Hair braiding and pillow fights, or, what is life really like in a women's college?
September 15, 2011 3:05 PM   Subscribe

I am working on a piece of writing set in a women's college. Having never attended a single-sex institution myself, I'm curious about the little ways in which day-to-day life might be different. . . . standards of grooming, dress, delicacy or lack thereof in conversations about sex/bodily functions, competitiveness in the classroom, etc. I am sure there are a lot of facets I haven't considered. If you've attended a single-sex institution, or know a lot about the experience, can you help me in my research?
posted by sideofwry to Human Relations (33 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The time period you're writing about makes a big difference. Contemporary? Historical? Because when I was at a women's college in the early 2000s, you saw a lot of sweatpants and pajamas in classrooms, which I also see at the major research university I'm at now.
posted by liketitanic at 3:11 PM on September 15, 2011

I went to an all-girls school (a tiny, leafy little nook) and a co-ed school. (a relatively small state school but bigger than my first one) I didn't notice a whole lot of difference. Girls had boyfriends and girlfriends and went on dates (but no overnight guests were allowed in the dorms). In my experience girls ressed the same (range from sweatpants to jeans to "nice"), acted the same. Raised their hands in class to say something idiotic. Me and my friends didn't engage in that much "girl talk" but that might just be me and my friends.

I think I did find my classes and classmates less mind-numbingly boring, elementary and worthless at the girls' school than at the co-ed school.
posted by bleep at 3:13 PM on September 15, 2011

One difference was that the girls-school there was a lot of "Yay ra-ra woo we're a girls school! Yay feminism! Let's get you freshmen girls in touch with your womanhood-empowerment! You can speak up in class and not worry about asshole boys shouting you down!!" stuff. Obviously not so much at the other one.
And that thing about no asshole boys being assholes was actually a nice relief.
posted by bleep at 3:23 PM on September 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

Another women's college grad here. If you want to send me more specific questions via MeMail, I will happily expound at length about the awesomeness of it. However, I don't really know how to compare it to a coed school, or how to figure out how much of my experience was due to my college being all-women, or the fact that the students took the honor code so seriously, or how small the school was, or... all sorts of things.

(Though, on preview, bleep's second comment rings true, and loudly so).
posted by amelioration at 3:26 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to Bryn Mawr, and can become chokingly sentimental about this if not firmly limited in words. So I will just say two things.

When I was there, women who went to Bryn Mawr took each other seriously, took their own ambitions seriously, and said what they damned well pleased in the classroom. They dressed like all kinds of college-age women, with all kinds of worldviews -- because that was what they were -- but they had that in common, and it was a lasting gift.

For further atmosphere, check out this tumblr.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:26 PM on September 15, 2011 [8 favorites]

I went to Wellesley in the 90s. I did not participate in any pillow fights. There were a lot of sweatpants, flip flops, and sneakers. I am also happy to answer more specific questions. And yes, bleep is on point with her comments.
posted by crankylex at 3:33 PM on September 15, 2011

I went to a women's college, a few things I remember.....

Lots of drunk make out parties....regardless of whether or not one is or is not a lesbian. In fact we had a few acronyms to describe the rather fluid sexual identities that abounded. BUG = Bisexual Until Graduation; LUG - Lesbian Until Graduation; SLUG - Serious Lesbian Until Graduation.

Lots of conversations about the dominant male paradigm. Sigh. Yes, really.

By God it's a "Women's College" not a "Girls' School." Sigh. Yes, really.

At my school there was a fierce commitment to women's issues. That commitment could be rather strident, self-righteous and down right obnoxious - but then again, that's what 18-22 year olds are often like. Being at a "Women's College" I think gave us a clear lens through which to focus that stridency. It also gave us an incredible exposure to an amazing array of women and in doing so allowed us to think more broadly about they type of women we could become.

There was also a fierce commitment to each other. We very much believed in the concept of sisterhood and that we belong to it for life. My school was very small, intimate (yeah, yeah) and extremely supportive of one another - there was competition of course, but that competition was usually more with than against.

