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Why your girl should go to a women’s college

Making a case for women’s colleges as an option for young women
Shoba Narayan
gargi-kYuB--621x414@LiveMint

George Bernard Shaw knew what he was talking about. “Youth is wasted on the young.” Our college years exert a long shadow, recognized only in adulthood. I studied at the Women’s Christian College (WCC), Chennai, and Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, US. Both of them changed my life and made me who I am today.

I went to Mount Holyoke in the late 1980s as a raw, giddy 20-year-old, eager to escape the stultifying embrace of a large Indian family. The college took me in, and did everything that a great educational institution ought to. It opened my mind, and palate; challenged my beliefs; encouraged me to try new things; and allowed me to lick my wounds in private. I went from not knowing anything about the women’s movement to defining myself as a feminist. I switched majors from psychology to sculpture and went to graduate school for a master’s in fine arts (MFA). The fact that I didn’t graduate with an MFA degree is another story, and something that I look back on with pride.

If you are a reader of this newspaper, it is that time of year when your daughter, niece, godchild, or family friend is thinking about college—perhaps here or abroad. I would like to make a case for women’s colleges as an option for young women. Going to a single-sex educational institution is not for everyone—men, for instance, cannot. But it will change an 18-year-old girl’s life for the better. It certainly did so for me.

What studying at a women’s college does is remove that entire male-female dynamic that shapes how girls behave in classrooms; the one that forces young impressionable girls to act and appear less smart than they actually are, lest they be viewed as undesirable nerds by the male objects of their desire.

Times have changed, you will say. Today’s girls are confident and don’t seek male approval. And what kind of a stupid paradigm is that anyway—where a young woman measures her worth by how popular she is with the men? In return, let me ask you to remember your high school and college years, when appearing attractive to the opposite sex occupied a significant amount of mind-space.

In the classroom, being around men robs young women of their natural drive and ambition; and renders them pliant and non-assertive. This is not the case when you are amid a group of women classmates. The playing field is levelled and you can be as in-your-face and aggressive as a start-up. You don’t have to play nice; to “be cool”. Read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn to find out how a cool girl can go wrong.

During my classes, I didn’t miss men; not one single time. I missed having men around during happy hours and ice-cream socials; but not in the classroom. Freed from the distraction of good-looking males and how I could make an impression on them, I was able to focus on my studies. It was liberating.

In the US, Mount Holyoke is part of the “seven sisters”, or the “female Ivy-ies”, as they are sometimes called. The others are Smith, Vassar (now a co-ed institution), Bryn Mawr, Wellesley (hotelier Priya Paul is a trustee and an alumnus), Barnard, and Radcliffe (now merged with Harvard). They are a loose association of traditionally women’s colleges that offer a liberal arts education in picturesque surroundings.

In India, we have tons of women’s colleges. Besides my own WCC, there is Lady Shri Ram in New Delhi, Sophia in Mumbai; Loreto in Kolkata; Ethiraj in Chennai, to name just a few. Those of us who went to women’s colleges know their benefits. Our colleges made us confident. They allowed us to enjoy the company of men without being threatened by them.

Good educational institutions are exquisitely attuned to the needs of their students. They know when to prod and when to pull back. Professors, particularly student advisers, listen to what their students are saying—and equally important, not saying. They pay attention to non-verbal cues. They keep office hours and have freewheeling, off-the-cuff conversations in the corridor. Good colleges guide in the old-fashioned sense of the word, where the teacher or guru not only passes down knowledge and skills, but an entire way of being. Through role play and encouragement, faculty and staff teach young women to be assertive, to speak up; to stop second-guessing their thoughts and opinions.

My view—from personal experience and from watching other adolescent girls—is that women have many voices in their heads that tell them how to behave. They have a mortal fear of being judged. They hate confrontation. A good teacher can drown these voices. A good college can alleviate the desire for approval that women have; the self-correction that they engage in all the time. In ancient India, the guru pretty much took charge of the student, not just in the intellectual sense but also in the holistic sense. They taught their students a new way of looking at the world; of processing choices. This happens at every great educational institution, but women’s colleges are particularly attuned to that specific demographic that they cater to: young women.

It is for this reason that you should urge your daughter or niece (assuming that she is inclined) to consider a women’s college.

Shoba Narayan self-corrects (and star-gazes) all the time. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

12 comments

  1. Shoba you are claiming that college “changed your life for the better”, but how do your life choices reflect that? You have not followed your passion (art/sculpture, later writing) and have chosen a traditional housewife career path; I am not sure how this article is the basis for advice to young girls. Did your daughter go to an all-women’s college?

