Why women's colleges? with access to essentially all the schools that were closed to them just 30 years ago (the Citadel notwithstanding), why should young women elect to attend a school that is a remnant of a time when women were not welcome elsewhere?
Of the 300 women's colleges that existed in 1960, only 84 remain today. Only about 20 of these are Catholic colleges for women. Why should these remaining schools not also go gentle into that good night?
The Women's College Coalition has marshaled facts and figures that make a case for its member schools, citing, for example, the disproportionately high representation of their graduates among women leaders in business and government. I, too, want to make a case for education at women's colleges but by addressing the experience itself.
I have observed thousands of girls make the transition to womanhood in this setting. The heart of that transition is a simple and essential act: the student's acceptance of herself as a capable and talented person. She must come to recognize that self-confidence is not the same as conceit and that pride, an oft-cited vice in a Catholic upbringing, can also be a virtue. At these schools, women learn to cope with the benefits and burdens of being bright enough and skilled enough to assume real responsibility. This acknowledgment of one's best self can occur at any institution of higher education, but it happens routinely at women's colleges. What distinguishes a women's college is its insistent, explicit, and pervasive valuing of women.
The faculty (women and men) at these institutions are committed to women's education. It is their focused expertise that determines course content, teaching styles, modes of leadership development, and research agendas. In concert with other student-development professionals, they design for women not just a room but a school of one's own.
Let me offer an illustration from my own school's history. In the mid-1940s, Saint Mary's College opened a graduate school of theology that, during its existence, conferred advanced degrees on hundreds of women. The program was established because no graduate program was accepting--or even contemplating accepting--women into advanced study in theology. In many instances, women charged with the formal religious education of young people in grade schools and high schools had no access to graduate programs that would offer them a stronger background from which to instruct others.
So for almost two decades our Graduate School of Sacred Theology addressed that need and, in the process, educated the first wave of women theologians in the Catholic Church. When other graduate programs began accepting women, Saint Mary's phased out its program and returned to its exclusive concentration on undergraduate education.
The impetus for that graduate program remains the justification for women's colleges today: we meet the needs of women in a society that, by and large, still doesn't.
Women's needs are no more simply defined than men's. However, there is an overriding need that can be simply stated: women, like men, need to be taken seriously.
The same could be said of women's colleges. I was once invited, along with other representatives of women's colleges, to participate in a federally sponsored project aimed at encouraging more women to pursue careers in science. What we discovered upon our arrival was that we, who already had an outstanding record of achievement in accomplishing the desired goal, were to be offered counsel by representatives of major research universities whose records in this area were dismal. Go figure.
Students of traditional college age are just beginning to take measure of their intellectual capacities and potential. It is a critical time for defining themselves. We who teach young women know it is a time when they may push their horizons outward, accepting the sometimes scary fact that they have much to give and that much will be expected of them. Or they may hunker down in a closed, safe mental space that offers few risks or demands--and no real challenge. It is their decision to make, but we offer a supportive setting that encourages them to reach for their best. We offer a place where they learn to take intellectual risks, practice leadership skills, and succeed often enough to get the hang of it.
Women's colleges have been accused of crippling their students by giving them a false (that is, single-sex) environment in which to succeed. Whatever success they have in college, so the theory goes, these women will be done in by the larger, more competitive "mixed" society. This theory was strongly asserted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when almost all men's and many women's schools merged or became coeducational, but the hypothesis has been invalidated by the career histories of women's-college graduates. However, that doesn't stop the argument from being advanced to this day.
Robert Black, a lawyer representing Shannon Faulkner, argued for her admittance to the Citadel and rejected an alternative program being set up at Converse College (a private women's college). As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he called the alternative "a powder-puff leadership program." He said, "For women to be leaders of men, they must be educated in the presence of men and learn to stand toe to toe with men." The track record of women's colleges argues otherwise.
