The XX Factor

Still Making the Grade?

DoubleX is starting a new partnership with The Washington Post Magazine . Each week our contributors will argue over a certain question, and we invite you to join in. This week: Do women’s colleges still play a necessary role?

Hanna Rosin : For me, women’s colleges are something I associate with feminism past-grandma’s nostalgic recollections, Mary McCarthy’s scorn. I know they are supposed to be provide a safe haven for women, free of flirting, free of social pressure, free of the need to primp and preen. And I’m sure that’s true for many women. But my only personal experience of the all-women’s institution are Condé Nast-style women’s magazine offices, and they are the least relaxing, most competitive places I’ve ever spent time in.

Samantha Henig : When I visited my older sister at her women’s college (I learned during her first few days there that we are NOT to call it a girls’ school), I was moved by the family feel of the place-a level of comfort and support that would be hard to stumble upon at a larger, co-ed university. All of the women’s colleges I’ve visited seem like great environments … for the right person. I am not such a person; I thrive in large, competitive, cold surroundings. That’s why I love New York. But just as I can see how some people might do best attending a small liberal arts college or living in a small town, I totally get the need for women’s colleges. Men often change the tenor of a classroom dramatically by interrupting and dominating and arguing for argument’s sake. Personally, that keeps me on my toes. But there should certainly be an option for people who learn better without that sort of annoyance, distraction, or contention.

Claire Gordon : At my all-girls’ high school, seniors could choose to take part in weekly joint discussions with our brother school. I stopped attending after the first few, because the dynamic made me so uncomfortable. The guys pontificated. The girls hardly spoke. They didn’t want to seem brash and obnoxious-and therefore unattractive-in front of the boys. When I got to Yale, I calculated the relative contributions of the male and female members of some of my classes that had a fairly even gender split. While it wasn’t the eerie silence of those high school sessions, the female population of the classrooms contributed approximately a third as frequently. Perhaps that’s an argument for co-ed colleges, a place where women can train themselves to be assertive in a mixed-gender environment. But if a girl feels silenced growing up with a dominating male presence in the classroom, perhaps it’s best that she gets an extra four years without it to gain the academic and social confidence necessary to succeed in a co-ed world.

Jessica Grose : Never for a second did I consider attending a women’s college. Since all the best schools now admit women, having separate but equal educational environments is obsolete. Learning to fend for yourself in a co-educational environment is an important skill that can be stunted when you are shielded from men in a learning environment. A diversity of perspectives is one of the most compelling parts of a liberal arts education, and when you choose to go to a women’s college, you’re missing out on a really signficant set of views. I can understand wanting to be part of the grand tradition of certain women’s colleges, and identifying with great alumnae like Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, and Katharine Hepburn. But sometimes even great traditions have run their course.