Do We Still Need Women's Colleges? Yes and No.

Scripps College Science Lab

Women’s colleges were born out of institutionalized sexism. So, do we still need them?

In mid-December the Huffington Post published a guest editorial by Elizabeth Pfeiffer titled, “Don’t Like the Gender Gap? Women’s Colleges Might Just Be the Answer.“ In her post, Pfeiffer defends the all-female Scripps College. She argues that a school should be defined by “the richness of the community…and the possibilities this kind of environment offers.”

I agree: Schools should be defined by the richness of their community. But that goes beyond a gender binary. How about those whose identity does not fit within this heteronormative binary of man or woman? 

Pfeiffer asks,  “Why is Scripps, or any women’s college, still relevant?” Pfeiffer believes one reason is because of the leadership roles she was able to take on, as well as the idea that women’s colleges instill a sense of leadership. She cites the fact that women’s college graduates make up “more than 20 percent of women in Congress and 30 percent of a Businessweek list of rising women in corporate America.”

The woman’s college is in some cases a moot point, in many institutions across the country, women attend colleges in numbers at par with men. But if some women need this environment to find their power, I am all for it.

Pfeiffer’s article received a response from Shannon Miller, a current student  Claremont McKenna College (CMC). Claremont was a male-only college until 1976 and is part of the five-college Claremont consortium with Scripps. The response, “Don’t Like the Gender Gap? Don’t Encourage It” asks, “What makes Scripps—or any other women’s college—any better than CMC, based solely on the gender composition?”

Miller argues that Claremont better equipped her to tackle the gender gap than most women’s colleges, particularly because of the co-ed environment. She also says that in her own search she wanted a “challenge” in her college experience, she “wanted to enter a school that would push me to be stronger and bolder, not indulge my weaknesses by protecting me from ‘injustice’ in an inaccurately idyllic setting.”

It’s worth noting that by almost any standard, both Claremont and Scripps are both idyllic settings. I attended Claremont consortium school Pitzer College and can say that there is an enormous percentage of the global population who do not have access and could not afford to be on any of private liberal arts college campus. 

But the debate over women-only colleges is about more than the sex break-down of institutions. What we need are not colleges and institutions that define themselves by one means of oppression (sex), but colleges and universities that have a greater understanding of how some dynamics of academia can create institutionalized oppression. 

Instead of focusing on whether or not we need women’s colleges, let’s expand the debate to ask what kind of institutions we need, and how we can make visionary institutions a reality. In my humble opinion, we need innovative environments that go beyond sex, race, class and citizenship. For a step in the right direction, check out the Consortium for Innovative Environments in Learning CIEL. We need a culture shift in academia that’s both local and global. 

Lakshmi Sarah
by Lakshmi Sarah
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Born and raised in California, Lakshmi Sarah is an educator and journalist with a focus on South Asia, gender, race and the arts. Over the past few years, she has worked with newspapers, radio and magazines from Gaborone, Botswana to Los Angeles. She has written and produced for various audiences, including PolicyMic, Global Voices, Al Jazeera Online, AJ+ and KQED Arts. She is currently a graduate student at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism focusing on multimedia.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Yes to women's colleges. No to trans-exclusionary admissions.

The best decision I ever made in my whole life was attending a women's college: Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. It absolutely transformed me. In high school, I was insecure, self-loathing, lethargic, practically friendless and underperforming C-student. Basically, I was miserable. By the end of my first semester, I was, no exaggeration, a completely different person: confident, happy, plenty of friends, straight-As, ready to use my talents to take over the world. Those changes stuck, and eight years and thousands of dollars of student debt later I am still so, so happy that I went to Hollins. A woman-focused environment was the exact place I needed to blossom and learn the confidence I needed to combat sexist environments.

It just sucks that Hollins doesn't actually allow all women to attend.

Most women's colleges have a strict cis-women-only policy. It's transphobic bullshit, and it needs to change. It's not the only bigotry in evidence at women's colleges, of course. Many, including Hollins, still ignore the racism and heterosexism and ableism in their student body and administration. But assigned-female-at-birth-only policies are disgusting and need to change.

BMC Alum

As an alumna of Bryn Mawr College, I'm fully supportive of women's colleges. I'm proud that BMC isn't just cis-focused, as admission requires you to be only 'woman identified' at your time of application. The positive impact on my life was multi-faceted: we had strong female professors, the campus was a encouraging space to explore and support our burgeoning feminisms, and it developed engaging leaders of us all. I loved it whole heartedly.

So... the gist is that

So... the gist is that colleges produce women with college degrees, and women's colleges produce leaders. ?


It's rather funny to consider an argument about the value (or not) of women's colleges to be focused on Scripps vs CMC. Due to the nature of the 5-C consortium, it's pretty much impossible to have a women-only experience as a Scripps student (yes, I'm an alum). In fact, through no conscious effort, the vast majority of my classes were at CMC and the least at Scripps - and I majored via Pitzer. I am all for women having the choice of environment they want in college, but if we're going to discuss pros and cons, don't act like Scripps students are "protect[ed] from ‘injustice’ in an inaccurately idyllic setting.” We had/have to put up with sexist bullshit all the time from other Claremont students - my "favorite" from my time there being claims from certain boys at a certain 5-C college that the Take Back the Night March wasn't going to change their minds about sexual assault because we weren't engaging them in a nice, friendly conversation. As if there's any conversation to be had about sexual assault.

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