A college of one's own: women and coeducation.
Rosalind Rosenberg, CHANGING THE SUBJECT: HOW THE WOMEN OF COLUMBIA SHAPED THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT SEX AND POLITICS. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. 396p. bibl. index. $29.50, ISBN 0231126441.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, ed., YARDS AND GATES: GENDER IN HARVARD AND RADCLIFFE HISTORY. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 337p. bibl. index. $26.95, ISBN 1403960984.
Gina Barreca, BABES IN BOYLAND: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF CO-EDUCATION IN THE IVY LEAGUE. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2005. 154p. $19.95, ISBN 1584652993.
I entered Yale University in the fall of 1995, a member of the first undergraduate class there to matriculate more women than men. Several years later, my stepbrother entered Vassar College, taking pride in telling relatives he was attending his "sister's school's sister school." While the irony of our attending our respective colleges was not lost on our older relatives, most of our classmates were utterly oblivious to the long histories of single-sex education that these universities possessed. Indeed, I chose Yale for its world-renowned research facilities and breadth of academic and extracurricular opportunities; my sibling chose Vassar for its small class size and intimate, nurturing environment. We both graduated satisfied, unable to comprehend fully that just one or two generations earlier, our choices would not have been ours to make.
Since the founding of American universities in the seventeenth century, educators and students have been divided on the roles of women in institutions of higher learning. While some women were attending coeducational and women's colleges in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not until the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s that most men's colleges began to admit women. Several new books discuss the history of women in formerly male institutions of higher learning. In Going Coed, Leslie Miller-Bernal and Susan L. Poulson bring case studies of the integration of women into men's colleges during the second half of the twentieth century. Rosalind Rosenberg narrows her focus to detailing the history of the education of women at Columbia University in Changing the Subject. Similarly, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Yards and Gates collects essays and documents on the changing role of women at Harvard University over the past four centuries. And Gina Barecca's bitingly funny memoir, Babes in Boyland, gives a personal account of the changes at Dartmouth during the tumultuous early years of coeducation in the 1970s.
Many Universities, One Shared Experience. While many American universities have been coeducational since their inception--Oberlin, founded in 1833, was the first--the majority of colleges and universities only provided single-sex education until the middle of last century. With the rise of the civil rights and feminist movements in the 1960s, many single-sex colleges and universities began admitting both men and women, diversifying by gender as well by race, religion, and class. In Going Coed: Women's Experiences in Formerly Men's Colleges and Universities, 1950-2000, Leslie Miller-Bernal and Susan L. Poulson discuss case studies of twenty-three colleges and universities that began admitting women in the past sixty years. These institutions may have come to coeducation in a variety of ways, yet their overall experiences were remarkably similar.
The tales of integrating women into formerly male bastions of higher learning follow the familiar trajectory: social change sweeps the country and spurs administrators (frequently) or alumni and trustees (less often) to open the doors of their institutions to women. The women come in small numbers, with meager university resources at their disposal, and struggle against the biases of their classmates and professors. Despite these adversities, the women succeed academically and extracurricularly, and eventually their numbers equal or surpass their male classmates' in graduation rates. Colleges that followed this pattern are as diverse as Princeton and West Point and as the University of Virginia and Boston College. Indeed, reading the catalog of colleges that successfully became coed can be a bit repetitive, numbing one to the historical reality of how difficult it was for the women in the early years of coeducation, and how difficult it remains for women to win tenure or be elected trustees even now.
Some of the stories that stand out in Going Coed are those of less typical universities. Historically black Lincoln University began admitting women when its male matriculation rate began dropping precipitously: male applicants were choosing historically white universities that were starting to admit black students. At the University of Rochester, administrators attempted coeducation early in the century, moved to coordinate education (separate women's and men's colleges within one university), and finally re-attempted coeducation in the 1950s. And essays on military schools and on community and for-profit colleges broaden the profile of the representative schools beyond the typical liberal arts institutions.
The overwhelming message of this book's essays is that coeducation was a good thing for the women and men of these colleges. The average SAT scores of admitted students rose, and, after a period of adjustment, nearly everyone affiliated with the college agreed that coeducation was clearly the correct decision, even the most blueblood of the alumni. I wonder whether case studies could have been found in which coeducation did not go smoothly. Are there universities that became less prestigious or respected after coeducation, or that lost the intimacy they had as all-male institutions? Additionally, despite the success women have had as students at these colleges and universities, women remain underrepresented in the ranks of tenured faculty and university administration. Going Coed does mention the changing roles of women in running these institutions, as well as the growth of women's studies programs, but focuses primarily on the experience of the students there. Perhaps diversifying the scope of their analysis and storytelling could have led the essay authors to give a broader sense of what constituted success in coeducation. These few quibbles aside, the essays in Miller-Bernal and Poulson's book give a terrific introduction to the messy process of integrating colleges and universities.
