Thoughts on Feminist Education in the 21st Century

This post is in reply to Tenured Radical’s three part series on women’s education.  Part I is an argument in favor of single-sex colleges for women.  TR writes:

“One of the ironies of the educational achievements made by graduates of women’s schools, both private and public, was their demise. In the 1970s, feminists made access to formerly male bastions part of their policy agenda. As women like me entered the Ivies, public and Catholic universities, women’s colleges struggled to recruit, and many closed their doors, became coeducational, or were absorbed by male schools as part of a coeducation project.

Arguably, however, something was lost: a set of institutions that nurtured a feminist vision. So tomorrow, let’s talk about why there is still an argument for creating and supporting spaces for women’s education.”

I was the first to reply to this post, with the following observation about economic issues affecting women’s education:

“This is a good argument but most women can’t afford to attend a private women’s college (and many can’t even afford a state university like mine). I wanted to go to Smith very badly but couldn’t afford it. So, I went to the state university (Vermont). I had great feminist mentors there (some of them men) and at the coeducational graduate school I attended.”

An anonymous commenter immediately tossed out the term “class privilege,” which led to a back and forth and the following comments by  Historiann:

“Where are these arguments against “class privilege” when it comes to the other elite schools? Once again, women have to apologize for having even a dozen campuses any more that are just for women. Women’s colleges are apparently the only colleges that cost more than $30,000 a year. We only ask the women’s colleges to apologize for their privilege, beat there breasts and wail because not everyone can afford to attend a women’s college.

Bull$hit.

It’s comments like these that illustrate the continuing need for women’s colleges. If they were truly irrelevant, they wouldn’t seem so ominously threatening to so many people. Sounds like it’s time to up my contribution to the Annual Fund at Bryn Mawr.”

As I said in my follow-ups, “My point was to use my experience to illustrate that there are economic factors that need to be considered. I didn’t mention private coeducational colleges because that wasn’t one of the options I was considering at the time. . . My other point is, why should women’s colleges be the only place where women are introduced to feminism and leadership roles? Shouldn’t that be a mission of all colleges and universities?”

A commenter named Anna made a similar argument at Historiann’s blog:

“Can’t we try to make coed schools more feminist, instead of assuming that of course they can never encourage girls as much as all-girls schools?”

Further comments at both TR and Historiann seem to imply that coeducational institutions have not evolved since they were integrated in the 1960s and 1970s.  Perpetua, for example, writes at Historiann:

“Integration – of women into men’s colleges and African-Americans into white schools – was a good thing, but it did come with a bit of a price (ie the loss of strong mentorship by people from one’s own gender/race).”

Huh?  What about all the women who have become faculty over the past three decades?  In my department, women now make up half of the full-time faculty.   The percentage of women is even higher in other departments.  Are we less suitable as mentors because we work in a coeducational institution?  I think not!

In short, while I agree with TR that “Gender equality is a project, and it is, as Mary Maples Dunn said to me, an unfinished one,” it’s rather insulting to hear that the only places that this can be accomplished is at  all female SLAC that have far more resources than does my lowly state university (as usual, my trip down to Wesleyan left me green with envy at the lovely facilities with new furniture and equipment that actually works).  How about giving those of us in the trenches some credit?!

Added later:  Ms. Magazine blog has some interesting comments on the perils of single-sex education.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Feminist Education in the 21st Century

  1. I teach at a branch campus of a coed public institution. Many of our students come to us after completing community college; many of them work part time or even full time. Our facilities are horrible, our salaries frozen, and yet, with a vibrant women’s studies program and a campus full of terrific feminists, we are proud of what we do. When I read that blog from Tenured Radical I felt personally disrespected. Fifty percent of all college students attend community colleges; we should be having a discussion about feminism in that arena.

  2. KC – Thanks for writing this, as it pretty much covers what I think about the conversation as it’s developed, and now as it continues over at H’ann’s.

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