Women’s colleges were born out of institutionalized sexism. So, do we still need them?
In mid-December the Huffington Post published a guest editorial by Elizabeth Pfeiffer titled, “Don’t Like the Gender Gap? Women’s Colleges Might Just Be the Answer.” In her post, Pfeiffer defends the all-female Scripps College. She argues that a school should be defined by “the richness of the community…and the possibilities this kind of environment offers.”
I agree: Schools should be defined by the richness of their community. But that goes beyond a gender binary. How about those whose identity does not fit within this heteronormative binary of man or woman?
Pfeiffer asks, “Why is Scripps, or any women’s college, still relevant?” Pfeiffer believes one reason is because of the leadership roles she was able to take on, as well as the idea that women’s colleges instill a sense of leadership. She cites the fact that women’s college graduates make up “more than 20 percent of women in Congress and 30 percent of a Businessweek list of rising women in corporate America.”
The woman’s college is in some cases a moot point, in many institutions across the country, women attend colleges in numbers at par with men. But if some women need this environment to find their power, I am all for it.
Pfeiffer’s article received a response from Shannon Miller, a current student Claremont McKenna College (CMC). Claremont was a male-only college until 1976 and is part of the five-college Claremont consortium with Scripps. The response, “Don’t Like the Gender Gap? Don’t Encourage It” asks, “What makes Scripps—or any other women’s college—any better than CMC, based solely on the gender composition?”
Miller argues that Claremont better equipped her to tackle the gender gap than most women’s colleges, particularly because of the co-ed environment. She also says that in her own search she wanted a “challenge” in her college experience, she “wanted to enter a school that would push me to be stronger and bolder, not indulge my weaknesses by protecting me from ‘injustice’ in an inaccurately idyllic setting.”
It’s worth noting that by almost any standard, both Claremont and Scripps are both idyllic settings. I attended Claremont consortium school Pitzer College and can say that there is an enormous percentage of the global population who do not have access and could not afford to be on any of private liberal arts college campus.
But the debate over women-only colleges is about more than the sex break-down of institutions. What we need are not colleges and institutions that define themselves by one means of oppression (sex), but colleges and universities that have a greater understanding of how some dynamics of academia can create institutionalized oppression.
Instead of focusing on whether or not we need women’s colleges, let’s expand the debate to ask what kind of institutions we need, and how we can make visionary institutions a reality. In my humble opinion, we need innovative environments that go beyond sex, race, class and citizenship. For a step in the right direction, check out the Consortium for Innovative Environments in Learning CIEL. We need a culture shift in academia that’s both local and global.