I study at a historically women’s college in the US, and have been confronted with innumerable questions and notions about what a gender-diverse women’s college entails.
“So wait, does everyone at your college, like, hate men?”
“Is your college filled with” – and here comes a skeptical whisper – “gay people?”
Maybe the most infuriating of them all is when I face dismissive comments about it being a “girls’ school,” to which I usually point out that, no, it’s a gender-diverse women’s college.
So I thought it was time to dispel these myths with a polite yet firm resolve. I study at Mount Holyoke College, which is a historically women’s college in western Massachusetts. Is it a girls’ school? Well, no. Because all the so-called “girls” on campus are actually college students, mostly around the age of 18 to 22. Most of us, by that definition, identify as adult women.
There has been a history of women being undermined for generations, whether it has been through patronising nicknames like “sweetheart” or “honey,” or belittling them by calling grown women girls. I would argue that this comes from a system of diminishing a woman’s credibility. A woman can handle many important things. A girl, on the other hand, is still a child.
Men’s colleges around the world are not called boys’ schools, are they?
The most important reason that it is not a girls’ school is that not everyone who studies there identifies as a girl. My college, just like the world, is amassed with trans folk, non-binary individuals, and many others on the gender spectrum. Our erasure of gender non-conforming people often happens through casual statements and assumptions about people’s genders. Our often gendered speech (for example, with phrases such as “girls’ school”) often invisibilises the experiences of gender diverse people.
The phrase “girls’ school” holds a negative connotation for me in the context of a higher education institution. The phrase paints the picture of a boarding school, or a dormitory filled with girls still in middle school (not that I have anything against girls’ schools), rather than an institution in which qualified women and trans folk engage in intellectual discourse with professors, work on theses, toil for 12+ hours in the science labs, and flounder in pages and pages of homework.
It brings me to a point that I want to shout from mountaintops, which is that an institution that does not include cis men does not diminish the credibility of that institution. Our world has often been dismissive of women’s sports teams, women’s clubs, and women-led businesses. The exclusion of men from an institution does not trivialise its pursuits. Our lives often revolve around male approval, and we are often begging and pleading for male allies in our fight for gender equity.
Studying at my college, I get a brief respite from that constant struggle for approval from people in power and positions of authority, who often happen to be men.
Instead, I am enveloped by the ghostly presence of strong alumni, such as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Apgar and Frances Perkins. I walk the same brown, leaf-trodden path as women and trans folk before me who left a rich legacy of activism. The Mount Holyoke archives show the first women who voted, the first women to fight the Civil Rights Movement, the first women to burn their bras during the age of Second Wave Feminism.
I grew up in a society which equated male attention to self worth and attractiveness. You were considered pretty if boys liked you. You were considered funny if boys laughed at your jokes. You were considered a good leader if you led the entire class, including the heckling boys in the last row. At my college, my self worth is defined how I want to measure it, and by encouragement of my peers and teammates. So no, we don’t exclude men because we hate them. We just want a safe space that affirms every identity.
Which, of course, brings me to the last question. Yes, many students who study at historically women’s colleges identify as a part of the queer community. So yes, my college is filled with people from the LGBTQIA+ community. Although college rankings are pointless, most historically women’s colleges are ranked in the Princeton Review’s list of LGBTQIA+ friendly colleges.
Historically women’s colleges, like most institutions, are not perfect. They are mostly private colleges with high tuition fees and are therefore riddled with elitism, and are often predominantly white, and perpetuate harmful systems of racism. Studying there can sometimes be seen as a privilege.
But they are also queer-affirmative, gender-affirmative spaces that provide quality education for women and gender-diverse people, and are just as credible as institutions that have men walk their halls.
Shloka Gidwani is currently studying english and economics at Mount Holyoke College.
Featured image credit: Twitter/Mouth Holyoke College