Not having guys on campus or in the classroom not only meant that there was a more air to breathe in terms of intellectual freedom, but that there wasn't much cattiness and competition amongst students when it came to dating and having sex with boys. We just dated and had sex with each other. Those who didn't would just go to frat parties at nearby co-ed schools. For me having a few years where I didn't have guy distractions and guy related self-esteem crises meant that I could focus on who I was as ...well, a woman.
posted by space_cookie at 3:47 PM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

I went to a women's college in the late 80s-early 90s, and I agree with everything Countess Elena said.
posted by jgirl at 3:48 PM on September 15, 2011

You might want to read the novel Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan, about experiences at a women's college based on Smith College, which I've been told by my Smith-alum friends is very true to life.
posted by telegraph at 3:55 PM on September 15, 2011

I attended a private women's college my freshman year and a co-ed state college for the remainder of my education. I was a freshman in 1993-1994 and I graduated in 1997.

My experience is very different from what other's have described. Maybe it was the college, maybe it's generational. I don't know.

The women's college I went to was very small with about 700 undergraduates and 200 graduate students. It was located in a southern state. I'm being vague because I'm about to say some nasty things about the place and I don't want it on record. People can get really testy about their alma mater.

After the first semester, I knew I would not continue there. First of all, it was extremely conservative. Numerous examples follow:

A lesbian friend of mine had her property destroyed and vandalized with anti-gay graffiti. There was no investigation and nobody was disciplined.

Another student was sexually assaulted by a student of a nearby men's college. The assault was hushed up and the student was pressured not to press charges.

An art class' exhibit was removed from the student union because it featured female nudes. The official statement from administration was that "women shouldn't want to look at other women's bodies."

Secondly, I never had to open a book. Literally, I had textbooks that I did not have to touch. Each class was taught to the lowest common denominator, albeit by extremely bright professors. In one meeting with my favorite professor there, she told me that the college had lowered its academic standards in order to keep the tuition rolling in. Daddies wouldn't pay for their daughters to fail (tuition was very! expensive. I had massive student aid and scholarships plus a small loan).

Finally, I couldn't relate to the prevailing social attitudes. Many of the girls had attended private schools their whole lives. There was no concept of racial or economic diversity. I remember tipping for a food delivery one night and arguing with some other girls who wouldn't tip. They believed that if the delivery person wanted to make more money, he should get a better paying job and if he didn't he was just lazy.

Almost half of the girls on my dormitory hall transferred after freshman year for the same reasons.

As far as grooming and dress and whatnot the women's college was no different than the co-ed state school I attended. One big difference was that the women's college was a graveyard on the weekend. Most the girls went to visit their boyfriends or party at other colleges.
posted by dchrssyr at 4:03 PM on September 15, 2011

In preview, I'm so jealous of the experiences described here by Countess Elena and other women. That's what I wanted.
posted by dchrssyr at 4:11 PM on September 15, 2011

Thanks for the answers so far. . . . the piece is set in present day, if that helps at all, though I am interested in experiences any time. Keep them coming.
posted by sideofwry at 4:13 PM on September 15, 2011

Another Wellesley alum here (also in the 90s!). I agree with crankylex, space_cookie and Countess Elena. There were always guys around and women tended to dress and have similar interests to what I saw at the co-ed schools in the area. What stood out was the classroom experiences: a strong but unspoken expectation that we were all really there to think, to discuss ideas in a really frank and thoughtful way and the expectation that we would use this knowledge somehow to make a meaningful impact whether it be through volunteer work, careers or how we raised our families. Conversations outside of class were much like other places, though I know that several of my male friends found it uncomfortable to sit at a dinner table with nothing but women. That may have had more to do with my friends who tended to be a pretty bawdy and teasing bunch. There was probably more talking about feelings and detailed discussion about why it was important to have a dish drainer or to show respect for your hallmates by not leaving wet floors outside of the showers, but I think that probably happens in women's dorms on other campuses. All in all it was one of the most positive experiences I've had and I'd be happy to answer other questions if you have them, just meMail me.
posted by goggie at 4:15 PM on September 15, 2011

Another Wellesley alum from the 90s here. (Boy, there's a lot of us...)

In addition to the stuff touched on already, stuff that was very different for me from what I heard from friends at other colleges:

- Much nicer general living situation. Our dorm living rooms had decent furniture, and it kept looking decent. People generally kept the kitchens and the bathrooms reasonably tidy. If people did go party, they mostly did it off campus (other than a couple of big on-campus parties each year), so if you weren't into that kind of thing, you didn't have to deal with people being loud/drunk/etc. right outside your living space.

- Really deep friendships. Mine have ebbed and flowed a bit, but I'm still in close contact with most of my closer college friends. (We share stuff on LJ/Dreamwidth/whatever, I love seeing them when I can.)

