Experiences at women's colleges?
October 26, 2010 5:34 PM   Subscribe

What was your experience at a women's college?

Sooo, I am applying to college right about now. I've always gone to coed, large, public schools, so I expect college, no matter where I end up (since I'm applying almost exclusively to small private schools) will be very different.

A lot of the schools that have ended up on my list (especially Barnard, Scripps, Mount Holyoke, and Smith) are women's schools - which I think I neither selected for or against in the process. I do get a lot of raised eyebrows when I mention them to other people and I'm becoming less confident in my "but it's in a consortium!" standard response to the question.

Though I'm not one to believe that people adhere to rigid sexuality norms, I would say I'm mostly attracted to guys. I've always met friends either at school or at structured out-of-school programs, and I don't have much experience just "meeting people" otherwise. I'm sure the adult world is different than my little bubble here, but is meeting guys difficult, either romantically or just friend-wise?

How about classes? Was having classrooms that were all- (or I suppose not always all- in consortium at least) women valuable to you? Was it feminism-heavy in general (which would be a plus for me)? What advantages did you gain and what did you miss by going to a women's school? Would you do it again?
posted by R a c h e l to Education (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Although I didn't attend one, I currently work at one, so I can tell you about the students from that angle. First, I can say they don't seem to have any problems meeting men, even without there being male students. I hear enough about boyfriends and guy friends in town to know that isn't an issue; the large majority of young women here are heterosexual, even though that isn't often the perception of women's colleges today. I think we are more open about homosexuality than the standard college might be, but that's due in part to the small size and liberal arts nature than it being a women's college.

My experience teaching prior to here was co-ed, and my current experience does suggest that there is something special about the classroom setting. It's very discussion heavy, and no one seems afraid to say anything. I do believe that some of these young women would be the same people who aren't afraid to say anything wherever they went, but we do value their leadership on campus. I do like that topics of interest can be driven by what might matter more to students, but don't think that everything is women-focused. Actually one of the first lessons here was that if you get too heavy with feminism at every turn that the students get tired of hearing about it. Faculty don't avoid it, but we don't shove it down students' throats at every turn.

The students call each other sisters, and they mean it. I get to meet with the trustees and I see these wonderful women who have gone on to have great relationships with their classmates, as well as having amazing careers. It can be really sweet and touching sometimes.
posted by bizzyb at 5:49 PM on October 26, 2010

I went to a woman's college and absolutely loved it. Amazing how much nicer to each other that women are when there are no men there to complete over! Plus, there was a huge variety of women at the school so there was no "stereotypical" women's-school student there. There was some lesbian drama there among the students in a certain group (that group did NOT include all the lesbians), but that drama would remain isolated. And contrary to popular belief, the vast majority are neither bi or lesbian.
Is it for everyone? Nope. But there are plenty of studies that prove that gender-separated education is a very good thing.
What I missed out on: meeting guys. Although there were guys at the school, I can't say I have truly close male friends from undergrad. My guy friends in undergrad, I met through friends from other schools.
Concerning feminism: we ran the gamut, from super duper die-hard feminists to people who were horribly chauvinistic, and everything in between.

Again, I loved it and I know plenty of others whom loved it too.
I highly recommend visiting the campus to feel the vibe and see how you feel.
Best of luck in your decision!
posted by Neekee at 6:15 PM on October 26, 2010

It's very discussion heavy, and no one seems afraid to say anything.
Excellent point!
posted by Neekee at 6:17 PM on October 26, 2010

Plenty of women's colleges are very well ranked, if you're after a good liberal arts education, and offer just as good if not better educations than a coed institution.

I suspect the people with raised eyebrows are simply a by-product of a culture that treats anything associated with women as less intellectually stimulating.
posted by nakedmolerats at 6:20 PM on October 26, 2010

I can't begin to say enough wonderful things about my time at Mount Holyoke. It changed my life. I agree with Neekee: go visit if you can; you will know within minutes whether you belong.
posted by onepot at 6:21 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I attended one of the ones you mentioned (I won't say which one because I don't want to be in a fight and then have my identity revealed) as an international student from a culture where they don't want you to meet boys until it's time for an arranged marriage. I knew a domestic student in my dorm who used to meet guys on a chat and the students from the coed school were gross.

My college was a nice place. It fit me because I was extremely immature at the time. I still have friends from there. It was a good school. I think I got into a great graduate school in the UK because of it. I'm sure I could have been more successful but I didn't know how to wield the names. I'm sort of sorry I spent the money to go (outside of the very large scholarship I received), because I was really taken in by the marketing and, for awhile, believed in it. I never got one job because of alumnae. It would have been better if I'd met all kinds of different types of people. I graduated during a particularly bad job market, so the number of recruiters on campus were low.

