Women’s College for All: Gender, Race, and the Fight for Accessibility

By Liana Thomason
I attend a women’s college.
No, not an “all-girl’s school.”
No, I don’t miss seeing boys around.
No, we’re not all lesbians, although many of us are.

We’re not even all women, although many of us are.

When my institution, Bryn Mawr College (BMC), was founded in 1885, its goal was to establish a college “for the advanced education of females,” according to the will of physician Joseph W. Taylor. At the time, women were often not welcome on university campuses – particularly not Ivy League schools. The Seven Sisters – Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley – were founded as sister schools to these elite universities to meet a “need for advanced education for women at a time when they were not admitted to most institutions of higher education.”

The Seven Sisters were created in order to serve mostly white, upper-class women who had been barred from attending other universities. But as coeducation came into favor towards the end of the 19th century, the need for women’s colleges became less pressing. Why then, do students continue to attend women’s colleges? What do they add to the landscape of higher education in the U.S.? Are they, in fact, harmful to people who are not women?

At Bryn Mawr and many other single-gender institutions across the country, the student body is aware that we are made up of more than cis women. There are non-binary individuals on campus as well as trans men and women, and I would contend that each student at Bryn Mawr experiences their gender in a different way. Gender is a spectrum, not a binary. Most of us understand this, but how can one acknowledge this concept while also defending women’s colleges?

The author with her freshman year writing seminar class (center right).

While Bryn Mawr still refers to itself as a women’s college officially, most students wouldn’t identify it that way. Instead, BMC serves as a respite for women and gender non-conforming people away from cisgender men. Socially and academically, this type of safe space is very important. Most notably, I’ve personally observed a substantial difference in the philosophy courses I’ve taken at Bryn Mawr, versus those I’ve taken at Haverford, a coed school with which BMC is in consortium. Classes at BMC are composed mostly of women, and thus are more relaxed environments where I feel free to speak openly without male classmates interrupting me. At Haverford, I often observe men (“philosophy bros” in particular) dominating academic discussions.

Izzy Gelfand, a fellow Feminist Majority Foundation intern and a rising sophomore at Wellesley College, echoed this statement when we discussed her college experience. “I went to a coed high school, and felt that women had to compete to have their voices heard in academic settings,” she explained. “At women’s colleges we can focus on growing academically rather than just being heard.” We also agreed that women’s colleges produce valuable spaces socially: living and learning with cis men can be difficult – there’s no doubt about that. Cis men often feel entitled to dominate the environment that they’re in, while others are relegated to justifying the ways in which they take up space. This creates unhealthy environments for women and gender nonconforming folk.

The author with her Dorm Leadership Team as a sophomore year customs person (bottom left).

But at Bryn Mawr, I never feel like I have to defend my existence or my feminism. I can assume that everyone around me understands, or at least can empathize with, my experiences as a young woman in the United States. This has allowed me to form some of the deepest relationships I’ve ever had with my BMC friends and gives me the confidence to walk into any situation at BMC and expect to be heard and respected. Similarly, Izzy noted that students at Wellesley have a “level of basic understanding and recognition of each other’s feminism that allows everyone to grow.”

However, there are several voices that are often drowned out on women’s college campuses. Like many predominantly white institutions, Bryn Mawr silences the voices of its students of color, both past and present. Our second president, M. Carey Thomas, personally raised funds to transfer a Black student to Cornell in 1901, claiming she felt “pushed” on the “Negro and Jewish matter.”  In 1916, she delivered a speech steeped in white supremacy, asserting that “certain races have not intellect [or] government.”  When Bryn Mawr finally started admitting Black full-time students in 1927, it was only on the condition that these students live off-campus, forcing them to make longer commutes to class and depriving them of on-campus support and social life. To this day, BMC lacks critical resources necessary for students of color, such as sufficient affinity spaces, inclusive curriculum, and faculty of color. And while Wellesley graduated its first Black student in 1887, Izzy described it as a “clutch your pearls and drink afternoon tea” type of institution, one that also ultimately caters to its white students.

The author with her friends at Bryn Mawr’s May Day tradition (left).

In 2014, Emma Kiyoko (BMC ’15) and Grace Pusey (BMC ’15) launched the Black at Bryn Mawr project, archiving and uncovering the experience of Black students at BMC in order to “build institutional memory of the College’s engagement with race and racism.”  The project continues on after its founders’ graduation via a paid student position that involves archival research and giving tours that highlight the history of Black students on our campus. The push for institutional memory has been entirely student-driven, but it is one that faculty are also coming around to. Starting in 2015, BMC has held a yearly Community Day of Learning in which classes are cancelled and students gather to attend conferences and workshops on race, gender, class, and more. As for Wellesley, it recently inaugurated Dr. Paula A. Johnson as its first Black president, and accepted a record-setting 54% students of color for its class of 2021, with 28% coming from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. While these cannot be the end of the work our administrations do to support students of color, they are necessary first steps.

Women’s colleges, like most of academia, are not even close to being as accessible and inclusive as they need to be. However, they have the unique capability to be supportive and safe spaces for women and  gender non-conforming people of all races, abilities, income levels, sexualities, and religions. Women’s colleges can be for people of all marginalized gender identities if we want them to be. I love my school and think it has a lot to offer its students, and that’s precisely why it’s so important to me to continually critique it and demand more inclusive, radical policies.

By Liana Thomason

Liana Thomason is a summer 2017 intern and current student at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she is working to obtain a degree in English. 

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