What is it Like To Go To a Women's College?

The following piece was written by Cassie Kosarek. Cassie is a Philadelphia tutor for Varsity Tutors and 2012 graduate of Bryn Mawr College.

When the inevitable question came up during my undergraduate years – “So where do you go?” – my answer was often met with disbelief followed by looks suggesting I was crazy. “Bryn Mawr, one of the Seven Sisters. It’s a small women’s college outside of Philadelphia.” Why, whoever I was talking to wanted to know, would I ever choose an “all-girls’ school?” Did my parents push me into it? Did I know when I was applying? I’d quickly correct – “women’s college, not all-girls’ school” – and state that my decision to go to Bryn Mawr was entirely my choice.

Bryn Mawr, like many other women’s colleges in the United States, was founded at a time when the idea that women are worth educating was novel. The original Seven Sisters – Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Barnard, Radcliffe, Vassar, and Bryn Mawr – were formed as sister schools to the Ivy League universities and boasted the strict admissions criteria and academic rigor of their all-male counterparts. The colleges sent a powerful message that women not only have the same intellectual capacity as men, but that, by having the same caliber of education as men, they were also fit to serve in traditionally masculine spheres, such as law, medicine, and business.

The conversation surrounding women’s colleges today often circles around the relevance of such institutions in the post-suffrage, post-women’s rights era. If women are equal by law, then what does a single-sex education say about that legal equality? What is the use of instilling a feminist bent if we’ve already come so far? Why be exclusionary of men? To answer these questions, I look no further than our immediate socioeconomic climate. According to psychologist Derald Wing Sue, the U.S. is a country where, despite the fact that there are slightly more women in higher education than men, white men still occupy “80% of tenured positions in higher education; 80% of the House of Representatives; 80-85% of the U.S. Senate; 92% of Forbes 400 executive CEO-level positions; 90% of public school superintendents; [and] 99.9% of athletic team owners.” Couple these statistics with Elizabeth Tidball’s 1980 publication that found that graduates of women’s colleges were twice as likely as their peers to be recognized for career accomplishments (and these results have been replicated time and again), and you can find an easy argument for the continued relevance of women’s colleges.

But what is it like actually attending a women’s college? Like President of Barnard College, Debora Spar, stated in a March 2012 interview with the New York Times, I found that being in a women’s college allowed me to find my own academic and professional voice in a context in which the social history of my gender didn’t preclude me of any opportunity. At Bryn Mawr, I basked in the shadow of notable alumnae like Candace Pert, the neuroscientist who discovered the opiate receptor in the brain; Drew Faust, the first female president of Harvard; and modernist poet Marianne Moore. I watched the statistic that women’s colleges graduate more women in the hard sciences and math than coed institutions come to life. I agreed with alumna Alice Baker, who wrote that it never occurred to her to not do something because of her gender, and worked alongside other undergraduates who, during their time at Bryn Mawr, would start charities, publish academic research papers, double major in Math and Spanish, and gain admission to MBA, MD, JD, PhD, and various Master’s programs.

I’ve heard a number of college applicants say that though they like the academic and professional statistics coming out of women’s colleges, they don’t think they could handle the social environment. I agree that an all-women’s environment is not for everyone and that the “college experience” provided for by these institutions will undoubtedly be much different than what you will find at a large, coed university. But I’ll also point out that many women’s colleges exist in an academic consortium with coed schools (Bryn Mawr is in the Quaker Consortium with the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, and Swarthmore College), and that, from what I’ve experienced, leaves no lack of normal social life among the students. Is it harder to meet men? Yes and no. Unlike coed schools, you don’t live alongside men, so meeting a guy who lives on your floor isn’t going to happen. But as far as meeting men in classes (both on and off your campus, if you’re in a consortium), at parties, and through student clubs and activities, a little effort to introduce yourself will go a long way.

I never found the social environment at my women’s college to be stunted in any way. Instead, I happily found myself surrounded by other motivated women who were unwilling to compromise their goals because of detrimental social stereotypes or expectations. I’ve found graduates of women’s colleges to be part of a unique, empowered club dedicated to social change and equality, forever striving to improve upon the academic, professional, and social advancements of past graduates. I credit the attitude instilled by my women’s college, which champions ability over self-doubt, with my postgraduate willingness to take risks, to point out injustices, and to view the world through a thoughtful, critical lens. Attending Bryn Mawr was my choice, and being a women’s college alumna is a privilege.

Check out Cassie’s review of Bryn Mawr.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.