I hate to say this, but the big disservice the school did for me was pushing me to "serving the interests of those less fortunate" and "making the world a better place." I really wished it had been more of a career-focused place, but it wasn't, which is probably why scores of my classmates ended up in law school and then had dramatic career changes.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that there was some good times and good friends, but this holier than thou "liberal arts matter so much" attitude made me (regrettably) impractical and unprepared for the world. I had all these high hopes and pressures to be some shining example of what the college was made up of ---and there was this ivory tower disdain for anything that wasn't nonprofit related.

As bizzyb says, alums do appear to have amazing careers --- the ones featured in the brochures and websites and all. Plenty of alums like me don't write in, don't want people to know that things aren't amazingly perfect and what we'd hoped they'd be when we left campus at 21.

The students don't always call each other sisters, by the way. There were plenty of fights and gossiping and clique-ish and unkind behavior that even I participated in. Ordinary girl stuff like talking behind someone's back and being passive aggressive, and winning self-esteem through making other people feel bad. There's tension between the LBGT and heterosexual students that can make everyone uncomfortable and unhappy, even though it's a chance to learn about people who are different than you.

There was also a lot of really silly protesting. And they hired a professor who is a racist and sexist in the name of diversity and he constantly whines about how hard it is to be a white man and get tenure. Seriously, he wrote an article about it but the students loved him because he was (at the time) young, decent looking, single professor.

It could also be very boring there and everyone would stress out a ton about studying. It seemed like everyone was either constantly studying or whining about how much work they had to do.

Additionally, at job interviews, I used to get asked if it was a "weird" place. I'd politely say it was a big school and I was an international student (and who wants to work for any idiot that asks that kind of question). I'd get asked if I didn't miss having men around. Sigh. Saying you attended that place helps in weeding out the kinds of people you don't want to talk to or work for certainly.

In the end, I think I missed out on a lot of things no attending a coed school. I wish I hadn't been pressured into thinking my sole purpose in life was to "save the world" because I'm burned out on that and wished I'd known about other career options that would have been more practical and more monetarily rewarding.
posted by anniecat at 6:29 PM on October 26, 2010 [5 favorites]

I did like being in classes without guys though, I have to say. We had a fews guys in one of my classes that had cross registered and he acted like a baby and answered out of turn (the professor was this older lady who treated him like a beloved son among a sea of us girls) constantly until, one day in class until one girl said, "Raise your goddamned hand for Christ's sake already" and we all laughed at him and applauded. That's one of my fondest memories.
posted by anniecat at 6:34 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I did not go to a women's college but I did attend an all-female high school and think that the commenters here are spot on when they describe some of the advantages of single-sex education. I think the discussions that went on in my high school classes were frequently (dare I say it?) better than the ones at college.

At Barnard (and I'm sure it's true for other schools as well) there are a ton of opportunities to meet guys, through Columbia and through the city at large. I did not go to there but a good friend did and pretty much had one or another boyfriend throughout her whole college experience (much to the envy of many of us at coed schools).
posted by mlle valentine at 6:35 PM on October 26, 2010

I went to Bryn Mawr and I loved it. It's hard to find words for how much. If there were a football team and I were a man, I would still be painting my face in the colors and putting a mascot sign in the front yard, and no one would think it was weird.

How easy it is to meet guys depends on the college and your personal self. Smith and Mt. Holyoke are more isolated, which I understand makes it hard, but Bryn Mawr has a class-sharing relationship with two coed colleges in driving (or walking!) distance, and Philadelphia (with U Penn's resources) is just a few minutes by train, so guys were always around. I had plenty of classmates who got their MRS degrees right after college, and now have kids. I personally had a difficult time meeting men while in college because of my life circumstances, which cut me off from my hometown and my high school, so if you are without connections to a coed peer group right now, you may want to think about making a special effort if you're at a women's school. (I wish someone had pointed this out to me -- it wouldn't have made a difference in my choice, but I would have tried harder on the weekends.)
posted by Countess Elena at 6:38 PM on October 26, 2010

Wellesley alum, and I will honestly say that I loved it and would choose to go there again in an instant. My little sister ended up going as well, a few years after I did.

So, the campus is gorgeous for one! I loved the walking path around the lake. I realize it's not on your list above, but I'll give it a small plug here anyway.

This was a while ago, but I don't recall the classes I took being super feminism heavy, honestly. I had a lot of hard sciences classes, which were great since the professors were good instructors and I enjoyed working with the other women I ended up taking classes with a lot. I don't recall being too worried about the lack of guys around the campus. For most of the time I'd been dating a guy who I met at a summer internship and it wasn't a huge worry that there weren't regularly guys in all your classes. Wellesley does have cross registration with a few schools in the area, so if you needed to occasionally have coed classes you could take advantage of that, or spend a semester or two away at another school.

