Barnard College Flap: Competition among Women Shouldn't Be over Men

Article excerpt

Columbia University women are outraged that Obama will deliver the commencement address at Barnard College, the neighboring women's school. Some accuse Barnard women of wanting to bed and wed 'their' Columbia men. Why do women still define themselves in terms of men?

In March of 1968, The New York Times ran a story about a student at Barnard - the women's college next to Columbia - who was living off-campus with her boyfriend. The news sparked a firestorm of bad publicity for Barnard, which one angry letter-writer called "Prostitute U."

Today, though, the people calling Barnard students prostitutes - and worse - aren't outraged alumna or other old-timers. Instead, they're students at Columbia, right across the street. And they're women.

You can find them on Columbia's student blogs, which have lit up with vitriol since the March 3 announcement that President Obama will speak at Barnard's commencement ceremonies in May. Part of the anger was directed at Mr. Obama, who graduated from Columbia but has never given an address there. But the major target was Barnard itself. Its students are promiscuous gold-diggers, posters wrote, stealing Columbia men from - yes - Columbia women.

And that speaks to an unexpected - and deeply upsetting - consequence of the biggest story in American education: At every level, women are outpacing men. They get better grades in high school, so they're over-represented in colleges. At last count, 57 percent of American undergraduates were female. But that also puts them in a bitter competition with each other, for an ever-shrinking pool of college men.

"Unlike Barnyard financial leeches, I have NO intention of pursuing an Mrs. Degree," reads a typical comment on a Columbia blog. "I came here to make myself successful, not try to plead at the knees of a Columbia boy to marry her."

Or: "Barnard is full of academically inferior students that are able to use OUR campus, take OUR classes, and are stereotypically easy to get in bed."

And then there are even nastier posts, of the four-letter-word variety. One recurring term was recently made infamous by talk-show host Rush Limbaugh in his rant against a law student who testified before Congress on behalf of federal rules requiring insurance plans to cover contraception. Ironically, Obama appears to have chosen Barnard in order to remind voters that Democrats don't bash women. But at Columbia, a longtime liberal bastion, it seems they do.

Columbia was the last elite American college to admit female undergraduates. Women could attend the graduate schools as well as Barnard, founded in 1889 and named, ironically, after a Columbia president who had fought to admit undergraduate women on the same basis as men.

From the very beginning, Barnard attracted superb students. Indeed, professors found they were often more engaged in their academic endeavors than their counterparts across the street. "The Barnard students are interested in the subject, intelligent, and take hold of it in a satisfactory way," wrote prominent anthropologist Franz Boas, who taught at both institutions in the early 1900s, "while the quality of the Columbia students is on the whole not as good as I should like to see it."

Boas's prize Barnard student was Margaret Mead, who would go on to pursue a PhD in anthropology under him at Columbia; by the 1960s, she would become one of America's leading social commentators. In other disciplines, too, pioneering female scholars came disproportionately from Barnard. Between 1920 and 1974, as Barnard historian Rosalind Rosenberg has shown, only Hunter College and the University of California-Berkeley - both much larger institutions than Barnard - sent more women on to get their PhDs. …