- A lot less tentativeness in classes (at least once people settled into them): much less "Well, maybe, I think that possibly, the answer could be." and a lot more "Here's my answer, and if you don't agree, let's talk about it."

- dress: I knew people who did the pearls + twin set thing for classes, but most people went for comfort and personal style: there was a lot less dressing to impress (either men or other women) most of the time.

- The one thing that was challenging was in the performing arts - unless you wanted to make a very regular trip to MIT or elsewhere in Boston, doing co-ed theatre or vocal music was really hard. (I'd already sung with a treble chorus through part of high school, so I'd already sung a lot of the repetoire that I really wanted to do that didn't involve lower voice parts.) However, there was some awesome stuff on campus (Shakespeare Society, for example) that worked around that wonderfully.

- Less competitiveness in the classroom, and more "All these people around me are doing awesome stuff, what can I do that's awesome?"

- And yeah, some conversations that would not have gone that way in a co-ed classroom (or other places). Not all the time, but I probably had one extended conversation per course that was different than it would have been in co-ed spaces. (either about the role of women in [whatever setting] or being much more directly inclusive of women's contributions to a field, and what the real challenges were to make those contributions, etc.

Also glad to discuss in meMail.
posted by modernhypatia at 4:33 PM on September 15, 2011

One of my friends went to Mt. Holyoke and she often ended phone conversations with "Gotta go! It's cookies and milk time!"

*shakes fist in jealousy*
posted by spec80 at 4:34 PM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

yeah, mt holyoke has (or had) milk and cookies every night in the dorms, around 9pm, iirc. (i didn't attend there, but i did date some mt holyoke students)

and, of course, a somewhat obligatory joke: "how many harvard girls does it take to screw in a light bulb?" "it's *radcliffe*, it's *women*, and it's *not funny*"
posted by rmd1023 at 5:15 PM on September 15, 2011 [8 favorites]

I went to one of the "elite" women's colleges and I would second most of what's been said in the thread. I think it's important to keep in mind dachryssyr's point that the experience at Wellesley / Smith / Mt. Holyoke / Bryn Mawr would be very different from the experience at a conservative, southern college.

Some of my observations:

The student body at my college leaned strongly liberal and was very earnest, very zealous about political issues, especially identity politics. This was wonderful and empowering most of the time, but I think at times it could lead to a certain kind of groupthink or intolerance for other political views.

Student government meetings were brutally long (three hours or more), and the most picayune point of order could be debated in grave seriousness late into the night. By contrast, I found it very refreshing the year that I studied abroad in England where student government meetings were held in the bar, votes were done by quick show of hands, and if a meeting ran to 45 minutes it was considered monstrously long. I think at the women's college we took ourselves very seriously, which on the one hand was a bulwark against the apprehension that the sexist "outside world" might not take us seriously enough, but on the other hand, could result in taking ourselves a little too seriously.

There was a lot of same-sex dating and there were rumors that large groups of friends, or an entire floor of a dorm, or half the ______ team, had all dated one another in different combinations. Some women who dated women during college kept dating (or marrying) women after graduation. Some did not. To space_cookie's list of acronyms I would add BDOC (big dyke on campus).

There was a lot more diversity of religion, nationality, body art, and clothing style at my undergraduate college than among the undergrads at the co-ed university where I went to grad school.

There were some very nice traditions and elegant accoutrements left over from the days when it was more of a "twinsets and pearls" kind of place. If you cruise the websites of the former "Seven Sisters" women's colleges looking for stuff about college traditions, you'll get a few ideas.

I think it's true that the furniture and physical plant tend to be nicer at women's colleges than at comparable co-ed colleges. We seem to go easier on stuff.

In a subtle way that's hard to explain, it was really nice to be at a college where there was so much history of female achievement behind you—where, when you celebrated the achievements of the alums who came before you, they were all women. (Always "alumnae," not "alumni.") Where about half the faculty in all disciplines, including math and sciences, were women. Where a good portion of the administrative leaders were women. Where the computer lab student assistants and the pool lifeguards and the student dance DJs were all women. Where the commencement speakers were usually women, and invited guest speakers were often women. Where your classmates winning major international fellowships were all women. It made being female and doing stuff in the world seem really normal, and not exceptional nor a PC add-on to a male-dominated history. (This is in contrast to another school I'm aware of where a special exhibit on notable alumnae had to be created to counterbalance the hallways full of huge oil portraits of male deans and eminent male alumni.)
posted by Orinda at 5:16 PM on September 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

I attended an all-girls middle and high school and took some courses at Wellesley in college.