I would say go for it, it really changed my life and gave me a lot of confidence and security that I didn't have in high school
posted by lyra4 at 6:53 PM on October 26, 2010

I went to a women's college somewhat unintentionally. I won't name names, but it's the one across the street from the ivy in a big city. Most of the benefits that people sing about in favor of single sex education I did not really experience. The "supportive" atmosphere I in fact found stifling. I felt that my school took it upon itself to "protect" me in ways that ended up being limiting. This was especially frustrating given the much less restricted experience that my friends across the street were having. It was patronizing for me to be constantly reminded that I was a "strong, beautiful, fill-in-name-of-school woman." And the experience that others have had that their classmates felt more free to speak up in class was the complete opposite for me. I found that in a freshman English class, I was one of two out of thirteen who regularly spoke in class. A good number of students didn't open their mouths the whole semester, despite participation being part of our grade.
In hindsight, there are certain factors that should have pointed me away from being at a women's college, the most obvious one being that I don't in fact get along with other women very well. I prefer the company of men, and I think my learning style is much more in line with stereotypically masculine learning styles. I should have been more aware of the restrictions that my college was going to place on me, though in my defense, those were not always obviously labeled as restrictions.
So, my caution is that even more than you would for co ed college, be sure to take your own personality into account when considering a women's college, and don't make the mistake that I made of thinking that it's basically the same as a regular college with one small quirk. Feel free to memail with more questions!
posted by Polyhymnia at 6:54 PM on October 26, 2010

I'm a dude, but my partner and I met in a certain large city where I went to the ivy and she went to the women's college across the street. As Polyhymnia's comment is testament to - the experience will be absolutely different for everyone. All I know however is that my SO absolutely LOVED going there, as did my best friend who is also a Barnard alum. Neither can say enough good things about it. Part of it depends, esp. w/r/t this particular school, what you study - it really changes your experience. I hung with the philosophy/theatre/music/history ladies...and they all adored the place. The bio majors? I'm not saying they didn't like it, but I do know it was a much more intense experience and many in that track did not feel the same presence of support and belonging that my friends were so proud of.

I harbor some loathing toward the bigger school across the street, and I must admit that I was often secretly jealous of my Barnard friends and wished that I had gone there. Of course, admission would have been a bit of a trick.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:25 PM on October 26, 2010

And in response to Polyhymnia's comment, since we're talking about the same school here (let's out with it) - I can totally see that. We used to joke about how much Barnard LOVES women (I joked about this with Barnard women), and for some people I can absolutely see where it might be to a fault. I can see where the environment, if that isn't what you really want, could be stifling instead of liberating, as it portends to be. Like I said, it really depends on what YOU are looking for in an environment, experience, and what you're looking to study.

Barnard is also a bit of an enigma, because going to school in New York, on top of everything else, is also a major factor in the experience people have there.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:32 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also went to Bryn Mawr, which I know isn't on your list, but it's a major women's college, so here's my bit: Goddamn I loved it. I loved the hell out of it, even though I majored in something amazingly non-practical and I'm somewhat cranky about it.

Dating: I didn't, but friends did, and I could have, and some of them married the people they dated in college. Key? Clubs that met between my college and either one or both of the two nearby co-ed ones. Clubs are better than one-off events for meeting people because of their frequency and regularity. So if some co-ed stuff would make you more at ease, examine how much extracurricular is actually active and shared.

I think one of the key differences that sometimes people think of as 'women's college' issues are small college issues. Some of the more female oriented things that may come up: yes, people will ask you about your sexuality. They're mostly jerks, though, and mostly I tried to point out that I went to a college because of the resources it did have, not because of ones it didn't. Sometimes small, liberal arts colleges get...cause-itis. Women's colleges are not exempt, and may have their cause-itis biased towards women's issues. But at a larger or different campus, you might get sick of the neverending basketball boosterism, or the vegan cookout group.

Classes: I found it encouraging to speak up, but I also had more seminar, less lecture classes. That's independent of women's/co-ed. That being said, now that I'm not at one, I find myself generally more able to speak up, without apologizing first, than other women, while in mixed groups. I'm not saying every woman does this, but it's frighteningly common. (I do consider myself introverted in general; going out and socializing drains me, for instance, but it doesn't happen in class.) The profs will run the gamut, as said above. Personally, my most feminist prof was at a giant state university, but ymmv.

Feel free to me-mail me if you have any particular questions, but in general, I found it helpful for me; it's a time when a lot of behaviors are being learned, and for many women who go to women's colleges, although not all, I think it can help develop more skills that are independent of some of the actions we take that are derived from sometimes unconscious social forces between men and women.
posted by cobaltnine at 7:52 PM on October 26, 2010

Well I went to Hampshire, which is in the consortium with Mount Holyoke and Smith, so I only have a peek into all women's schools. I took a class at Smith and it was an excellent class. There was actually one guy in the class (I think he was from another school? I forget) but it really never seemed weird that it was (almost) all women. I can't speak to the other schools but I think if you went to either of these it would be VERY easy to meet and/or date guys if you are interested in that. (Amherst, especially, at least used to throw. the. best. parties.)

