Why Women’s Colleges Matter

Yesterday, I was listening to a podcast interviewing the current president of Harvard. It was a fascinating discussion of one life’s journey and I was enjoying it. But then the interviewer asked a question that had my ears perking up. He asked (I’m paraphrasing), “You attended many single sex schools including Bryn Mawr, how did that impact you?”

I would love to tell you what she said but right then I pulled into my driveway and I don’t know her answer. But the question resonated with me, as it is something I have asked myself a lot. How did it impact me?

I have never been a soft personality, so it comes as a surprise to people just how insecure I was during my youth. Like most young girls, my teenage years were my most fragile and I lived within an unrelenting ‘not good enough’ aura. The one part of me that I had confidence in was my intellect — I knew my brain worked. Unfortunately, being the smart girl felt like yet another unacceptable social stigma. I wanted to be cute. I wanted to be popular. I wanted to be talented. I didn’t want to be smart. But I did want to be successful, so I played the hand I was dealt.

So, when the time came to apply to college, I had a heavy foundation of smart to build on. I knew I was going to college, but I didn’t have a clue where. Other people I knew were committed to specific places, but the truth is that I only had three criteria:

  1. It had to be far away from home (>3 hours in a car)
  2. They had to want me
  3. It had to be hard to get in

After I took the ACTs, my mailbox exploded. Colleges from all over started to send me brochures. My dad bought me a big college book (bigger than two phone books) and I looked up every single one in the listings. If it was ‘highly selective’ I looked at the brochure — if it wasn’t I tossed it. Looking back, it was a pretty short-sighted (and overly confident) way to short-list colleges, but at the time it made sense.

In the end, I applied to not one, but two of the Seven Sisters schools: Bryn Mawr and Smith. I hadn’t sought out women’s colleges, but there it was. They really just passed my three criteria. (Fact: I only applied to five colleges, including an in-state safety and the Naval Academy, as a comparison.)

I ended up at Smith — I still remember driving up the hill and the love at first sight after seeing the Grecourt gates — and I’ve written in the past about what I got from going there. But the question I ask a lot, and which was implied by the interview of Harvard’s president, is this one: would you have gotten there anyway? Wouldn’t you have become the person you are, with or without being in a single-sex education environment?

I’ve come to the conclusion that yes, I would have. But I have also come to the conclusion that it would have taken longer and been harder. Much longer and much harder.

If I had carted my teenage insecurities to college, especially as it related to how I perceived my value to men, I would have missed opportunities. I would have waited to be invited to participate. I would have been hesitant to speak up. I would have wondered what he thought I should say or whether he thought that was a good idea. I would have heard a laugh or a whispered remark and made myself less to try to make it go away.

I’m not proud of that. I don’t blame the young men — they likely had no idea that I was constantly checking their actions for the signs and signals of my failures. In fact, looking back I want to shake my own shoulders and shout, “Don’t be stupid!” But that was the person I was then, and it was that person who went away to college.

For me, being at a women’s college allowed me to tuck the worry away and lean into being my own person. And while I am confident that the true Mel would have emerged eventually, regardless of my college choice, being in the right place gave her (me) a jump start. It saved me years of heartache. It let me spend my 20’s kicking butt instead of catching up.

So, I believe in the power of single sex institutions, and historically black colleges, for exactly that reason. I believe that the environment allows individuals who need it the chance to jump start. Strangely enough, by limiting the diversity for a period of time, it gives individuals a better opportunity to engage with the full universe for the long haul.

At least, that’s what happened for me. And that’s why I think women’s colleges matter.