Teachers/profs say "ladies!" only if they are upset/annoyed. Otherwise it is always "women" to refer to a group of students.

Lots of long-running traditions, rituals, etc, much of it wrapped up in the "sisterhood" concept, trying to create a legacy that is passed down to younger women.

Classes just feel totally different without men. Male teachers/profs can tease and joke more (not inappropriately, just in general) because a class of woman will just laugh and things move on, rather than the joke becoming a distraction because students are trying to compete for attention by building on the joke.

Lots more physical affection between students. Not in a same-sex attraction sort of way, just in a complete carefree "it's fun to cuddle" sort of way. I once overheard a teacher at my high school say "it's like a group of puppies sleeping in a pile."

Most classes will find a reason to mention feminism or just women's issues in general even if it is not the theme of the class. History class? "And that's how it was for women!" Math class? "And a WOMAN developed this theorem!" English class? "This is all phallic imagery because [some female author] was afraid of penises!"

Plenty of cliques. Plenty of cattiness. Plenty of female stereotypes taken to the extreme in decision-making, leadership, etc. Plenty of stereotypes in the other direction as well, it's just not often you get to see a group of all women making decisions about budgets or event planning or curriculum so some of the "men run things like THIS, women run things like THIS" is really amplified and rather interesting to watch.

Best part is being able to walk down a long hallway to the restroom with a tampon in your hand rather than having to smuggle it in tucked into your skirt waistband or up a sweater sleeve.

Also reading the comments above I'm really fascinated by the people who went to women's colleges after co-ed high schools. I could usually tell the Wellesley students who had gone to all-girls high schools -- they dressed way more casually and cared much less about their appearances. (Confession: after six years of uniforms, I had a seriously hard time figuring out how to dress nicely/fashionably on a regular basis once I got to college. I was even slobbier than your standard college student because I was so used to not giving a crap.)
posted by olinerd at 5:44 PM on September 15, 2011

I went to a coed school but took welding and Mt. Holyoke. I have also taken welding classes at other schools and taking it at a women's college was a totally different experience. There were men taking the class, but they were the minority and not the majority and the class was geared towards people who might have not had the background in tools and machinery that men might have had [overgeneralization, but that was the take I had]. There wasn't any competitive jostling to be good with tools or whatever, there was just a calm supportive atmpsohere. I was already pretty good with tools which put me ahead of folks at Mt H. and behind at South Seattle Community College. The atmosphere was just a lot more collegial than any of the art type classes I took elsewhere.
posted by jessamyn at 6:49 PM on September 15, 2011

Plenty of cliques. Plenty of cattiness. Plenty of female stereotypes taken to the extreme in decision-making, leadership, etc.

This was my ex-wife's experience as a lesbian at a Seven Sisters school in the 90s, despite everything I've heard and read about it being a very welcoming environment for people outside the gender norms. She was sufficiently outside the norms that she felt ostracized by the other students and the cliques they formed, and she was very unhappy.
posted by aabbbiee at 7:06 PM on September 15, 2011

Another Bryn Mawr (~1300 students, everyone lives on campus, often hyperacademic) grad here, who also attended a big state university for my MLIS.

Lots of BMC classes had a few guys in them, usually from Haverford College (co-ed school up the road). I noticed some differences between the co-ed and single-sex classes. For one, in the co-ed classes, the first person to *usually* speak on a discussion point/answer a question was a guy - even when guys constituted 2 out of 30 students. Yet my single-sex classes weren't filled with silence - indeed, far from it. In those classes, by definition, a woman always spoke up first. So it wasn't that the guys were "shouting down" or dominating class discussion in clear or obnoxious ways - the speaking up/gender relationship is a lot more subtle. For the purposes of your book, I'd consider the dynamics of what happens (or doesn't) when guys are in the classroom. Many women's colleges have some co-ed classes, at least among the Seven Sisters which I'm most familiar with.

The stereotypes suggest that women's colleges offer an immature and innocent social life because of the absence of men. I think other folks have covered that yep, male contact happens and lots of girls are content with each other. Beyond that, I found the content of my day-to-day social life to be very similar at a small women's college and a large university (albeit for grad school). Lots of drinking coffee, arguing over politics, complaining about being overworked, talking about professors, getting drunk, and competing to see how little we'd slept in the past week. I suspect this varies by social crowd and that ultimately, the social scene of your particular characters will likely determine far more than the fact that they attend a women's college.