There is no doubt in my mind that Faulkner would have been better prepared to lead men and women had she taken Converse College up on its offer. I believe that would have been true even if she had successfully completed her studies at the Citadel. Still, a remarkable number of men and women seem to feel that unless a woman has slugged it out with men and proved she can take it, she may not claim an education that prepared her for real leadership. It seems more reasonable to me to question the logic of people who would have a woman forgo the advantages of a system specifically geared to maximize her potential in order to take to a notoriously uneven playing field and expect it to prepare her better.
Washington Post columnist Donna Britt compared Faulkner with Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier, and found Faulkner wanting. That is precisely the point. The Jackie Robinson's among us (men and women) are rare; the majority of students--good students, women and men--can use all the help they can get.
Assumptions about the campus culture of a women's college are often startlingly untrue. Too many high-school girls assume a Catholic college for women would be indistinguishable from a 15th-century nunnery. On the other hand some parents, looking for a safe place to harbor their daughters, fear women's colleges are enclaves of radical feminists intent on destroying traditional values. Would that everyone could experience the reality.
On any given day in a real classroom on a real campus like mine, a teacher of religious studies may be confronted one moment by a student scandalized by the existence of female eucharistic ministers and, a few minutes later, by another asserting that a Catholic college for women is an oxymoron. Students here hold a wide spectrum of views, as do the members of the faculty. As a Catholic school, we reflect the full range of debate that is occurring in the wider church. This is a rich intellectual environment for women. Women at single-sex schools pursue the same kind of rigorous academic programs in the sciences, humanities, arts, and professions that occupy their counterparts at other schools, but they also routinely encounter themselves in their studies. The curriculum reflects the history of women, their concerns, and their interests. Catholic colleges for women specifically address women's spiritual and religious development. Women's colleges take women seriously; Catholic women's colleges take women's roles in the church seriously.
Why women's colleges? Why Catholic women's colleges? Because women have not yet attained the fullness of their potential in the world or in the church, and there is every evidence that women's colleges are still at the forefront of efforts to bring that reality closer.
RELATED ARTICLE: Feedback
Each month, advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a representative sample of U.S. Catholic subscribers. Their answers to questions about Sounding Board and a balanced selection of their comments about the article as a whole appear in Feedback.
1. I would encourage a daughter of mine to go to a women's college. 63% agree 23% disagree 14% other
2. Women's colleges address women's issues and interests better than coeducational colleges. 67% agree 22% disagree 11% other
3. Women's colleges have outlived their usefulness. 13% agree 81% disagree 6% other
4. Women's colleges are discriminatory. 20% agree 73% disagree 7% other
5. Women have different educational needs than men. 50% agree 42% disagree 8% other
6. Women who want to lead men should be educated with men. 25% agree 70% disagree 5% other
7. Men, as well as women, need single-sex environments to best learn and grow. 30% agree 51% disagree 19% other
8. For young Catholic women, attending a women's college offers them the opportunity for leadership roles they don't find in the church. 64% agree 32% disagree 4% other
9. Of the college-educated women I know, those who attended women's colleges seem better educated. 34% agree 46% disagree 20% other
10. Teaching women in a single-sex environment leaves them unprepared for the real world. 24% agree 68% disagree 8% other
11. Women should be allowed to attend all-male colleges, such as the Citadel. 39% agree 49% disagree 12% other
12. At the college level, single-sex education is good for women but not for men. 8% agree 90% disagree 2% other
13. Although there has been some progress, women and women's issues are still not taken as seriously as they should be. 82% agree 15% disagree 3% other
14. Along with Dorothy M. Feigl, I think women's colleges still make sense. 80% agree 18% disagree 2% other
RELATED ARTICLE: One advantage of women's colleges is:
It is a safe environment that allows young women to take chances, expand their horizons, and build self-esteem. Women's colleges level the playing field by offsetting the lack of attention adolescent girls receive in the classroom.
Women can aspire to all leadership roles and class-achiever status without holding back, either knowingly or unknowingly, out of consideration for male egos or fear of male put-downs of their aggressiveness (read pushy or bossy) or intelligence (read bookish or brainy).
San Diego, Calif.
A better learning environment with strong role models.
