Thursday, June 15, 2006

"Despite the good work undertaken by our universities, there is still much to be done before we can claim full equality of the sexes. We still need colleges dedicated to the active promotion of women's education, which can prioritise women's requirements, potential and achievement.”
- Catherine Wallace, 2003 Oxford Student Union president

Women’s colleges in the UK are rare, and getting rarer. Just recently St Hilda’s, Oxford’s last single sex college, announced it would be admitting men. This reflects an increasing international trend in turning women’s colleges coed – last autumn marked the first intake of male students at Wells College, USA, to great opposition by the student body – two students went so far as to file a lawsuit in attempt to prevent it. Similarly, there was an outcry from both alumni and current ‘Hildabeests’ as they are colloquially known, when the decision was taken by college governors. This follows a narrowly defeated attempt in 2003 to open the college to mixed applicants. It appears that, with the majority of higher education institutions now admitting both men and women, all-female colleges are no longer financially viable. Coupled with concern over charges of sexism and lack of diversity, do women’s colleges have a role in the 21st century?

Academic Noreen Hertze suggested in a recent Guardian article that “all-girl schools or colleges cannot prepare women for the realities of a world in which men still wield power.” Students at women’s colleges admit they live in a rarefied atmosphere, but argue that this benefits them in Life After Graduation. After all, isn’t most university life just a diversion from the Real Word our parents keep talking about? But does spending three or four years in a world where women dominate simply mean that you are unprepared for a world run by the unfair sex? Paige Kimble, a recent graduate of Smith College in America, begs to differ: “Back out in the 'real world', outside of the Smith bubble, I can say that going to a women's college has definitely upped my confidence levels immensely. Maybe it's just the sense of camaraderie, but there's (generally but not always) far more acceptance of deviation from the norm. Even fairly straight women I know who've taken courses off-campus have commented on how appearance-based other placesare, and how women have seemed afraid to talk--and these are not just at the local state school (UMASS-Amherst), but at high tier private colleges.”

In an article on the subject, Ms Magazine cited studies in which female students were seen to “gain myriad benefits from women’s colleges, from participating more fully in the classroom and leadership to pursuing doctorates in math, science and engineering in disproportionately large numbers. Those students are more likely to graduate and score higher on standardized tests than their peers at coeducational institutions.” A Wells student argued that prior to the admittance of men, her college was “populated by strong women who could be in leadership roles, who could be active members of their communities, who have found their voices. That's become really important to me, and I value and cherish it. And I want to keep it."

I went to a single-sex school, as did my sister – in our area there just weren’t any mixed schools, for religious reasons or otherwise. I think the decline of faith schools is a good thing for various reasons, but I also think it will result in fewer single-sex schools. Put simply, I was happy being in an all-female environment, and I missed it when I went on to university. Most of the pupils were, or at least affected to be, boy crazy, and there were frequent complaints about our single sex status. I think there is an element of truth in the convent girl stereotype – when something is forbidden, it gets a hell of a lot more exciting. At one point, our school was nicknamed ‘The Whore House on the Hill’, but I blame outdated patriarchal attitudes towards sex for that. I never felt starved of male company, although I didn’t exactly seek it out either. Students from the boy’s school that was affiliated with ours tended to congregate in our village during lunch, and half my sixth form dated the rugby team. Interestingly, the most famous alumnus of the boy’s school is Paul O’Grady, who is better known as the drag queen Lily Savage…

When I applied to Oxford, it didn’t occur to me to apply to St Hilda’s. I’d spent nearly seven years surrounded by girls – why would I want spend another four years surrounded by women? Looking back, I wonder if my disastrous interview experience would have been any different. I was the only girl and the only state school pupil applying for my particular course and I felt a great pressure to fit in. My accent isn’t exactly Home Counties, but you can’t tell I grew up a stone’s throw away from Liverpool, either. I avoided the girls and hung around with the boys, using our shared gender preference as common ground. I hated it there. I felt incredibly intimidated by the whole experience, and part of my unease stemmed from the fact that I didn’t meet one female lecturer. There was a sense of competition rather than community, and I could never escape from the fact that I stood out largely because of my gender. I didn’t get in, and I was pretty relieved.