I'd like to second Orinda on the positive experience of having notable positions filled by women and how normal this comes to seem. I've found that it gives me pause when "out in the real world" where most important positions aren't filled by women, and helps to jolt me out of any feminist-related complacency. This subtle shifting of 'what seems normal' is probably the biggest shift in mindset I got from attending a women's college. A good deal of my college friends have expressed the same opinion.

This may be BMC-specific, but things like lab tables (and, sometimes, shower-heads) were 'adjusted' to be slightly shorter than average, apparently to reflect average female height. This was awesome for 5'2" folks like me and less awesome for my taller friends. Regardless, I've always thought of it as a good women's college anecdote: seemingly minor but important differences abound.
posted by brackish.line at 7:23 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to Hollins for undergrad. While I agree with other Mefites that attending a women's college means that a significant chunk of your existence there is shaped by feminism, 150-year-old traditions, and a desire to concentrate on excelling at whatever you discovered you were good at in high school (but without the distractions that drove you nuts in high school while trying to excel at it)'s still college. Meaning: there are still the theater nerds, jocks, Goths, the militantly political, the country-club set, the philosophers, the class clowns, the academic nerds (yours truly), etc.

For what it's worth, few of my male professors went to great lengths to emphasize women's contributions to a particular field...nor did many of the female professors, for that matter. The overriding goal seemed to be to get the discussion going at the most challenging level possible, and to think critically about, and master, the material. That is to say, none of my classes had a discernably feminist slant--unless you consider studying equal numbers of male and female writers (for example) to be a feminist notion, or that being in a class made up entirely of women automatically makes it a feminist environment (which it did not necessarily, to my surprise). But then friends of mine who *did* do undergrad courses in Women's Studies at Hollins would probably report something different.

In short: it's no less diverse or challenging simply because it's single-sex. Also: I feel strongly that your research will be enhanced by Googling the phrase "Tinker Day." ;)
posted by SmazenySyr at 7:46 PM on September 15, 2011


oh what got excited, sorry. I agree with all of the above comments on the traditional liberal arts women's colleges from the Northeast: Bryn Mawr has an extraneous number of tea parties, Greek chants, pagan traditions, and chocolate. It can be cloying, and many people are not comfortable with the amount of intimacy that happens in such an open/closed community, if that makes sense-- doors are often open, things are yelled and mentioned in proximity to others, but it's a small suburban school so there's really no escape.

And I loved it. I went through essentially 10 years of a girl's school and only wanted boys, and then I visited the Mawr to see its classes in my Obscure Subject, and fell in love. The dorms are like castles, the food is great, the classes are intense and competitive, the intellectual competition....the rugby...

Though honestly there was a lot of drama but I chalked a lot of that up to intense situations with attractive people without many off-campus outlets. There were, I guess, some cliques, but in the sense that very intense groups formed around sometimes-opaque interests.

Someone just posted a very good comment about the concept of "what seems normal." I did my master's [another thing, potentially BMC-specific: everyone you know will always be in grad school, or trying to go to grad school, or SO relieved they didn't go to grad school and interned in a refugee camp in Siberia] at a very huge brand-name uni in the UK and it was extremely odd to be the only lady in some lectures, or to be too short for things, or to be tacked onto things. The sense of being an intruder was palpable at many events, and my department definitely tracked guys into very different social settings.

It would be interesting to know what kind of thing this turns into; please keep us updated!
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:57 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I taught at a women's college and the first thing that struck me after years of Co-Ed teaching was the raucous noise. I expected more sedate behaviour, but I loved hearing the loudness of the female voices and behaviour.
posted by honey-barbara at 8:12 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Didn't know there were so many women's college grads on MeFi! I'll just chime in and offer my 2 cents here. For me some of the biggest difference between my women's college undergrad experience and co-ed grad school experience are the following:

-my undergrad classmates took academics much more seriously than my grad classmates. Even though both my undergrad and grad school were ranked fairly high in the rankings, there's a much more serious intellectual atmosphere at my undergrad college. People actually would have debates on politics, history, literature, etc. when they dine together in the dining hall. The topic could be related to something we learned in class, or not. Not so much in grad school. Granted, I went to business school for grad school, not a PhD program in Shakespeare, so that might've affected things. But still, the general sense I got is that people in my undergrad classes cares about learning a lot more.

