The XX Factor

The Lame Defense of Women’s Colleges

A guest post from law student and former Slate intern Morgan Smith:

This Forbes article , which recently whipped through my Facebook feed, is the latest iteration of the lame defense that is often marshaled on behalf of women’s colleges. The lead character in these articles is familiar. She was a timid smart girl fearful of speaking up in high school, ridiculed by classmates as a lesbian or feminist for her choice of all-female higher education. Then she is transformed by the powers of the single-sex classroom into a poised, successful adult.

The problem is that this defense is actually derisive. It implies that only outside of a coeducational classroom can women trade timidity and lip-gloss for assertiveness and a scholar’s pilled cardigan. The notion that having men around distracts women from academic pursuits and that professors at coed institutions don’t take women seriously is not only dated, but patronizing. If women’s colleges want to survive the 21 st century, they need to stop being defensive and reflexively attacking the inadequacies of coeducation. Otherwise, they’ll fulfill the prophecy they seek to avoid-they will become irrelevant to women’s education.

The traditional argument for women’s colleges used to seem airtight. It comes from a series of studies physiologist M. Elizabeth Tidball started in the 1960s. Her seminal 1973 study, which used the Who’s Who in American Women registry and the Doctorate Records Files as indicators of career success, determined that women’s colleges graduated two to three times as many high-achieving women than did coeducational institutions. Her findings were well-timed. A year after the passage of Title IX, they helped buoy flagging support for women’s-only higher education.

But subsequent studies have challenged the Tidball research. One, conducted in 1991, identified a possible methodological flaw in her work. This second study, which the Journal of Higher Education published (subscription required), indicated that if she redid her research while controlling for students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, before they went to college, there would be little difference in career achievement between female graduates of women’s colleges, which had more daughters of well-heeled families, and coed colleges, which had fewer. Tidball hotly disputed this, and the authors were careful to say that they hadn’t fully disproved her findings. But they called for more investigation. And in the decades since then, researchers have completed a few studies that accounted for students’ backgrounds, and confirmed Tidball’s achievement gap putting women’s colleges ahead of coed ones-but to a much smaller degree than she found.

And you know, that’s OK, from the women’s college point of view. The long-term viability of single-sex ed depends upon these schools reimagining themselves first as fine academic institutions and second as colleges for women. I graduated from Wellesley in 2007, and there’s no place I would have rather have studied, as an English major, Charlotte Bronte’s deep and highly personal examination of female depression in Villette . But that’s not because I wouldn’t have been taken seriously if there were men in my classes. It’s because of Wellesley’s excellent professors and dedicated students. That’s why I can’t stand to hear women’s colleges justified by the faults of coed classrooms, or the wage gap, or their ability to churn out Secretaries of State.