Inspired by the nostalgia brought on by Barnard's graduation  earlier this week and by my declining fear of being identified on this blog, I pulled up an essay I wrote months ago about claims that women's colleges offer a much-needed boost to their students.  I originally wrote the essay in response to this post on Slate's XXFactor blog.

It drives me crazy that people look at my educational history and decide that I am a feminist. I am a feminist, in the way that I think most of my friends are – a fiercely held view that there is nothing I should be prevented from doing because I am a woman. But, that world view was not shaped exclusively by four years at Barnard.

I am a feminist, because it never occurred to me not to be. Because there were rarely any times when I thought that being female was a disadvantage, or that it should be.  But, because of where I went to school people assume that my decisions—often my religious decisions—are the direct byproduct of some mysterious four  years  of feminist boot camp. I don’t know what world they grew up in, but one year in a Modern-Orthodox school in Israel and four years in college--during which I would have told you that I associated with the Columbia Daily Spectator as much if not more so than I associated  with Barnard--does not a person make.

When I was in eleventh grade, my teacher wrote on my report card, “with a bunch of loud-mouthed boys in her class, she needs to learn to hold her own.”  One of those loud mouthed boys is still one of my best friends. I don’t remember being intimidated by the boys in my class in eleventh grade, but apparently, sometimes I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  Still, in a grade of 40 girls and 16 boys, an equal number of boys and girls sports teams, and more leadership positions than there were students, I don’t think the girls ever felt cheated by the co-ed classrooms.

In my first year college, I took eight courses. There were boys in four, maybe five of them (I cannot, for the life of me, remember who was in intro to fiction writing).  I don’t remember the boys making it any harder to participate. In one class, my group was made up of three girls and a boy, and I’m pretty sure we ganged up to make him do the work we didn’t want to do, but other than that, gender rarely came up.

With the exception of the classes that were required for my major and the first-year seminars, almost all my classes were co-ed.  At the same time, I was spending more than 30 hours a week at the newspaper. At the newspaper, I worked under three  female news editors, three female editors-in chief or managing editors,  four male news editors, and  four  male editors in chief or managing editors (technically six, but I don’t think I could have told you who the ME and EIC were my first year). For the most part, gender was irrelevant there too.  (For anyone counting,  the imbalance is due to sample size more than anything else; some of the later boards were almost entirely female).

The only place gender was obviously an issue was in my Judaism, but that’s a different essay altogether.

In short, I was rarely in the all-female environment that is supposedly empowering or that is supposed to compensate me for  those high school history classes with loud-mouthed boys (again, the question of whether or not the high school teacher would have described loud-mouthed girls, is also another essay).

But Barnard College still waves those statistics about women’s colleges producing more CEOs and more doctorates than their co-ed counterparts; even though I never took a class about women, it was clear to me that Barnard was proud of its place as a women’s school, and sees the work the school does as important.

And so it should be.  I did graduate Barnard feeling empowered, and, in many ways, feeling more appreciated than my Columbia College peers across the street.

But if few of my classes and none of my extracurricular activities were all female, did it really matter that Barnard only accepts women?
Yes and no.

 (click to read  more)

Barnard’s class of 2007 had around 500 students. Columbia College’s had around 1,000. I think that it would be naïve not to take the size of the classes into consideration. It was a lot more feasible for the deans to learn my name than it was for the deans across the street to learn the names of the Columbia College students.

But I also think that there is an assumption that being an all women’s school means that there needs to be an active process of empowering the students. It’s too bad, because I don’t see any reason why my male peers wouldn’t have benefited from the same sort of can-do attitude.

The can-do-attitude means that when I walked into a community service event the first  Sunday of Barnard, the first-year dean, who I had never met recognized me and called out to me by name. Whether she had memorized all the students’ names or had taken the time to look me up in the facebook (the hard-cover yearbook-like thing, not the website) didn’t matter as much as the fact that she had bothered to learn my name at all.

The can-do attitude means that when I was annoyed by the way the Hillel drama society was running and decided to start one of my own, the College Activities Office gave me 500 dollars, almost no questions asked. I got more funds from the Dean’s office, and more from the Residential Life Office. I was in my second semester of school.

The attitude means that in the age of room phones, we got mass messages directed at “strong beautiful Barnard Women” and while some objected to the adjective beautiful (why was it necessary?) and some objected to the adjective strong (did that need to be mentioned? Why couldn’t it just be assumed?) The message was somehow that we had the world (or, in this particular case, cheap theater tickets) at our disposal. All we had to do was go to the College Activities Office.

The goal of empowering women meant that we had a functioning advisory system, while across the street campaigns for student government focused on reforming the advisory system year after year.

It meant that all my professors knew my name, and that none of my classes were taught by teaching assistants.

But while I certainly benefited from all of those things, it didn’t mean that my male peers wouldn’t have, or shouldn’t have.  My peers who were taking core curriculum classes freshman year probably would have benefited from uninterrupted seminars when the TAs went on strike, and it’s clear they wanted better advisers.

And while some wanted the anonymity afforded by a larger school, that’s not gendered; my sister was not at all attracted by my glowing descriptions of Deans knowing her name.  Her complaining when 500 names were called at my graduation meant I had the right to complain three times as loud when 1500 were called at her college graduation.

Barnard’s mission statement has a paragraph about the importance about research on women’s issues. But it ends with this paragraph:
“The Barnard community thrives on high expectations. By setting rigorous academic standards and giving students the support they need to meet those standards, Barnard enables them to discover their own capabilities. Living and learning in this unique environment, Barnard students become agile, resilient, responsible, and creative, prepared to lead and serve their society.”
Columbia College’s mission statement is a lot longer, but does not talk about its graduates becoming leaders, serving their society, or being resilient. It talks instead about an “emerging future.” It does not talk about expectations.
“If students have acquired intellectual and social mobility, they will be able to meet the career and lifestyle challenges of a changing world, by adapting acquired modes of expertise and experience to new circumstances, by thinking creatively across differing frames of reference, by making informed value judgments in a heterogeneous social context, and by using the best of the past to guide them toward what is best for the emerging future.”
I think that Barnard empowered me not because it was a women’s school, but because, by virtue of being a women’s college it felt obligated to empower its students.
If co-ed schools had the same focus, they might get the same results.

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Written Pyramids is a blog written by a journalist living and working in Washington D.C.

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