Written September 16, 2009
Who belongs at a women’s college? Who belongs at Bryn Mawr College, specifically? This is not merely an abstract or theoretical argument. This affects actual people and whether they feel welcome at their own college, on their own campus.
To answer that, I think it is important to look at what the point of a women’s college is. Why does Bryn Mawr exist in the first place? Why is it a good thing that there be a college exclusively for women? Someone mentioned in a class I’m in that women and men were initially segregated for educational purposes because they were taught different things. While that may be true elsewhere, to my knowledge, Bryn Mawr College has always been an institution of higher learning that focused on true education. It was not founded as a finishing school, or a way to catch a husband.
I think that women’s colleges are also not merely about biological females together at a college. While some people argue that males and females have inherently different brains and thus learn differently, that’s a rather controversial topic. Given that Bryn Mawr students can major at Haverford, and Haverford students can major at Bryn Mawr, I assume that it is not Bryn Mawr’s position that BMC is a women’s college because females cannot learn by being taught in the same way that males are taught.
I think that what is useful and bright and wonderful about Bryn Mawr being a women’s college goes beyond its students’ sexes or genders. I love Bryn Mawr. I am a senior and a very proud Mawrtyr. I love Bryn Mawr, and I love the Traditions, and I love that Bryn Mawr is one of the Seven Sisters. I would not want Bryn Mawr to go “co-ed.” That said, I do not believe that every student at Bryn Mawr must identify as a woman in order to belong at Bryn Mawr.
To me, the importance of Bryn Mawr’s being a women’s college has to do with its commitment to educating women/females/people who have been discriminated against based on their sex/gender or perceived sex/gender. It’s not just to keep women as a special category by itself, like a college for blonde people, or eldest children, or left-handed people, or short people. It’s about lifting up people who face sexism and who originally did not have other opportunities for this kind of education (back in the day when many other institutions of higher education — the Ivy League, for example — excluded women). It’s about the experiences that people have had, being socialized as girls, or treated as women, or experiencing life as women, or maybe something more. There needs not be one experience that Bryn Mawr students have had, in my opinion, to belong at Bryn Mawr, even as a women’s college.
Bryn Mawr attempts to prepare its graduates to deal with living in a sexist world, or at least to help its students become strong enough to deal with sexism (depending on whether you believe that living in the “Bryn Mawr bubble” prepares people to deal with sexism — if it doesn’t, I believe that the hope is that at least Bryn Mawr grads will be confident and strong enough to deal with sexism, even if they don’t have much experience with it).
Like I said before, I love Bryn Mawr. Bryn Mawr is my college. I am a Mawrtyr. I fully recognize that Bryn Mawr is a women’s college, and I do not want to change that. My question is, what do we mean by “women’s college”? I was in favor of Plenary resolution requiring gender-neutral terms and pronouns in the Constitution and Honor Code. I am in favor of the “everyone welcome” signs on the bathrooms, instead of signs saying “women and men.” I am in full support of the trans men, genderqueer people, trans folks, and other gender-variant people who are current Bryn Mawr students and/or alums. And I believe that none of this threatens Bryn Mawr as a women’s institution. Things may change, but the spirit is the same. Bryn Mawr has dealt with many changes in the student body (integrating Jewish students into the dorms, allowing students of color into the college as full members of the community, accepting international students), and all of these changes have only made Bryn Mawr stronger. Who qualifies as a Bryn Mawr student now has changed greatly since Bryn Mawr was founded. Some things remain the same. An intense intellectual commitment, a purposeful vision of one’s life, a desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world: these attributes are not gendered. This is what makes a Bryn Mawr student, not some narrow definition of the word “woman.”