I never took a class at MH but it had the most beautiful library. It was ridiculous.
posted by grapesaresour at 8:08 PM on October 26, 2010

I went to Wellesley, and looking back on it, am very happy about my choice. It was the only women's college I applied to, but the place that I felt I would fit in best.

I was very homesick my first year, and a great part of that was because the social life was a challenge. I didn't like going into Boston for MIT and Harvard parties, and it took me awhile to realize that just hanging out with my friends was ok. I didn't date until I went abroad my junior year.

I loved my classes and my professors and the feeling of empowerment I got from the campus. I really felt like a Wellesley graduate could do anything. And I loved the traditions that went back generations. I loved my friends and classmates and their varied backgrounds. And I loved that I never had to pretend that I wasn't smart. Some of this I would have gotten from other schools, but for me, it was the right fit at the right time.

Having all-female classes was good, although I had not been shy about participating in high school. While there are certainly classes that focus on women's issues, most don't.

I've been out 20 years and Wellesley is still a very important network for me, not so much for my career as for life in general. My book club is all Wellesley alumnae, and I love to go to my reunions. If I had to move to a new place, I'd immediately look for other alumnae to connect with.

And, when I ended up at law school and looked around at my class of 55% men, it felt strange - I kept thinking what are all these men doing trying to get an education!?
posted by Sukey Says at 8:45 PM on October 26, 2010

I graduated from a Seven Sisters college, having transferred from a coed one. The women's school was nearly perfect for me, both academically and socially. It was the perfect size, for one thing. (The first school was too small for me, and I knew I would find a huge school intimidating.) It was also in a location I liked better-- one of my reasons for transferring, along with a better program in my major.

Based on that experience, I feel there are several other factors at least as important to your happiness as whether the place is coed or not-- and that's whether you are straight, gay, transgendered. In fact, I'd argue that male/female is only one of the many ways college society breaks itself down; take that away and other distinctions rush in to fill its place. If you are gay, don't assume that automatically means you are going to be more comfortable at a single-sex college. A lot of other things come into play.

And yeah, I think there will always be people who'll say you went to that women's college because you didn't get into Yale, but screw that. Seriously. If you go to Yale, they'll say it's because you didn't get into Harvard.
posted by BibiRose at 8:49 PM on October 26, 2010

I went to Scripps, and I loved it. I wasn't really into the idea of a women's college, but when I visited there, I pretty much got my socks knocked off by how awesome the student body was. Every woman I met seemed incredibly smart and passionate, and they all seemed to be doing really cool things.

I felt that way when I was there, too. Yeah, there were a few exceptions (my freshman year roommate being one... did she care about anything besides clothes and parties? Not that I ever saw), but by and large, there are a lot of very different, very cool women. The academics are terrific, the dorms are great, the campus is so pretty that some of my friends called it The Enchanted Garden of Learning... man, now I miss my friends. Sniffle.

Scripps is indeed very feminism-heavy - the Core III class that I took was about second-wave feminism, and it was so good. I can't think of anyone I knew about Scripps who wouldn't identify as a feminist. Although I took very few humanities classes at Scripps (off-campus science major with a year abroad means I took surprisingly few classes on Scripps proper), I doubt that there's a class that doesn't approach things from at least somewhat of a feminist, norm-challenging angle. And there are a lot of female professors, obviously. Oh yeah, and I hear the new president is really cool!

I think the consortium thing does set Scripps apart from most other women's colleges. Except for the Core and intro Writing classes, it's very common to have a man or some men in the class. But, certainly, mainly woman-majority classes, some women-only classes. Honestly, the woman-only dynamic thing didn't make that much difference to me - there were plenty of loud opiniated strong-willed, smart women who dominated discussions and made it hard for quiet little me to get a word in. But it was nice, when we discussed feminist issues and women's experiences, to not have some guy going all "hurf durf I think I know everything about women's experiences when I have no clue." (Sorry, guys, I know, most of you aren't like that.)

Anyway, with the consortium, there are lots of opportunities to take classes off-campus, and lots of opportunities for social events with such a wide variety of people and social circles. Meeting guys is pretty easy unless you are extremely timid and/or never leave Scripps. Like I said, I had an off-campus major, plus my minor was a Scripps-Pomona joint program, so I ended up taking a ton of classes at Pomona as well as a few at Harvey Mudd. I really liked the breadth of opportunity. And I loved my small major department - I'm still in touch with everyone I knew in my major, basically, and I consider some of my former professors friends now. I think the small departments and the awesome people are the best things about the Claremont Colleges.

