On July 16, 1840, Catherine Brewer became the first official woman to receive a bachelor’s degree, graduating from Wesleyan College in Georgia. Meanwhile, Harvard University was established in 1636, but women were not awarded bachelor’s degrees from Harvard until 1963 (even if they graduated from Radcliffe College, Harvard’s all women “annex,” before that).
When you think about it, we’ve got a lot of years to make up for. Women were denied the right to higher education for decades and decades in the U.S. and for centuries around the globe. Yet one of the spaces where women can come into their own without having to compete against men is now an endangered species: the number of all women’s colleges has dropped from 200 to 47 over the past 50 years.
A common argument I’ve heard against women’s colleges is that our society no longer needs them — the battle for women’s rights is over, the patriarchy has been toppled, and women are gaining college degrees and subsequent leadership roles right, left, and center. There are more women in college then men at present, as women outpace men in American college enrollment by a ratio of 1.4:1.
Why then could we possibly need all-women’s colleges? Maybe because people do tend to believe that the battle’s over when it’s not. Because even though it was 2012, women still had to listen to a panel of all men testify on birth control. Because we’ve still never had a women president or vice president and women hold only 14.3% of the executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies. Because women still make 77 cents for each dollar men makes. We may have won the right to vote (less than 100 years ago), but we’re not equal yet.
But how will women learn how to compete in a world with men if they attend a college without them? Only 2% of female college graduates received degrees from all women’s colleges in the US, but 20% of women in Congress attended women’s colleges. It seems that even though these women didn’t go to school with men, they’re doing just fine in the post-college world.
And although nowadays in the US women receive more B.A.s than men, the quality of their education differs because of gender inequity within the classroom. Research has shown that instructors call on male students more often than female students, and that male students speak at more length and more frequently than female students. Those women in Congress who attended all women’s colleges may have gained a leg up because at a women’s college, the women feel freer to speak up and assert themselves both in the classroom and in extra-curriculars.
I believe we still need all women’s colleges not to keep a group of women separate from men, but to help foster feminism, confidence, and knowledge among women. However, I think it’s also important to think about the importance of intersectionality when it comes to women’s colleges. Women who are privileged to attend a women’s college shouldn’t just merely learn how to overcome being a woman in a world of male privilege — they should learn how the identities of marginalized groups and minorities (including both men and women) intersect and influence each other.
Thinking about issues of intersectionality brought to mind the recent case of Smith College barring a transgender woman from enrolling. Calliope Wong is a high school senior who was denied entry into the college. Connecticut, where she lives, won’t legally change her gender status until she undergoes gender-affirming surgery, so she was forced to mark “male” on her FAFSA form, and Smith denied her admission accordingly. We should know by now that your gender doesn’t necessarily correspond to the biological sex you were born with, and just because you were born biologically male does not mean that you cannot experience misogyny and other types of discrimination.
Our society needs women’s colleges, but they are not perfect. All women’s colleges shouldn’t restrict their women-affirming spaces to only those who are biologically female, and they should use their unique spaces to foster inclusion and intersectionality.