-The general serious intellectual atmosphere carries over to the social life on campus. My grad school is big on football. So tailgates and drinking games are popular. A lot of the social life would involve going to a bar, hang out and drink. At my undergrad college, the social life are much different. Usually it would be theater performance or art exhibit. Even now, when I look at the programs put out by each school's alumni association, I noticed a difference. My undergrad alumni association would regularly hosts art exhibit at a local museum curated by a historian/art critic and book club meetings whereas my grad school alumni club would regularly hosts mixers at a bar or have sporting event outings.

-There's much less catty behavior and general gossip among the students at the women's college. The women I was surrounded by are serious about learning and serious about their career. A lot of the people I know went on to top grad programs. I saw first year students at my undergrad college researching on internships and grad school! I totally didn't plan this far ahead when I was a first year! On the other hand, conversation with women at the co-ed school and in the real world would... a lot of times...turn Who got together with whom? Which guys are cute and which are not? etc. Maybe my women's college friends and I are too nerdy, but we don't usually discuss guys, instead, we talk more about our future careers. That is not to say we don't date, indeed, some of my friends have bfs, but they're levelheaded in their approach to relationships. I have not found a group of women that is of the same caliber as my friends from college. In grad school, even though my classmates also have women who are professional high achievers, there are still much more general cattiness, in-fighting, backstabbing and gossiping going on. Some of the guys are like that too!

-I didn't experience any of the typical doing weed/other drugs, getting drunk college scene at my women's college. I personally did not do any of those things, and didn't witness anybody I know doing any of those things in undergrad. But I certainly saw people getting drunk in grad school, multiple times.

-In grad school, a lot of the time, the most outspoken students in the class are men. Men also constitute the majority of my grad school class. I didn't take any classes that were co-ed in college, so all of my classes are women only. In comparison, the women at my undergrad speak up more in class vs. women in grad school.

-Women at my undergrad college have a more cavalier attitude about looking good for class. People show up in class in sweatpants and pjs and it's no big deal. In grad school, people dress up more. Granted, some people still show up in sweatpants, but in general, they dress nicer and women are more likely to put on makeup. Very few women put on makeup when they go to class at my women's college undergrad.

I learned valuable lessons at both undergrad and grad school. But the women's college experience is certainly unique, both from personal experience and from conversations with people who went to co-ed schools for undergrad.
posted by wcmf at 9:57 PM on September 15, 2011

Just one observation, for context. A lot of the experiences described here sound a lot like my alma mater, a coed, small, private, very liberal, liberal arts school back East. A lot of people are comparing and contrasting their liberal arts undergrad experiences with their grad schools, which are likely research universities. Some of the differences they note may be due more to the different types of institutions in question than to single-sex education. (That said, my school was very woman-friendly and was even written up in a men's magazine as one of the least man-friendly colleges in the US, so maybe it's like a women's college in disguise. All my guy friends, self-identified feminists, likd it a lot though.)
posted by TrixieRamble at 10:45 PM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

My first year of college I attended a co-ed school, and then transferred to, and graduated from, a women's college (Hollins, so only undergrad was girls-only, grad was co-ed). I've had to sit here to think of any differences between the two, so I guess for the most part they were pretty similar.

Some distinctions:

I found that at my co-ed school, the boys and the extroverted girls were the ones to speak up in class, and if there were differences of opinion, things could get very vocal, or nasty. At my women's college, even the awkward, shy girls (like me!) spoke up more often, and differences in opinion led to deeper discussions, but never turned into personal attacks. This may be in part due to the individual people in the class, or the professors, but for whatever reason, there was an overall feeling of "It's okay to speak up," at my women's college.

There seemed to be less divide between professor and students at my women's college. Having most of my classes where we were all seated together around one single table probably helped this (classes tended to be smaller), or the fact that some of the professors lived in campus housing, so we really were all there together, day and night, while my co-ed school was in NYC, so the professors commuted in (and really, who wants to spend time on campus - professors or students - when you have NYC as your backyard?). Hanging out with a professor outside of class was not unheard of at my women's college, whereas at my co-ed school, it would have seemed a bit strange.

At my women's college, "freshmen" were called "first-years." Sophomores were still sophomores, and so on the rest of the way up, and I never questioned anyone about this directly, but assumed it was about trying to use gender-neutral terminology at all times. There definitely was, as stated above, a focus on feminism that permeated the entire campus.