Clearly, this isn’t only a gender issue – it’s a class issue as well. Both Oxford and all-women’s private colleges in America are pricey, and have historically taken students from specific socio-economic backgrounds, and all-girls schools in the UK tend to be private, grammar schools or, like mine, faith-based. Can there really be diversity in all-women’s colleges if sections of the population simply cannot afford to send their daughters there?

And what of trans students in single-sex environments? At the moment, many women’s colleges have a policy on only admitting women born in a female body – or, rather, they have no policy at all, denying the existence of male-to-female transsexuals. However, female-to-male trans students are an increasing presence at women’s colleges – Smith recently took the decision to remove gender-specific language that would exclude the presence of transmen on campus, and several mature students are post-operative transwomen. So is the binary gender system more fluid in supposedly single-sex environments? A former Smith student of my acquaintance transferred to a different university in part because she felt that the physical ideal at Smith tended toward a more butch type of womanhood, and outright rejected more feminine women. No, women and female dominated communities don’t get it right all the time. But it looks as though they’re learning to be inclusive in a way that more coed communities aren’t.

Supporters of the new and ‘improved’ coed St Hilda’s argue that it will now be able to attract better students and better lecturers. In other words, men.

Where The Boys Are.
Former women’s colleges who now accept men (by Admissions, if not the entire student body):

St Mary’s College, Durham, UK
St Hilda’s College, Oxford, UK
Somerville College, Oxford, UK
Lesley College, USA
Immaculata Women’s College, USA
Wells College, USA


At 2:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a student at Mount Holyoke college who is very femme and straight, and as I enter my senior year I am incredibly grateful for the unique experience I have had--and the widely varied student body (straight, gay, and trans) has been the most important component of that.
At a time in my life when the underlying challenge is to figure out who I am, having the example of literally thousands of different women approaching their gender, sexuality, and their place in the world in different ways is a gift. To be able to go through those questions and face those challeneges to my conception of myself without the constant male gaze is doubly a gift.
I went to co-ed schools my entire life until I went to college, and I think it's important to have both experiences (a single-sex college is a bit of a bubble, and is therefore somewhat lacking in preparing you for the "real world") but of all the things I will ever do in my life, I already know that my four years of intense education surrounded by the smartest group of women I've ever met will stand out.

At 11:21 PM, Anonymous laix said...

I fail to see how being at an all womon's Uni college can be described as a 'rarefied atmosphere' the only gender living in a rarefied state are men!!!!!!

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous beefive said...

I know I've really already spoken my piece about this subject, but one thing just struck me. At Smith, I felt like everybody was given this extra bit of feel-good affirmation just for existing as "women" or "Smith women", not because of who they really were as human beings. (Take a look at the "I am Smith" image on the front of the Smith webpage right now and you'll see what I mean. You can be Muslim, gay, or an elitist twinset-and-pearls social climber, but you're still a Smithie so you're great!)

Because of this constant focus on femaleness, and on our worth emanating from being female, whatever we were doing, I felt the message, implicitly, boiled down to: "You really are fantastic at who you are and whatever it is you do ( - as a woman)". Quel patronising! I want to be strong and successful and myself compared to anyone; I don't need men taken out of the picture for me to stand out. I also don't need an extra self-esteem boost just for the accident of my birth. I found that ultimately really demoralising, and demeaning to my actual accomplishments and the choices I've made.

The Scottish composer Thea Musgrave was asked about being a "woman composer," and she said "Yes, I am a woman; and I am a composer. But rarely at the same time."

At 10:45 AM, Anonymous beefive said...

Oops, sorry for the repetition, can you delete that first one?

At 11:45 AM, Anonymous lism. said...

There is still much to be done before we can claim full equality of the sexes. Yes of course, of course there is. Here's how not to go about it though - by segregating women into these colleges which, by aiming to attract the most brilliant female minds, actually exist to undermine the university education experience. When it works, educacation should be a meeting of minds and a sharing of experience - and this is never going to work if you take half the population out of the equation. Yes, universities are historically male-dominated institutions, but that's certainly not something that's going to be fixed by quaint nineteenth-century notions such as women-only colleges.

And hey, at the end of the day, if we were talking about men-only colleges it would be the feminist bloggers who'd be the first to be up in arms making calls of sexism - and quite rightly too. Women-only colleges are JUST as sexist, and just as loathesome a concept.

I loved what beefive said above: I want to be strong and successful and myself compared to anyone; I don't need men taken out of the picture for me to stand out. I also don't need an extra self-esteem boost just for the accident of my birth.