If you want to ask me any questions, feel free to memail me. I'm class of 2009.

P. S. Obviously I didn't go to Mt. Holyoke, but I've heard from two different sources that it can be kind of a weird place for straight women. One straight woman told me that she felt kind of alienated because she was straight; a couple of lesbians that I met told me that they didn't really associate with straight women, and thought that they were kind of shunned. That's a really small sample size and I wouldn't judge MHC by that alone - it's a terrific place and I'm not hatin' - but talking with those women made me glad that I'd chosen Scripps and not MHC. (On the opposite end, the queer community at Scripps is pretty small and not very visible, which I thought was unfortunate.)

Oh yeah, there's also the phenomenon that women's colleges often feel like they have to protect the delicate ladies. Polyhymnia mentioned this above for her college. This is kinda true at Scripps as well. I don't really want to go into it; this comment is long enough. I'll just say that the administration can be frustrating about some things, but I saw improvement while I was there and I think it'll continue to get better.
posted by mandanza at 8:49 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, by the way, if you can somehow get an application to Scripps by November 1, you'll automatically be in the running for a half-tuition scholarship. Info here, but from 2009, so if you think you can make it you should call and double-check.
posted by mandanza at 8:51 PM on October 26, 2010

I had a great experience at my seven sisters women's college (not on your list, but it's been mentioned in the thread). I chose over another women's college that is on your list because I visited, stayed overnight and attended classes, and it just "clicked." I think the best way to know the answers to your questions for you is to do the same if you have the means-- as the comments above have already illustrated, women's colleges all have very different campus cultures.

Meeting men wasn't something that was a priority for me at the time, but for some of my friends it was, and at my school you were legitimately making it more difficult to meet men because you were placing yourself a bus/train ride away. It was harder to meet guys for friendship, actually, than romance, due a lack of shared non-party activities. Admissions material tries to minimize this, but it's a real concern to explore. At my school, social life in general was fairly self-starting, so people who wanted to have male friends/boyfriends sometimes made it work by joining organizations and taking classes at co-ed schools and/or engaging in other social activities in the big city nearby.

I concur with the faculty member's observation in the thread above that there is was a unique, collegial quality more present in the class discussions I remember from my undergraduate days than those in my co-ed study abroad program or at the similar, but co-ed, graduate institution where I studied in the same field. I remember a particular seminar in graduate school in which only a tiny fraction of the women enrolled (in contrast to the men) actively participated in the discussions. It turned out that 3 of the 4 of us had done undergrad at women's colleges. I think the poster above who says that it trains you to speak without apologizing nails it, and I think it's also that being in a very diverse, but single-sex, group allowed me to forget sometimes (and I think it's one of the few times in your life you can do this) that you're a "woman" and you're supposed to discuss/act etc. a certain way.

Feminism was something that was important, and integrated at least superficially into much of campus discussion (both academic and non-academic) but beyond this it seemed to me you could choose your level of actual engagement, and there were (a few) dissenting voices to keep things interesting.

My experience wasn't perfect. I sometimes wish I'd had a more vibrant social life, and as I got older, I sometimes found the school sheltered. When I formed friendships with men after college, I wished it'd been easier to do so earlier. Occasionally people stay stupid things about the fact I went there, or make assumptions, but far more (especially professionally) are impressed. So I'm glad I went. The best parts of my experience were the amazing, interesting women (and transmen) of all different backgrounds and sexualities that were my classmates and friends, the intense academics, and the fact that I'm still having my women's college experience long after I graduated. I found my school very career-minded, and I've received concrete advantage from the resources of the school and alumnae network in at least two job/internship searches and recently was able to return the favor to a fellow alum in my field.
posted by neko75 at 9:08 PM on October 26, 2010

I went to Scripps, and was a little more lukewarm about it than mandanza. I ended up going because I got offered a monster scholarship, and the truth is I probably wouldn't have picked it without the financial incentive. I think I would have been much happier at Pomona (larger school, co-ed). Scripps is small. Claremont is small. Even with the other colleges around, even with Pasadena and LA being not too far away, it was just a little too claustrophobic for this big-city, public-schooled girl.

By all means, visit if you can, and visit when school is in session (ie, not fall break). Really get a feel for the campus. I found that the grounds were stunning, but it was just a little dead--not many people out and socializing, mostly just walking from one building to another. That, to me, symbolized much of the Scripps experience. Try to sit in on a class or two as well.

Because of the way the Claremont Colleges are set up, most of your classes will probably have at least a guy or two in them, maybe much more. One of my majors was interdisciplinary and I took classes for it at Mudd, CMC, and Pomona. I really liked this aspect of the colleges, and found it easy to make friends at other schools. My husband is a Pomona graduate and we met and started dating in school. Happy ending!

