Sisters By Any Other Name

I grew up always thinking that I wanted to follow in my mom’s footsteps and attend Mount Holyoke College, one of the first women’s colleges to be established in the nation. However, after attending an all girls’ school for high school, I wanted to switch it up for my college career. 

As much as I love going to Duke, sometimes I wish we could return to the olden days on campus. I think: What would it be like to go back to Durham in the 60s? To live and learn with all of the other women at Duke on our safe haven of East Campus? I hardly ever express this sentiment out loud, because when I’ve said it in the past, people tend to think I’m crazy. I’ll admit that I have a slight obsession with old pictures from women’s colleges: young women walking to class together with their perfectly hot-roller-curled hair, wool skirts, and sweater sets. If you’ve ever seen Julia Roberts’s Mona Lisa Smile then you know exactly what I’m talking about; and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

However, as crazy as people may think I am, the idea of gender segregated colleges is not all that old. Did you know that Duke didn’t become co-ed until 1972? (1972! Less than 50 years ago!). Even more interesting, Columbia College at Columbia University didn’t admit women until 1981 but it maintained its all women’s institution, Barnard, which now runs as its own college within the Columbia University system.

Here’s an interesting question to consider: was integrating women into men’s colleges actually better for women?

While I don’t have an answer for this question, the data certainly makes a compelling argument for the value of single-sex education. Women who attended women’s colleges are disproportionately represented in areas of leadership. Despite the fact that only 2% of women attend women’s colleges, 20% of women in Congress are graduates of women’s colleges along with 30% of women on a recent Businessweek list of women rising in corporate America. Women like Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, and even my mom were educated in an environment completely surrounded by driven and ambitious women. 

You may be thinking, Well, that’s all well and good. But women’s colleges aren’t representative of the real world, right?. To which I say, think about it like this: graduates of women’s colleges and all girls’ schools were forced to question traditional gender roles and assume positions of leadership in the classroom, and therefore were unhindered (or at least less hindered than their co-ed peers) by these gender stereotypes in the real world. I definitely had this experience, and I think most graduates of women’s schools would agree. There’s something incredibly uniting about graduating in a white dress.

However, I also recognize that single gender education is a highly privileged experience. Single gender classrooms in public schools are rare, leaving little to no options in this arena for most young women. That’s one reason why I find the work at the Lower Eastside Girls Club (LEGC) of NY so incredibly important and why I was inspired to work there. Girls are able to learn for free in a women-empowered environment by positive female role models. LEGC addresses critical leadership and business skills for girls who likely aren’t learning about leadership in their co-ed schools. I promise this isn’t just an ad for LEGC; but LEGC is an organization that focuses on the benefits of girls education, an issue that is clearly close to my heart.

I don’t think that Duke will be splitting into single-sex colleges anytime soon – to be honest, it just doesn’t match the culture of the school on the whole. However, co-ed schools can garner an abundance of knowledge from all women’s institutions to create safer and more equal learning environments for all women on campus. What are some ways we can create all women’s settings on campus and how can we make them available to every woman that wants to participate? Maybe most importantly, how can we show those in charge that these issues are important, if not critical, for the advancement of college-educated women?

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