Women's Colleges Still Make Sense

By Feigl, Dorothy M. | U.S. Catholic, January 1996 | Go to article overview
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Women's Colleges Still Make Sense


Feigl, Dorothy M., U.S. Catholic


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.

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