Being surrounded by people who see women's education as their first priority, not as an afterthought.
Women are focused on being women and learning more about the needs and lives of women.
Santa Rosa, Calif.
The freedom to learn and grow in an atmosphere free of the biases and paternalistic attitudes still held by some people.
It allows a female bonding that is so important in life.
Freedom from constant sexual competition. Some women have inhibitions about appearing bright and intelligent among men.
The faculty at these institutions are committed to women's education.
Father William D. Curtis
Individual women find a greater opportunity to participate in class discussions in women's colleges. For one reason or another, women find that discussions in coed classes are usually dominated by males. Many faculty members seem to encourage this.
Daniel Murphy, Jr.
Women can excel and test themselves without the subtle barriers that exist because of sex, particularly in math and sciences.
Women engage in substantially more critical questioning and dialogue with instructors and other students in the classroom of women's colleges.
Fewer distractions allow women to focus on career goals and personal growth.
All the advantages of women's colleges could be accomplished at coed colleges if these institutions make their committment to women equal to their committment to men.
Luisa A. DiPietro
Oak Park, Ill.
RELATED ARTICLE: One disadvantage of women's colleges is:
Men need the opportunity to meet intelligent and confident women and learn from them.
Nancy M. Zachar
Limited size and resources restrict the diversity in curriculum and the variety of instruction available in larger and wealthier institutions.
The obvious lack of interaction with males. We need to know how men think, feel, act.
Women will be working and relating to men. Experience is the best teacher.
Men exist, and we have to learn how to get along. How do we do this if they aren't there?
Harpers Ferry, W. Va.
It is a model of sexual segregation.
Michael B. Music
San Francisco, Calif.
Women's colleges usually don't get as much funding as men's colleges.
It could go overboard in its concentration on women's issues to the detriment of preparing women for the real world.
Unless a woman is entering a profession or environment featuring women only, I believe a woman would be better served receiving an education with women and men because that is what the real world is like. Men and women have distinct ways of communicating, organizing, and working. Women would gain by learning and sharing with men.
Less opportunity to learn to confront sexual harassment.
Elizabeth A. Mendoza-Levy
Walnut Creek, Calif.
A smaller and less varied student body.
Corpus Christi, Tex.
There aren't enough of them.
Mr. and Mrs. Eggeman
It's segregation. We want to get into all-male colleges, so what is to say they won't try to get into all-female colleges? It is discrimination against men.
Women compete with men in the world of work. Getting their education with men is the best preparation.
RELATED ARTICLE: The best way to encourage society to take women seriously is:
To encourage young women to take themselves seriously without being too serious about unimportant stereotypes. It can be fun to be a female, especially a well-educated, intelligent one who is aware of her weaknesses and strengths and is not ashamed of either.
Cathleen M. Rush
We must respect one another regardless of our beliefs. A stay-at-home mother is no less and no better than a career mother who works outside of the home. Respecting ourselves and others as well as accepting our differences is the basis for society to take all women seriously.
C. E. Koletsky
For the church to take women seriously. The Holy Spirit can call women into leadership roles and priesthood, as well as men. Women should work with their natural, inherent talents and gifts instead of trying to become masculine to compete with men.
Include women in society. Don't pull them out and put them in schools by themselves. Schools for women simply don't make sense.
Cheryl A. Mekarski
For women who are successful to also be generous and caring.
Women must stop allowing women's needs and issues to be ignored. We must assume leadership positions in industry, government, and education. Too bad a leadership position in religion has been denied us.
New Windsor, Md.
Once more women qualify for top positions in the various careers and fields of work, society will begin to take women seriously and realize their great potential in the workforce.
Enforce the laws and rules against sex discrimination.
Huntington Beach, Calif.
Teach our sons that women are their equals.
To counsel girls in junior high and high school of career opportunities, especially in math, science, and traditional male jobs, as well as educating them on how to succeed with both a career and a family.
Allow women room to contribute to society, as they have done throughout history. Elect or appoint more women to political office. A woman like Attorney General Janet Reno is a great example of the leadership qualities women possess.