I would say the school environment fosters a strong feminist perspective, to a sometimes comical degree. (I mean, does anyone REALLY need a dozen paintings done in menstrual fluid in the campus coffee shop, speaking about "the female experience"?) But I did enjoy that sense of solidarity, even if I occasionally rolled my eyes at a few folks. And there were also those who rebelled against the "militant feminist" stereotype by skanking it up every weekend at parties--freshman year roommates, I'm looking at you.

I thought much more could have been done with the peer mentoring program freshman year to really build bonds between freshmen. It seemed like my group was really thrown together, we had nothing in common, and our mentors didn't click with us either. As a result we kind of floundered and our whole dorm never really meshed, and I had a kind-of-miserable first year trying to find my social footing. Perhaps not the school's fault, but I looked at the way the other Claremont Colleges integrated their freshman classes and really welcomed them into the community, and I was jealous. I graduated in 2003 so it's possible the program has changed and improved.

I don't want to be a Debbie Downer, because there were lots of positives to my experience, too. I loved the small classes, I became very close with my professors and got a lot of individual attention I doubt I'd get at a larger school, and my best friendship was formed in the crucible that was the Core program. If I were to select colleges all over again I would make more of an effort to spend time at each one and really try to picture myself in that environment. I know it's hard, because it's often a short visit, and people change a lot in four years, so the perfect college at 17 might not be the perfect college at 21! Feel free to memail me if you have more Scripps questions.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 11:00 PM on October 26, 2010

I went to Wellesley and I loved it. Since then, I've taught at both a large public (co-ed) school and a large private co-ed school (I have a PhD). I can honestly say that small, liberal-arts schools are a superior educational experience all around, and for women, not being judged on your looks but only on your ideas is an unbelievably liberating experience.

I was a women's studies major, but Wellesley is not a bastion of radical feminism. It's a very Hillary Clinton (Wellesley alum!) type of feminism, where women are expected to major in International Relations or Economics and go be a fortune-500 CEO. If you're in the sciences, or any traditionally male-dominated field, you won't encounter any sexist bias at all and this will do wonders for your education. If I had been at a co-ed school, I'm not sure that I would have been the music director of my radio station, or worked on the first student webserver and taught myself HTML, both formative experiences (and the latter leading to my first job in tech). I am extremely confident and a strong personality and my career success I would attribute primarily to high school debate, and Wellesley. (If you are into Women's Studies, Wellesley has a superior department which introduced me to critical theory and queer theory, which is a major part of my methodology as a researcher today).

I dated women while I was in college and I very much enjoyed the close queer community on campus- but we were very much a minority. Plenty of girls had plenty of dates, you just have to go a little further to find them. I do find the hookup culture kind of repugnant and I think it puts way too much power in the hands of dudes so some girls even find it refreshing.

Out of my group of Wellesley friends, we are all still in touch, a few people I hang out with regularly even though I graduated 12 years ago, and out of ~20 people (mostly artsy queers) we have three PhDs, a doctor, three lawyers, a social worker, several MBAs, several moms, and an incredibly diverse amount of life experience.
posted by alicetiara at 3:35 AM on October 27, 2010

I went to Smith, though I chose it for the small size and small town location rather than the single-sex education. That said, I really loved my time there and I think it was the best choice I could have made. Since Smith is part of the 5 college consortium, there were plenty of opportunities to meet guys and many of my friends dated men while in college (guys they met in class or at parties, etc). At Smith in particular different "houses" (like dorms) on the campus had different cultures in terms of studying/partying - I lived on Green Street, which was the more quiet/studious area, but the Quad was more the drinking/partying area, and some of the other campus zones had other cultural associations so in a sense there were sort of mini-communities within the campus where you could find whatever kind of culture you were looking for.

Academically, I found Smith a place where I could explore a bunch of different educational opportunities and sort of "find myself," which in retrospect is what I needed at that point in my life. On the other hand some of my friends knew exactly where they wanted to go post-college and were very driven from the first, and they seem to have been served well by Smith also. I wouldn't say the classes were "feminism-heavy" but it may have been that my focus wasn't necessarily on that type of class. I had very few classes with men but I don't think I really noticed a difference, to be honest.
posted by marginaliana at 7:12 AM on October 27, 2010

Mountie here. I also took classes at Smith, Hampshire (where I was also staff) and UMass, and used the Amherst library a lot. I graduated in '92, so this may be out of date, but I loved MHC. The classes were small, discussion was excellent and the subtlety of never hearing things like "do what he does" or "do what he says" turned me from a misogynist to a much more balanced person. While I do remember professors saying things like, "so, what do you think women were doing at this time?", the feminism was in the air more than in the syllabus. I had friends who were very traditional in their gender roles, and while we gently teased them, it was gentle.