The dorms at my co-ed school were, well, co-ed. I never heard of any co-eds sharing a suite, but the suite next door could be a suite of boys. At my women's college, you were allowed to have male guests, but you had to accompany them at all times (a girl yelled at my boyfriend who left my room to go outside to smoke while I was at class), and had to leave notes in the bathrooms that a boy was present for however long a duration. Also, the co-ed dorms had no quiet hours, and you could typically hear music all hours of the night. At my women's college, quiet hours were pretty strictly enforced, and I had the girl in the room below me come up to tell me that my walking around in my room was too loud, could I keep it down, she needed to study.

One thing I remember that always made me giggle was that during my several years at my women's college, whenever I went out to Target or the grocery store, and saw guys my age, it was always a sort of shock to me, like, "Oh, that's right! Guys exist!" They began to seem a little alien to me, after spending so much time without their presence. And when I briefly considered going to grad school, the thought of attending co-ed classes again saddened me a bit. I thoroughly enjoyed my women's college experience.
posted by dearwassily at 9:52 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to a Catholic women's college, which is yet another flavor of the experience. In looking at schools (targeting women's colleges), I decided I was likely not to be happy with the southern college that definitely had more of a finishing school feel to it, or the more elite NE schools. So situating your school is going to be important.

I went to co-ed college and grad school (but in a graduate program dominated by women). Even in high school, I was the kind of student who needed to check myself to make sure I wasn't dominating the discussion, but in college, I have to say it genuinely felt like a discussion, rather than a competition between me and the more assertive boys. I felt much more like I was contributing to class rather than trying to prove myself in it.

For the school, tradition, fostering a sense of community, and instilling a sense of pride in us as women's college students were all important. There were several key annual events that we were strongly encouraged to participate in, and a fair number of group outings throughout the school year. The school had coed programs on the weekends and in the evenings, and an exchange program of sorts that allowed us to take classes at other schools, and for outside students to come to ours, but for the most part, during the day on weekdays, classes were all women and it was emphasized to us that this was a priority for the school. There was a lot of talk about the value of a women's college education.

The body of "traditional" students (late teens - early 20s) was only a small part of the total school enrollment, and the group of those students who lived on campus was smaller still. I probably knew everybody on campus by sight, and most of them by name. And in the case of my school, anyway, the sense of community extended to housekeeping, maintenance, security and food service staff - there were noticeably more and friendlier interactions between them and students on my campus than on others in the area. There was a bit of a sense of "us against the world" (in the mid-to-late '90s) as other women's colleges were going or had already gone coed. My experience was that the smallness of the campus tended to lead to more civility, since there was nowhere to hide, but I know it felt false or restrictive to others.

Socially, it was a bit all over the map. For the most part, we went off-campus to party, and generally until we had a critical mass of 21-year-olds, that meant going to one of the other coed schools, of which there were many flavors. So groups that interacted comfortably on campus might not socialize much off-campus. We were a fairly diverse student body, but there were definitely social and interest groups that did not reflect that. I wouldn't say that there was overt racial tension on campus (though , but it wasn't some kind of snuggly paradise where all other issues were overcome by the fact that we were all women.

For practical reasons, participation in theatrical productions were opened up to the wider community, although plays heavy on women's characters were the most popular, obviously. Our concert choir was fantastic. Our sports teams were not a huge feature of my experience, but we definitely heard about it when they had a good season. Community service was highly valued. There was definitely a sense of "you are here to gain skills to make a contribution to your community."
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:59 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a dude, so obviously I didn't actually attend a women's college; however, my SO and my best friend throughout my undergrad both attended a certain women's college in Manhattan and I spent a lot of time there and I think I got a good feel for the place.

I should start out by saying that I was so, so jealous of them. They seemed so much happy and so much more comfortable at their small women's liberal arts college than I was at my big fancypants university.

While there was intense competition among them, to be sure, there was a great sense of comradery. It sounds cheesy, but there was a genuine pride that extended beyond your normal rah rah football team kind of thing. I mean, there was a statue of Artemis in their front lawn. There was a natural sense of community and common ground that exists when you have a bunch of people that share this one significant thing, which is much different than a bunch of people who only have in common that they did ok on the SAT or whatever.

There were lots and lots of lesbians, or least maybe lesbians, or at least 'lesbian when I'm drunk on Thursday night'. It's perhaps a stereotype, but it was the case. Sure, everyone experiments in college; but even the straightest of women I knew there had sex with other women at the school. It was almost sort of an...expectation? Rite of passage?

