ed, so education should be.  But your formal education is not a place to learn only what the world is like.  It’s  a place to learn both what the world is like and how you fit into it.   That’s why the best education engages the student – encourages them to think about things in a different way, to add their own interpretation or analysis, to contribute to the lesson.  And frankly, the fewer distractions there are, the better you’re able to focus on developing yourself as a person, as an engaged citizen in this world.

And so the idea that our educational environments should be exactly like the real world discounts one of the benefits of education.  Constant feedback from my professors, support from my adviser, assistance from my health center, in addition to surrounding myself solely with 18-22 year olds who spent most of their days reading is hardly representative of the life I lead out here in the real world to begin with.  (Um, also, in my day at Mount Holyoke, we were served milk and cookies on weeknights at 9:30PM in our pajamas.  No, I’m not making that up).  The real world?  Hardly.

The question of single-sex education for girls under the age of 18 is one I feel more conflicted about.  My inclination is for it to be much like single-sex education at the collegiate level: a choice.  It may be right for some girls, but I know plenty of others (myself included) who benefited more from mixed education at that age.  Besides, the benefits of attending a single-sex school for me extended beyond the classroom – it was the entire single-sex environment that made the experience, not just a few hours in the middle of my day.   It was also a choice, based in large part upon the kind of person I was and the kind of person I wanted to be; choice is not usually a factor before the college level.  So I’m hesitant to say that single-sex education is the best way to go for girls at all ages.

But by the time I graduated high school and was able to choose, to have a say in what my education would look like and where I could become the best ‘me’ that I could become, a women’s college was at the top of my list.  This doesn’t mean it’s an ideal fit for everyone.  Just as a single-sex education is the right fit for women of diverse mentalities, a co-ed education can also be the right fit for women of otherdiverse mentalities.

At the end of the day, education is supposed to make us all into better, more capable members of society.  Research shows that single sex education is beneficial for girls, and I know that I developed personally from having the option of going to a women’s college.  Should we continue to do everything we can to make the world at large a more just and equitable one?  Yes.  Should we continue to encourage teachers to understand gender dynamics and to treat their students and their students’ interests with equal respect and encouragement?  Yes.

In the meantime, should we give young women the option of having space they can call their own to learn and to live and to grow as they explore their education and seek to make the most of it?


Photo Credit: Aptmetaphor via the Creative Commons License.

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