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The Good, the Bad, the Co-Ed; A Women's College Discussion

There are many debates and questions when talking about women's colleges. These deeper issues were touched on during the Nova Network’s premiere event in Chicago June 6, 2018.

So, what is the big deal about women’s colleges?

“I chose a women’s college....based on the community and shared values of women’s independence and empowerment.” - Mount Holyoke College Alumn

As a Mount Holyoke College graduate (2017), I had the honor of attending the recently birthed Nova Network’s premiere event in the East Bank Club of Chicago in Kingsbury Plaza on June 6, 2018. Their mission statement is as follows: “The Nova Network reinforces the principles of empowerment, individualism, commitment to service, vocal activism, and advancement of women. It drives the development of local communities that unite graduates from 38 women's colleges to nurture relationships through mutual interests in professional and personal networking. Now, more than ever, is an opportune time to unify based on common core values that were developed during our academic years and that are present throughout our lives of self-determination.”

There is a lot to unpack in that statement, but it speaks to the unique concept of a women’s college and the type of students they attract:

  • The focus of empowerment in the individual - becoming self-aware
  • The group mentality of preparing the student body as a whole to handle important social issues - once you are in the school, you are not competing for grades (or you shouldn’t be) but analyzing how our roles impact society
  • The commitment to service: first the school’s commitment to the students, then the students for the field they are going into post-graduation.

When thinking of a women’s college, there is usually a focused emphasis on the gender of the accepted students. When Mount Holyoke began accepting trans-female students, the debate at “women’s” colleges across the country about this sensitive topic was at an all-time high. What defines a women’s college education? Is the idea of women’s colleges antiquated - do they need to become co-ed to get with the times? After all, the “real world” is not just a roomful of women.

With author of I’m the One Who Got Away Andrea Jarrell, mediated by Judith Weinstein, the discussion floated on a theme of how a women’s college is focused on a specific mentality; selecting students based on personality, fit, and a certain something. Though this manner of selection is similar to most liberal arts colleges, women’s colleges have yet another defining characteristic. There is a common thread to the way we think, one that weaves its student body together. It’s a place that attracts high-performance women and empowers them to push to materialize their innermost visions. The students are specially selected because the college believes they are suited to carry out the mission of the school.

This unique individuality mentality creates an environment where people can cultivate a holistic perspective on issues and go out to make changes to the world based on what they are personally passionate about. 

"A women’s college provided a community that challenged and simultaneously nurtured me; it built my confidence in preparation for a time where I would be challenged for gender or race, not because of skills, knowledge, or ability.” - A Spelman College Alumn

People think of many colleges as being male first, and accepting women/becoming co-ed later. Establishing women’s colleges was a revolutionary, important step, since women were not thought of as capable of rigorous higher level classes. Of critical thinking. Of being more than baby factories and homemakers. Some places in the world still think that way. A mindset where it is socially acceptable for 50% of the population to be encouraged to not be educated, is a problem. By maintaining an environment where women who think differently are encouraged to do so, the importance of providing an opportunity to educate participants for this particular women's college liberal arts style of learning and personality is supported.

“If women’s colleges are so important, why did Sweet Briar almost close down?”

When the existence of Sweet Briar College was threatened, the alumnae pulled a herculean effort and raised $20 million in 90 days to resurrect the school. Wow.

So, if the alumnae are capable of coming up with such a large sum in a short time, it seems counterintuitive for the school to have almost shut down due to insufficient funds. In attempting to uncover the reason, we discussed a potential trend seen at college alum networking events, where male alumnae have a pattern of competing to see who can cut the biggest check. We discussed a trend, where women tend to not talk about money, and thus do not compete in this manner. They mobilize for "the cause" with actions, such as volunteering, coordinating, organizing, baking, phone calls, etc, rather than with writing a check. Success is not measured by how much they make post-grad; it’s more about the group effort of working together to accomplish a goal. 

This manner of encouraging everyone to use their various backgrounds and experiences to think differently and create innovative solutions is another facet of what makes a women's liberal arts college education. 

In the collegiate world, different schools are attracted to different candidates, and vice versa. Women’s colleges also cater to a niche of women. There is nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home mom, a career trailblazer, a breadwinner, or all the above. Women are amazing. They can do everything. This fact does not imply that they should do everything, or feel pressured to, but they tend to anyway. Women want what’s best for the world, for their families, for themselves, as evidenced by centuries of maternal instinct. They are protectors. A women’s college provides an environment geared toward providing sources for students to succeed, to encourage dynamic discussions in small classrooms when in society the speaking platform for women is not always welcoming. When it comes to trans/LGBTQ matters, we can also see that the biological definition of "woman" does not cater as much as the "female" mentality and feel to fulfill the mission of the school. To facilitate change in the world the best we can. 

In small actions, such as being mindful of the color of the words you speak, realizing we are all part of an issue and solution; in large actions, like publishing through a female writer company. We can reflect daily on how the society we were raised in influences us and how we can use our experiences to teach and support those around us. 

Thank you for reading. 


“I chose a women’s college….as I wanted a learning experience that was personal and focused on academic achievement.” - Smith College Alumn

If you want to learn more about women's colleges...

Connect with the LinkedIn Profile for the Nova Network, joining the 38 women's colleges to create an additional support system. You can also visit Andrea Jarrell's website, where her book I'm the One that Got Away can be purchased. It's a story about her mother's escape from her abusive father and how it influenced her journey in life, with women's colleges interweaving throughout the way. Published by She Writes Press, a company that publishes powerful stories of female writers.

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