THOUGH THE DECEMBER movie Mona Lisa Smile failed at the box office, its romanticized portrayal of Wellesley College in the 1950s as a place where well-coiffed women had little ambition beyond learning proper etiquette reignited a heated debate on the virtues of single-sex schools. In fact, three months later, Wellesley's alumnae website still offers an interactive section devoted to a discussion of the film and the future of single-sex education. As one graduate summed up in an article for Boston magazine: "If Wellesley women are so smart and talented ... why do they need to sequester themselves on an all-female campus conceived in the 19th century?" It's an obvious question with a clear answer: They don't.
WHEN PEOPLE LEARN THAT I ATTENDED Mount Holyoke, a women's college (not an all-girls school, as any alum worth her weight is quick to point out), they usually say something along the lines of: "Was that sort of like a finishing school? How did you exist without men?" The questions are not malicious. Many people genuinely want to know why I would commit to four years of higher education--ostensibly in preparation for the real, co-ed world--in an atmosphere so antithetical to it.
ALL-WOMEN'S COLLEGES ORIGINALLY offered their students both refuge from and preparation for male-dominated society. And, in many cases, such schools were the only alternatives for smart women, as the Ivy League and other top-notch colleges had yet to become co-educational. Fortunately the landscape shifted and with it the prevalence of women's colleges declined--in 1960 there were 298; today there are 67. Some were forced to admit men in order to stay afloat financially, some simply shuttered altogether. Of the original Seven Sisters (the all-female equivalent of the formerly all-male Ivy League), Radcliffe has been absorbed into Harvard; Barnard is closely tied to Columbia; Vassar has gone co-ed. The remaining schools--Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley--face a quandary: relevance.
TO GIRD AGAINST CHARGES OF OBSOLESCENCE, proponents of single-sex education have armed themselves with a battery of statistics citing how many women's college graduates go on to run Fortune 500 companies, hold elected office, pursue advanced degrees, and so on. But these women achieve great things in a world with men not because they were educated in a world without them; they achieve great things because these schools offer excellent academics and thus attract and cultivate ambitious, capable students--who would likely have succeeded professionally regardless of their alma mater. (Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley all rank among U.S. News and World Report's top 25 liberal arts colleges.)
OTHERS ARGUE THAT BOYS DROWN GIRLS out in the classroom and that single-sex education is essential if female students are to learn and to build confidence. Studies certainly do exist to substantiate those claims. But after the American Association of University Women conducted a survey of the available literature in 1998, it noted that "Several of the studies found that although single-sex schools seem to have positive effects on girls' achievement compared with coed schools, once the findings were adjusted for student socio-economic status, pre- enrollment ability, selectivity of the school, and other variables, the differences diminished or disappeared." And, even if single-sex education makes sense during childhood, by age 18, it's time to treat students as mature adults who can fend for themselves, both in and out of the classroom.
MOST STUDENTS CHOOSE COLLEGES based on social factors as well as educational merit, and so women's colleges are forced to straddle a tenuous ideological line: They must argue that learning is best done without men while also admitting that life without them is incomplete. So view books are peppered with men (grabbing a drink in the dining hall! lounging on the quad!), and websites make special efforts to assure prospective students that the social climate is cheerfully co-ed, even if the classroom is not. In truth, it's difficult to have it both ways. Mount Holyoke women are bused to and from other campuses so they can interact with the opposite sex. But cautiously disembarking from an all-female shuttle in front of an Amherst College party offered a brand of sexism that I'd never seen in a classroom. Women were, quite literally, objects: They were imported, admired, and packed off on the last bus. The next day, Amherst women could have intellectual conversations with their male peers in the dining hall; for Mount Holyoke women, their only chance was in front of a keg.
CONVERSELY, MEN AT HOLYOKE WERE either fetishized--"There's one living on the fifth floor of Ham Hall! He's an exchange student from Dartmouth!"--or demonized. Campus slogans spurred an us-versus-them mentality: a t-shirt that announced Mount Holyoke is not a girls' school without men. It's a women's college without boys was a big seller. It was a hugely regressive form of female bonding, suggesting a defensiveness that only reinforced the perception of women as second-class citizens.
SO, WHEN PEOPLE ASK WHY I ATTENDED Mount Holyoke, I answer honestly: I went for the brainpower of the students and the caliber of the professors--some of the smartest people I've ever encountered, regardless of gender. To remain viable, colleges like Mount Holyoke and Wellesley need to align their mission with the possibility of progress. They need to distinguish themselves not through gender limitations, but solely through their educational excellence. Many may argue that going co-ed would destroy the schools' identity. Nonsense. These schools are superior in spite of, not because of, their single-sex status. (Did Harvard lose its reason for existing when it began accepting women?) Claiming otherwise only condescends to their highly capable students and reinforces the absurdity that succeeding in a co-ed world first demands steeling oneself in gender isolation. "I may not enjoy the social life at Wellesley at all, but the academics are well worth the sacrifice," laments one Princeton Review survey respondent. It's the twenty-first century. I thought women were done sacrificing.
This article appeared in the March 22, 2004 issue of the magazine.