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The Women's College Experience

Over the past few weeks, there has been an influx of accepted students on Barnard's campus. I've tried to talk to as many as possible, successfully resisting the urge to desperately grab them and urge them to get as much sleep as possible before Fall, and instead asking them if they have any questions about what it's like to go to Barnard. Time and time again, these prospective students mentioned their trepidation about the idea of attending a women's college -- which is something I totally understand.

When I initially began the college application 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 College – 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Now there have always been those who like to defame women’s colleges as sexist, outdated institutions – especially some vocal ones in the recent past. 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 and unneeded. In fact, before I started applying to schools, I was one, to some extent. But now that I have a full year 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.

In fact, 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, for example) 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% 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. Women’s colleges prioritize the education of strong, motivated women and encourage 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 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, it’s effectiveness is reflected in the statistics of women’s college graduates.

But beyond the debate over whether a 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 guys – 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 other girls constantly and compete with them – 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 we’re free to be ourselves and explore who we really are, 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 it for any of my friends here, as far as I know). I attend school with women who are straight, gay, bisexual and undecided. But I’m pretty sure that’s the case at any college in this country.

I totally recognize that a single-sex education is probably not right for everybody. It’s a very specific experience, and one that should be chosen with careful consideration. But the fact is that on an individual level, attending a women’s college was one of the best decisions I’ve made for myself as a student and as a woman, and it’s something I’ll always be happy to defend.

Originally posted on The Frisky



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Julie Zeilinger
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