I'm a lesbian, but most of my friends were straight. It just wasn't much of an issue, besides the usual coming out drama that all came from me. There were certainly men around, even during the week. I had male friends, for sure.

I agree that visiting campuses is important. Due to some of the activities I was involved in, I got to visit all of the Seven Sisters and many other small liberal arts colleges in New England. They varied greatly. Someone who would be happy at Smith or Barnard isn't going to like MHC.

It was very much an accident that I ended up at a women's college. Being a Mountie is a very important part of my identity still. Haven't gotten any weird looks or questions about being a women's college grad, and it has impressed employers (and grad schools).
posted by QIbHom at 7:15 AM on October 27, 2010

I went to Agnes Scott College, a women's liberal arts college in Atlanta. I had never been exposed to single-sex education prior to visiting Agnes Scott at the insistence of my high school counselor, who had graduated from Agnes Scott a hundred years ago (seemed like, at least). Anyway, I was blown away during my visit, and decided to attend. (I moved from California to do this.)

I felt like Agnes Scott was the right place for me because I was interested in doing something meaningful with my studies and with my life. I felt like I could take my time (to a degree) to figure out what I wanted to study. I was intrigued with the concept of a liberal arts education. After visiting, I just didn't feel like a big state school, where I could get in, get out and get on with my life, would do it for my.

I think the admission staff at any women's college really pays attention to the applicants. It's not just a matter of meeting the SAT score criteria. You need to contribute something to the community. Whether you play the bassoon, can recite the quadratic equation by heart or can drive a golf ball 300 yards, everyone has an interesting talent that doesn't have to be mainstream to be appreciated.

I was focused on my studies and didn't date much during school, but immediately found a boyfriend after graduation (in my first "real job") and we have been married for 7 years now. I don't think that attending a women's college was a detriment to my social life. I knew plenty of girls at school who had boyfriends (and girlfriends). A lot of my classmates met guys at Emory or Georgia Tech, which are a short car- or train-ride away.

I love my Scottie friends. Besides my family and my husband, they are the best people in my life. They are interesting, curious women with integrity. The Honor Code is a big part of life at Agnes Scott, and it carries over into every aspect of life after graduation, too.

The concept of feminism and the woman's perspective on studies does pervade every subject at Agnes Scott. Rightly so, I say. It's another very important part of history and our experience that is meaningful. I was a religious studies major and music minor. The religious studies department was very interested in social justice and women's studies, so we had a lot of interesting topics that probably wouldn't have been broached in another type of school. For instance, we had a study-abroad religious studies trip that took us to Jordan to stay for several days with the students at the women's college in Amman. It was fascinating.

A popular saying when I was on campus (1996-2000) was "Not a girl's school without boys, but a women's college without men." It is still a favorite motto of those of us in that vintage. We unilaterally loved our experience at Agnes Scott. Yes, there were things that we didn't agree with, but a lot of that fades away when you consider the entire experience as a whole.

I urge any young woman interested in bettering herself to consider a women's college. You will develop mentally, personally, psychologically and intellectually. What a wonderful investment to make for yourself.
posted by FergieBelle at 7:44 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Go ahead and go to a women's college if you want! There will be tons of ways to meet men - parties/mixers every weekend, groups you can join, etc. As for the Claremont Colleges, you can attend classes on other campuses, eat in ANY of the dining halls, you'll be running into men to befriend or date all day long. Especially if you live on campus.

I did find that having some classes that were all or nearly all women was valuable. One of the ideas is that (for hetero women) having men around can keep you from speaking up in class or asking questions, because you may have felt in the past that your role is to have men like you, be pretty, unchallenging, etc. (This may not describe you at all, but I'm sad to say that it does describe many high school girls.) Certainly it was the case for me, as my high school was not very progressive, some of my male teachers were dismissive, and I was glad to make a change.

There was also a great feeling of solidarity among women. I felt surprisingly little of the competitiveness between females that I felt in high school; the atmosphere was so much more supportive and friendly. Neither did I ever feel like there was a men-hating attitude at all. (On the contrary, in a big way.) Feminism was defined by a sense that women are equal to men and very capable, as opposed to the women-are-superior attitude that some folks would have you believe that feminism stands for.

Women's colleges may not be for everyone, but for those who feel they belong there, it is such a great experience. I've been working on state university campuses ever since, and while I feel that the students can get just as good an education at the U (if they try), it is an altogether different experience for the women than mine was at a women's college.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:17 AM on October 27, 2010

I also only attended an all-girls school for high school and chose not to attend an all-women's college, despite my guidance counselor's suggestions.

I absolutely LOVED my single-sex education. I think it really helped me come out of my shell, and it really did foster a spirit of closeness and camaraderie that I have yet to find anywhere else. The support and encouragement given to young women there shaped my work ethic, my self-esteem, and my academic ability more than I can possibly express. There is something so special about a strong, supportive community of women that, if it's right for you, can be truly empowering. (And yes, there were a few lesbians, but this was high school, so that was fraught with a different kind of drama than you'd find in college.)