    “Being around men robs young women of their natural drive” — sorry but the whole point of college is to get young men AND women familiar with the opposite gender and a different viewpoint of thinking etc etc. “Gone girl” is by far the exception not the rule.

    Professors, guidance, coaching, office hours — are all available in good institutions including the Ivy League schools. This is not the exclusive prerogative of all women’s colleges.

    College should serve as an introduction to a body of learning as well as a preview of what might come in the world outside of college, in all professions.

    I might say that young women should perhaps consult a woman in whatever field they want to pursue, and find a college with good female faculty so as to maximize the chance of a good female role model etc. Young women should aspire to get the best education and aim for the institution that provides them the opportunity to push and grow themselves to the max. If the young girl student has in interest in, say music, then the aim should be Juilliard, not “a women’s college with the best music program”. No?

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    1. Kaushik. You make good points. Without getting personal (to your point about sculptor becoming housewife, I might add a list of people I know, both male and female who have switched from being doctors to real estate agents; from bankers to entrepreneurs, etc.). Switching professions is not a bad thing and that is not the point of my essay.

      But you are missing the whole arena of classroom dynamics. Look up Myra Sadker’s research.

      Of course, colleges should guide and mentor. Those are first principles. But haven’t you read spirited defenses of arts education? Or the humanities, which are under siege? That doesn’t mean that the sciences or engineering or professional education is bad. My essay is along those lines. To shine a flashlight; to say, ‘think about it’ not ‘do it’. Converting young people to women’s colleges– that’s a long way away, and I don’t presume that this essay will do that.

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    2. Shoba, without getting personal (I do, humbly, mean that), its one thing to change from banker to entrepreneur, but that is not the same as studying journalism and then becoming a housewife. (OK, arguable point if “housewife” counts as a career.) Anyway this topic is dealt with at length in other posts so no point repeating that again here.

      Sadker’s research and the whole lot of gender bias research is precisely the point. You want women to socialize and coexist and compete with men early in life so as to better understand the gender dynamics and be able to cope outside of college. Looking inward in a women only college (yes, ok, I get it, not “just women only” etc etc) is hardly the answer. You want the gender dynamic played out more coz it’s the only way to remove the causes of gender bias.

      There are spirited defenses of arts / humanities as well as the shocking lack of STEM. But your article is not about arts over STEM anyway.

      Steering women to womens collges makes sense only if women want to focus on womens studies, not if one wants to address gender bias and associated problems. There is not much of gray area there. (Remember Vassar became co-ed not just to address the GI bill, but because the founders genuinely rethought the charter to reissue degrees to men.)

      Of course the rest of the college experience – good professors, guides, etc. etc. – is available in many good colleges in USA as well as elsewhere.

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      1. But I am not a housewife, Kaushik.
        Not that there is anything wrong with that.
        I am a writer and a columnist.
        Why else would you be at this site?

        I completely disagree with your second paragraph. And I know I am in a minority, ergo Vassar.
        The problem with this site is that it doesn’t allow for nuance. I’ve had a raging argument about this article with a male friend from my childhood, who feels like you do. The thing is that speaking about this for an hour allows for each party to at least half-convince the other– interruptions, yelling, name calling and all. This site cannot duplicate that, sadly. So for now, I am going to drop this okay?

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      2. Kaushik has a valid point. Gender problem, really any problem (and I have been arbitrating Islam related problems, for example, for a long long time) is resolved only by bringing the parties together in a moderated/facilitated debate.

        Shoba it need not come to yelling or name calling or interruptions. You are a writer and columnist. What are your top 2 arguments for women’s colleges? Given that many women’s colleges themselves are beginning to rethink their “women only” charter — once again driven by a lot of emerging social research that lets people come to grips with the basic issues?

        Ironically, Shoba, if you walk away with “it might result in yelling and namecalling” or “you guys don’t understand nuance” then that doesn’t help your reputation as a writer or columnist either — one would hope that a skilled and mature writer is able to make a point directly and succinctly and vigorously. The folks on this board may be opinionated but in general they like you and that’s why they still come. They have called you out on stuff, but, have not (AFAIK) called you names etc. If anything they have helped sharpen the points in some of your articles which, any writer or columnist would agree, is not a bad thing. You need not fear them, there are those of us who still support you and will keep the hounds at bay if they get out of control.

        Go forth Shoba, and write back!!

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        1. Hi Rawal
          As someone who grew up with boys I don’t fear name calling or yelling or interruptions (which I guess makes your point about bringing the sexes together :)).
          To me, that type of robust argument is good and what I am used to.
          I also agree that the people here call me out on inconsistencies which is a good thing.
          Ok, two reasons why I believe women’s colleges are still relevant.