It was uber-feminist, sometimes to a fault. My friends and SO who went there would always say, without sarcasm oh Barnard loves women.

Practical things, hmmm. There were not coed bathrooms, natch, in many of the dorms. It was totally cool to have a dude over, but going with the ladies was par for the course. Their food was infinitely better than ours, but their buildings, facilities, etc., were far inferior (thought the Barnard/Columbia funding structure is fucked up, so ymmv). Lots of your bra burning sorts. My best friend, incidentally, didn't have arm pit hair - but that's because she burned it off with a lighter while we smoked weed and listened to Steve Reich.

It seemed really awesome; the academics and everything were just as rigorous, but the community was much tighter, professors much more accessible, the student body much more supportive of one another.
posted by Lutoslawski at 6:27 PM on September 16, 2011

Four years of all-girls' high school + four years of all-women's college = excellent experience. The subject is vast, so I'd be happy to answer specific questions if you want to MeMail me.

For background, you might enjoy reading Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others and Hilary Mantel's An Experiment in Love.
posted by Paris Elk at 1:26 AM on September 17, 2011

I attended Hillary's college in the leafy Northeast that absolutely pampered us. It was intellectually challenging (aside from the easy A classes like botany) but also like summer camp. Each student was entitled a whole lobster each fall. They held midnight breakfasts for us during final exams - yeah pancakes, waffles, sausages, eggs in the dorm cafeterias. The food generally was outstanding and 80% of the reason I decided to attend. Classes were small - the biggest would hold 30-40 students. The professors were amazing and dedicated to their craft. Women's issues came up very frequently. For example, in a class on the Chinese cultural revolution, almost every student proposed a final exam essay topic relating to women in the revolution. The professor (who was visiting from a co-ed institution) was visibly...annoyed? There were plenty of opportunities to party with guys, if you were mature enough for that. The males on campus - custodial workers, maintenance guys, campus police, and even professors, were clearly there to help us and were always respectful. It was ... delightful. When everyone started using Napster to download illegal songs, our school expanded our bandwidth. I think the reason was that we had the largest endowment for a small liberal arts women's college per student. Culturally and politically, it was certainly left leaning. Although I think you were more likely to feel like the odd woman out if you wanted to be a housewife rather than the Republican first female president of the United States. The can-do attitude on campus was very real and the women-can-do attitude was even more tangible. I want my daughter to attend.
posted by KimikoPi at 9:48 PM on September 17, 2011

I graduated from a women's college. I felt comfortable going there because I had spent 1st-7th grade at an all-girls school, and I was ridiculously awkward around guys anyway.

My school was very different from the stereotypes many may have about women's colleges. We had an overwhelmingly heterosexual population, and the school was very conservative. There were Gender Studies classes, and a minor offered, but otherwise, sex politics didn't make their way into the classroom. My alma mater had a humongous and fairly successful greek system for its size.

The school used "there aren't any guys in your classes, so you can come to class in your PJs!" as a marketing campaign. They gave away pajama pants at their recruitment weekends. Lots of my classmates really did roll out of bed and come to class in their pajamas, their hair a mess, no makeup to be seen. Most of us came to class dressed casually, with some girls dressing up for class (most of the girls who seriously dressed up came from the one sorority that was definitely the "Rich Southern Girls" bunch).

The few classes I did have with a stray guy in the mix (always there under very special circumstances, and pre-approved by the Dean of Students) did feel very strange in contrast to my other classes--even with that one guy around, the room was noticeably different, cooler, and my classmates and I were more conscious of how we carried on our discussions.

The campus was a graveyard on weekends, since most of my classmates either went home, or went to nearby state schools for frat parties/to visit their boyfriends.

I did feel like the school was struggling for attendance, and I think they lowered their standards of admission quite a bit to get the numbers they needed to stay afloat. Women's colleges are in deep trouble these days. We had fantastic professors, but I didn't always (or often) feel challenged by my classmates. I still value my education there for the brilliant professors, and their easy accessibility.

Feel free to memail me if you want to know more!
posted by litnerd at 3:43 PM on September 19, 2011

Wellesley grad here. I don't have more to add, especially since I don't have a comparison to co-ed schools. But here are several traditions links if you need activities "color". You'll see some themes in these like celebrating the first nice day of spring. No football traditions, a linchpin for many colleges is one obvious difference from coed schools.
Mt Holyoke
Bryn Mawr
posted by girlhacker at 8:25 AM on September 20, 2011

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