Allow women to compete with men on an equal playing field. Aggressively remove both obstacles and preferences in the workplace.
To assist women in reaching their full potential as images and likenesses of God, the Catholic hierarchy needs to accept them as such. Only when they can become priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes will women begin to reach their full God-given potential.
Bonnie D. and Edmund S. Kennedy
Women have to take themselves seriously first and not back down because of lack of self-esteem and doubt. This is an ongoing struggle for any group that isn't in power.
San Carlos, Calif.
To educate women to their fullest potential.
Jo Mary Piegzik
Women can sometimes be the enemy of their own gender by not supporting each other through their successes and failures. If a woman decides to stay home to raise a family, she has no measurable "value" because she has no income, and she's made to feel worthless by business women. Yet women who opt to climb the corporate ladder are thought of as uncaring. We need to support each other in all ways, as well as support men, so that each individual can use their God-given talent to better the world around us.
RELATED ARTICLE: General comments
A good Catholic women's college is definitely a plus for women to be able to choose if they wish. We all have different personalities so we need to find the college that "fits."
Sister Gertrude Conway, S.S.J.
I attended a Catholic high school where no classes had boys and girls together. I found that both the boys and girls were immature and didn't know how to act around the opposite sex. Let's move out of our shells and be more realistic. In business, we work with both males and females. Let's teach all ages to be prepared.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Ms. Feigl asserts that the career histories of women's-college graduates prove that students don't suffer from single-sex academic experiences. That may be true in professional life, but how well do some of those students relate to the male part of the world around them after graduation? Is business achievement our only standard of personal success?
Women's colleges are more concerned with women's values. Other colleges have too many distractions that take away from the seriousness of women's responsibilities in our society.
Women's colleges need to ensure that a high level of academic excellence is the main objective of the college.
San Dimas, Calif.
Coeducation does not always mean equal education for both sexes.
There is a big distinction between all-male institutions that perpetuate the myth of male superiority and all-female institutions that foster self-esteem, intellectual development, and a sense of one's personal worth and ability.
Diane L. Cardinal
I see the advantages of women's schools, but Catholic colleges were never an option for my children. It was all we could do to help put the five of them through the state college system. I think the middle class has no choice.
Pebble Beach, Calif.
Women must learn to love themselves as God made them, not deny themselves and try to be what men are. The key is to be paid for women's work, which is and always has been just as valuable as men's. We can learn from men not to work for less than we are worth.
Silver Spring, Md.
We need a rest from the overblown gender rhetoric. We must respect one another's talents, efforts, and willingness to pursue our goals and potential.
Father William L. Butler
I have been blessed in my years of ministry to know and work with graduates of women's colleges--all have been intelligent women of strong faith with an admirable sense of service and women of compassion and sensitivity, with a lovable sense of humor. These good women would be cogent arguments for the validity of women's colleges.
Father Gene Faucher
Arlington Heights, Ill.
It makes sense to have both women-only and men-only colleges available for those who would feel most comfortable learning in those settings and might achieve a better understanding of themselves.
We have a long way to go to be gender blind in acknowledging leadership gifts in the church.
Sister Marci Blum, O.S.F.
What really helps girls to grow into fine women is a loving, stable family life and encouraging parents. There was a time for all-women's colleges, and some may now prefer them, but I believe co-educational universities can offer even more opportunities for girls and young women.
It's too bad that we haven't come far enough working together as a society that we don't need women's colleges anymore.
Men and women are different and each needs the opportunity to develop in a safe, nurturing environment free from competition with the opposite sex; each must feel comfortable being who they are. To uphold same-sex organizations is not discriminatory.
Jim and Mary Jean Smith
(All comments used in Feedback must be signed, but we will withhold names on request. We regret that space limitations force us to condense letters and that many letters cannot be used at all. We try to reflect major opinion trends accurately. Our thanks to all who wrote. --The Editors) By Dorothy M. Feigl, vice president and dean of faculty at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana.…