          1. Classroom dynamics: Studies show that students sitting in front get called upon more; and boys get called upon more often than girls. When a boy answers a question, the teacher gives him feedback that is both focused and specific. In Myra Sadker’s research (I brought her up earlier), she noted four types of teacher responses when students answered a question: praise, encouragement, criticism, and acknowledgment. Boys received praise and encouragement in which they were asked to expand on an answer that wasn’t completely correct. Girls, on the other hand, received acknowledgment: a nod; a simple comment like “that’s correct.”

          2. Inferences from this paper. http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/html/icb.topic58474/krupnick.html
          In contrast, women at Smith and Wellesley, both single-sex institutions, were more assertive than the women in Yale and Brown but also the men at Yale and Brown. They spoke, in other words, like men. They had been socialized at their women’s colleges into speaking up in the classroom and they did so without thinking.

          Look, I know I am in the minority here. As you said, Vasser, and now a UK institution(forget the name) are all changing to mixed colleges To attract more students. So maybe the age of women’s colleges is waning. Maybe the thing to hope for is to take its lessons (gender sensitivity training for teachers, particularly in the STEM fields)to mixed gender environments. There….

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        2. Shoba,

          Your two arguments are basically that boys get called upon more (and encouraged more) and that women were more assertive in women-only environments are describing the status quo i.e. co-ed college classes are tougher, more of a challenge, than women-only classes.

          But that’s precisely my and Rawal’s point – you want more of this challenge early because that’s what a young woman is likely to face in the real world later. A woman exposed only to women-only environments is less prepared to face the real world than a woman who has fought through co-ed classes and figured out the dynamics etc.

          Further, it takes more women in co-ed classes to point out the dynamic and thus change it for their sisters to come. You want more women fighting for the just cause. Isn’t that all the more reason for women to seek out more challenging environments?

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          1. Stage of life, Kaushik. Stage of life is crucial. You think a teenage girl is going to call out a professor who treats the sexes differently. She probably won’t even realize it and she will self-flagellate/attribute it to her. Hey, I love mixed gender environments. All I am saying is about confidence/vulnerability having to do with stage of life.

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          2. Shoba that is precisely my point. Not all teenage girls will self-flagellate. In any case it is crucial to get rid of these negatives (self-deprecation, self-flagellation, low self esteem) early in life – that is one reason IIT ragging, for the most part, makes men out of boys (yes, teenage boys). Once you encounter the challenge early you deal with it better and come out stronger because of it.

            OK you may say “men/boys deal with it differently”, but the whole point is to get women to face it and deal with it early in life – less of a problem later on. The same goes for many other fears – water, heights, animals – and indeed those who swim/ride/run/climb early in life (boys and girls) don’t fear this sort of thing later. (Jung and water, for instance, is a very early psychological basis for this.)

            I also suppose one’s own personal journey plays a role in all this, too. There are those who grew up in a big city and dealt with this sort of thing early in life, and are more willing to take on challenges and push the limits; and there are those coming from a more traditional family set, may have explored a bit here and there (even abroad), but ultimately went back to the family set and sort of remained there since.

            In any case the modern generation of girls – with iPhones and Twitter and Youtube and whatever else – are not the docile and meek girls of the sixties or seventies, I suppose.

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          3. Kaushik your point, if it is taken by itself, seems perfectly logical and valid. But let me say 2 things. IIT has ragging but it also has a lot of positive role models (e.g. your seniors) where you can use the support to get through it, as my hubby says. But as was discussed in some previous posts – there are still not enough women role models in colleges etc to provide that sort of support for women. To put a young woman in a difficult and competitive environment is maybe similar to getting a woman IIT student ragged by IIT male seniors – would you want your sister to go through this (assume you are nowhere nearby) ??

            Secondly I am all for getting challenging experiences early in life, but if that is done without support (imagine again your sister at IIT) then it may have the reverse effect. So, all this is contextual.

            In any case I don’t think going to an all women’s college is the solution for all the obvious reasons.

            But Shoba my question to you is — you wax so eloquent about all women’s colleges and about how teenagers feel. But did your own daughter feel this way? Did she go to an all women’s college or (perhaps like your hubby) end up at a coed technical school aiming for STEM or opt for social work like you once wrote about?

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            1. But Vaidehi, I begin by saying if your daughter is so inclined…let her choose a women’s college.
              College education is a choice, not something that ought to be drilled into by parents.
              Hopefully, if a parent has done the job right, the kid will have some inkling of a choice.

              I have two girls: one oriented towards STEM and one towards liberal arts. They are young enough that these choices can morph over time.

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