Love you, by the way ;)

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Girl Politico said...

I agree with Lis, if you want women to run the world on an even footing, they need to function in a world with men, i.e. the real world. Creating your own little 'club' is no way of protecting women, if anything it makes them less-prepared to infiltrate and subvert other male-dominated arenas.

It's the old problem with the feminist argument - we want special treatment for women, but not for anyone else! By discriminating/excluding someone on the basis of gender from an institution, you're as bad as the sexists who think women should stay out of academia, in favour of sewing and whatnot.

At 2:41 PM, Blogger Kaite said...

To deal with your comment, Lis, I don't think women's colleges are quaint or outdated, and I think to call them the latter is really quite demeaning. And Annabel - men get constant self-esteem boosts "just for the accident of their births". This is just readjusting the balance. Like it or not, women are constantly marked out at being Other, being different from the patriarchal norm. I don't think women's colleges ignore the baggage that comes with gender and with biological sex, but at least it means that everyone is on an equal footing.

At 6:26 PM, Anonymous beefive said...

Ooh, equal footing...Can't agree with you there. I remember when I started Smith, I was just leaving a job at a male-dominated software company (is that redundant?), where for the first time in my life I had really felt the brunt of sexism. It makes me steam just thinking about it now...I won't go into the gory details, but I'm sure you can imagine. I was undermined in my authority and patronised in my abilities and intelligence on a daily basis, and very clearly on the basis of my being female. So, in that moment of all moments, I was totally enthused to get to a place where that just wouldn't be a factor anymore, and I could be an artist or a computer scientist or whatever, and no one would question it because of my gender.

Oh boy, was I disappointed.

Smith was a whole world of strata and judgements. Forget the male gaze; the female gaze is that much harder. Just walking down the street I felt myself being appraised, every day. By the queer contigent, I had the piss taken and was assumed (contemptuously) to be straight because I had long hair; by the straight contingent I was made to feel deeply out of place and uncomfortable because I didn't have the femmey sexual appeal they did. I was too gauche and middle class for the femmey snobs, and I didn't adhere to the bullshit crew-cut-dungarees-piercings uniform of the butch kids. That's not to mention being hassled and marginalised all round for being a Green Party voter. In my third week I cried myself to sleep because someone from my house had actually said hello to me on campus that day, and it made me realise how pathetically isolated I was. (NB She was one of the only people who ever just acted like a person to me - and she was a femmey short haired gay girl from massive Texas oil money, so she managed to fit in with everyone.)

In the end I just felt totally dehumanised by the place, in a way that no other place and no other group of people has ever made me feel in my life - including the sexist software company. At Smith I was reduced to a group of ticks on a chart of feminine attributes, and since I didn't fit any of them, I was made to feel like I simply didn't exist. At the software company I was angry, but at Smith I was nullified and demolished. Only women have ever been able to make me feel that way. So I think it's very dangerous to suppose women as a group are any better than men as a group; they have just as much ability, in their own way, to damage others and each other, to create unassailable norms and hierarchies, and to seek their own advantage at the expense of others - and they will do all those things. It's not men that are the problem; it's humanity.

At 4:30 PM, Blogger flora said...

Just to say that I found this all really interesting, I've never really thought about what it would be like to go to an all women's college and it was interesting to hear someone's experience of it.

At 7:35 PM, Anonymous Rhi said...

I think it's safe to say that while humanity and the way it's been socialised is the problem, one has to look back to the root of that--oppression. And the perpetuation of this paradigm is blatantly due to males keeping males in power, both politically and socially. Women may go along with it, may be critical of those who resist, but where are the men saying that this whole thing is bullshit?

At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Chris said...

There's a great deal of research out there that shows quite the opposite of what people claim in re: women's colleges not preparing women to compete in the coed world. Fact is, they give women an *edge* in the very androcentric worlds of business, politics, and finance. There's a TON of good research out there -- check out some of the stuff on relevance of women's colleges in the 21st century in the Newcomb reading room (we're fighting to save our school, too) at Save Newcomb College, visit the Women's College Coalition website, and google around for some of Nancy Gray's speechs (she's head of Hollins U). In the US, applications to women's colleges are growing 2+ times faster than those to coed schools, yet we continue to fight for what simply *works*. Sorry, I've babbled on, but this is so important.

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