Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

The Centrality and Costs of Heterosexual Romantic Love among First-Year College Women

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

The Centrality and Costs of Heterosexual Romantic Love among First-Year College Women

Article excerpt

Introduction

To many who espouse feminist ideals or take a critical approach to gender relations, Holland and Eisenhart's (1990) observations of college women in the late 1970s and early 1980s are grim: At the two institutions that served as the field site for Holland and Eisenhart's study, "the peer culture established an ethos for women that emphasized romantic relationships with men as a major route to self-worth and prestige" (p. 118). Being perceived as (hetero)sexually attractive and having a "high-status" boyfriend elevated a young woman's standing among her classmates, which meant that schoolwork and friendship were pushed to the side. The women who comprised Holland and Eisenhart's sample had no choice but to experience their relational network hierarchically and their academic lives halfheartedly as members of their peer group--securing the attention and affection of popular young men on campus was to come first.

The socioeconomic and developmental implications of these findings are unsettling. By focusing on romance to the exclusion of their coursework, young women are robbed of the opportunity to acquire skills that improve the likelihood of their professional advancement. In stronger terms, the cultural premium placed on women's sexual attractiveness virtually guarantees that they remain dependent on male partners for social and economic resources, having had no substantive support to build a competitive set of qualifications for participation in the public sphere. Moreover, by spending time on romance to the exclusion of other relationships, young women forgo close friendships that are essential to emotional well-being over the course of the lifespan.

However, few studies have tested, qualified, or extended Holland and Eisenhart's findings in the years since Educated in Romance (1990) was published, so their bleak set of results constitutes a mostly unchallenged "last word" on undergraduate women's romantic relationships. This seems unwise for many reasons. Are college women still so (forcibly) preoccupied with romance? Has the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s given rise to any change in gender relations on college campuses? Or has it left in its wake a generation of young women who know or experience romance as one of many dimensions to their lives, each of which is equally important or valued? Even Holland and Eisenhart recognized the need for replication among samples of women "just now entering college" (p. 225), given shifts in the status and feminist consciousness of women over recent decades; at the two campuses in their study, "women's issues" were too peripheral, nascent, and confined to have much visibility. As such, to what extent do their findings characterize college women today? Do young women find themselves trapped in a peer culture that implicitly reproduces male privilege? More specifically, do college women's lives remain organized around the principle of heterosexual romance?

This study is designed to probe more deeply the work of Holland and Eisenhart (1990), with attention to the viability of their findings almost 15 years later. Given their argument that peer emphasis on heterosexual romance minimizes the importance of college women's friendships and schoolwork, I begin with the following set of questions:

1. How do young women in their first year of college experience friendship in relation to romance? How do they negotiate romance and friendship?

2. How do young women in their first year of college experience schoolwork in relation to romance? How do they negotiate romance and schoolwork?

These questions do not address every aspect of Holland and Eisenhart's findings, but they do provide an apt starting point from which to learn more about the salience and implications of romance among women in a contemporary college setting. The study is not a replication of Holland and Eisenhart's research; rather, I explore the applicability of their conclusions to a different environment and generation of students. …

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