However, it did NOT help the shyness and awkwardness I felt around boys, who were rarely around and who seemed like exotic, alien creatures at the time. By the time I graduated, I, um, started liking some and didn't want to spend four more years not getting to interact with them on a daily basis. Plus, it's true that the intensity of that small, all-female experience did generate a lot of drama and pettiness that seemed amplified by the lack of men present. So, I went on to a co-ed school. And that was the right decision for me - boys became normal human beings, and I carried the lessons I'd learned in high school to try to hold my own in co-ed college classrooms.

Single-sex education is not for everyone. Definitely not. But, I wouldn't have traded my years in that all-female classroom for anything in the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that I draw on those experiences for strength and confidence every single day and that my St. Mary's girls are always and forever my loves. YMMV.
posted by bookgirl18 at 9:32 AM on October 27, 2010

I graduated from Barnard in '96. I never felt protected or restricted. It is supportive, but I didn't participate in a lot of the campus life stuff, so maybe that's why I never felt stifled. I found it pretty easy to have the experience I wanted. One thing about Barnard is that I think it offers a very fragmented experience. Partly that's because it's in NYC, and partly because its identity is kind of mushy. It's a women's college, but it is so close to Columbia that it's really not entirely a women's college the way others are. It also has (or had) a large population of conservative Jewish students, which is an interesting mix with the more liberal, feminist vibe of the school. I feel like a lot of Barnard grads don't have the passionate connection to their alma mater that other alums do. I don't really know why, but my guess would be that the location leads a lot of Barnard students to do their own thing. There isn't (or wasn't) a sense of a cohesive on-campus community. That's a plus or a minus, I guess, depending on what you're looking for.

As for men, my recollection is that most classes at both colleges offered cross-registration. The classes that each college limited to its own students tended to be first year courses that were part of a core, or classes that were just for majors (like the junior colloquium and senior seminar for my major). I think there were a certain number of slots for students from the other college, so it wasn't unlimited cross-registration. I took a lot of history classes at Columbia, but mostly took Barnard classes. There were men in my Barnard classes, but the students were majority women. There was even cross-registration for some dorms. I had two guys in my suite junior year. The first year dorms were not co-ed, but men would sleep over with people, and you'd see them in the bathrooms in the morning.

I valued the experience of going to a women's college. I came from a conservative small town, so the emphasis on feminism and empowering women was what I wanted and needed.
posted by Mavri at 10:24 AM on October 27, 2010

I didn't date men during my time at a women's college. I guess I knew a few, but I didn't cross paths with them all that often. The ones from the "brother colleges" who went out of their ways to come on campus for classes were across the board a bit weird. When I was on a brother-campus, I felt a bit out of place.

Frankly, meeting men wasn't all that important for me, though I somewhat believed otherwise at the time. I was a socially-isolated super-nerdy high schooler in non-nerd territory, so for me college was all about meeting people I could genuinely and easily relate to, learning how to make friends, and learning how to maintain friendships. Adding in learning how to meet guys, flirt, start relationships, maintain relationships, and deal with heartbreak would have been total overload. I think it set me up well to have better amle/female relationships and friendships later on, but my first year out of college was an entertaining adjustment.
posted by aimedwander at 12:13 PM on October 27, 2010

I went to a very feminist "pro-girl" Catholic (I know, right?!) girl's high school and would have gone to a women's college if I hadn't been so darned determined to do the bare minimum necessary to graduate. While I will always feel like somehow I missed out on something by not having the stereotypical (quintessential?) coed public school experience (Marching Band! Football Homecoming! Real drama and threatre depts!) I think the positives I got from it (Learning to Question Authority, that it's awesome to be smart, not letting the Man "get me down") are lessons that have shaped and changed my life.

To piggyback on this - has anyone gone to a women's college as an older non-traditional student that can share thoughts on that?
posted by ApathyGirl at 12:57 PM on October 27, 2010

ApathyGirl, I attended Mount Holyoke both as a trad and as an FP (Frances Perkins Scholar, woman above the traditional college age, old lady). It was a very tight, supportive program. Most of us ended up mentoring a few trads. Profs and students both loved having FPs in classes, because we had a different take on things.

The Ada Comstock program at Smith didn't seem as tight, possibly because there were a lot more of them (MHC has intentionally kept the FP Program around 100 students).
posted by QIbHom at 7:39 AM on October 28, 2010

Thanks so much for your help, everybody. There's too much here to respond individually but I read everything and it was really, really helpful. I won't mark best answers because then I'd be marking every answer. Again, thanks!
posted by R a c h e l at 2:44 PM on November 25, 2010

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