News Archive

Are Women's Colleges Passť?

Opinion from President Kathleen G. Bowman

6/18/2004 5:14:05 PM

 

Kathleen G. Bowman

The following is an editorial by Kathleen Gill Bowman, president of Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and vice chair of the board of the Council of Independent Colleges in Washington, D.C.

Once upon a time higher education in the United States included more than 300 colleges for women, borne of the fact that all of the other colleges and universities were reserved exclusively for men. Well into the twentieth century, it was considered a waste of money to educate women; some even speculated that their reproductive organs would atrophy in direct proportion to the development of their intellects.

These colleges for women have produced intellectually able and productive individuals who have gone on to make great contributions to society and the wider world. They have included such prominent women as Margaret Mead, Madeleine Albright, Rachel Carson, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Pearl Buck, Anna Quindlen, Paula Zahn, Candy Crowley, Linda Wertheimer, Diane Sawyer, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Twyla Tharp, and Marian Wright Edelman. Women's colleges made it clear from the start that women were just as capable as men in every field of study---including the traditionally male-dominated fields of physics and mathematics. Women's colleges proved that when given an environment in which female voices, ideas, and opinions were valued and in which their abilities and successes were assumed, rather than discounted, women would become confident and articulate leaders of our society. They also imbued them with the belief that their contributions to the larger community were not only their right, but their obligation.

Then along came co-education---when men's colleges were forced, by law, politics, or economic necessity to open their doors to women. (Interestingly, even those men's colleges that did so reluctantly now admit that the academic quality of their student bodies rose dramatically after the admission of women.)

Given new opportunities to attend colleges previously closed to them, many women rushed to choose co-educational institutions over women's colleges. They assumed that co-education was equal education and that their mere presence ensured that they would have the same opportunities to develop their talents. The bad old days seemed over. Women's colleges began to be viewed by some as anachronistic---who needs them anymore? Some women's colleges suffered enrollment declines so dramatic that they had to close.

Then an interesting thing happened. Studies began to emerge that showed that women's experience in a co-ed classroom is quite different from that of men. Men's voices dominate the discussions; instructors call on men more frequently than they call on women; and women's self-esteem actually declined over the course of their time at co-ed institutions. A study conducted at Duke University last year gives us additional insight into the problems of co-educational settings. More than half of the Duke female undergraduates surveyed (surely some of the most academically talented students in the country) felt that they had to "play dumb" in social settings to be more attractive to men and that fraternities controlled the mainstream social scene to such an extent that women feel like they have to play by men's rules.

Co-education does not ensure equality of education. That's why increasing numbers of public and private elementary and secondary schools are providing single-gender classrooms for the teaching of many subjects, especially math and science. That's why women's college graduates continue to be overrepresented among women occupying our nation's leadership positions---on corporate boards, in Congress, and in the ranks of those earning Ph.D.s.

Women's colleges continue to play a vital role in producing bright, capable, articulate leaders for a society and world that desperately needs them. Parents, students, and public policy makers shou



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