Coordinate Education and Coeducation: Barnard and Columbia. Rosalind Rosenberg's masterful history of women at Columbia University, Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think About Sex and Politics, presents a lengthy narrative of the struggle towards coeducation at that venerated institution. Meticulous in its account, Changing the Subject details the roles of literally hundreds of women (and men) in founding the women's college Barnard, integrating the graduate and professional schools, and ultimately admitting women to the formerly male Columbia College. The paths towards coeducation at Columbia, unlike those at the schools profiled in Going Coed, began in the 1870s and meandered their way to the modern-day unusual compromise: a coeducational college (Columbia College) coexisting with a coordinate women's college (Barnard College).
Rosenberg details how the founding of Barnard was itself a struggle: even in 1889, some educators felt women and men would be best served through coeducation, while others felt that women deserved no part of higher education at all. The opening of Barnard, with its complicated rules about how many classes would be taught by Columbia College faculty, was a compromise that was seen by some as inadequate. As the graduate and professional schools at Columbia slowly integrated, pressure built to combine the two undergraduate colleges. But since Barnard had hired its own faculty and constructed its own curriculum, less restrictive than the Columbia core curriculum, the administrators, students, and alumnae of Barnard were reluctant to fold that school into Columbia College, as Radcliffe did into Harvard. Indeed, it was the very restrictions on hiring women to teach at Columbia College that led Barnard to hire its own faculty and administrative body, which then prevented full coeducation when the revolutions of the 1960s began. To this day, women can choose to apply to the larger and more structured Columbia College or to the smaller and more nurturing Barnard College.
The dilemma over undergraduate education is only one of the many stories that Rosenberg tells. While the subtitle may overreach a bit, since the book does confine its discussions to the roles of women on Columbia's campus rather than in changing the outside world, the stories within detail struggles toward class, racial, and religious integration at Barnard. The most impressive and occasionally tedious parts of the book document the roles and lives of the hundreds of women involved in coeducation at Columbia. While the constant parade of names and dates overwhelmed this nonhistorian a bit, I was impressed by the depth of Rosenberg's research and her ability to keep the strong narrative flowing while giving each woman her due. One of her arguments is that the urban and cosmopolitan nature of Columbia made it necessarily more ethnically diverse and more involved in the politics of women's rights. I enjoyed reading the struggles of a university where many of the trustees and educators were immigrants, Jews, lesbians, radicals--and I imagine that these nonconforming forces helped to give Barnard the strong identity it has today.
Ten Thousand Men--and Women--of Harvard. While Rosenberg's analysis details the cosmopolitan nature of Columbia University, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Yards and Gates paints a picture of a more homogenous, yet still activist, Harvard. Her mission is to show that "there have always been women at Harvard," and she accomplishes this task by gathering stories of less-well-documented populations at Harvard, whether they were girlfriends of Harvard men in the 1700s or black scrubwomen in the 1800s. The organization of the first half of the book is somewhat haphazard, blending snapshots of specific female populations at the university with chapters discussing the larger question of gender at Harvard. There are some fascinating chapters, such as those on sartorial choices: accounts of the baggy bloomers that were the only pants allowed to Radcliffe women accompany descriptions of how convincing these women looked in drag on stage. A few essays expand the focus of the book to discuss masculinity among Harvard men, exploring how late-nineteenth-century university students were considered unmanly "dudes" for their focus on the life of the mind.
The focus and pace of Yards and Gates improves in the book's second half, which recounts the history of Harvard in the twentieth century, when coeducation became a main challenge for the university. Unlike the courses of study developed by the independent faculty at Barnard, Radcliffe's curriculum was a mirror of Harvard's, and all Radcliffe teachers were Harvard professors. While this sort of separate but equal education may have seemed ideal for giving Radcliffe women an education equivalent to that of Harvard men, in fact many male Harvard professors resented having to repeat lectures for the women's classes and viewed women's classes as tedious and unnecessary. In 1947, the university merged Radcliffe's classes into Harvard's, allowing women to take any university classes on Harvard's main campus while remaining separately admitted, administered, and housed by Radcliffe a few blocks away. Ulrich's book contains several striking first-person accounts from women who graduated in these days before full coeducation. Unlike the typical stories of nurturing women's colleges, these accounts describe Radcliffe life as bereft of an emotional center, with faraway dorms and strict parietal rules but no concurrent feminist consciousness. Given these negative feelings, it is no wonder that most undergraduates (female and male) lobbied for full coeducation in the 1960s. In 1970, Harvard began co-residence for male and female undergraduates; Radcliffe's identity continued to erode until it was made into a research institute in 1999, leaving Harvard College as the sole undergraduate college at the university.
Unlike those in Going Coed or Changing the Subject, the essays in Ulrich's book leave a sad taste in the mouth. Complete coeducation was clearly the right move for the women of Radcliffe, yet Cliffies did not become Harvard women without some degree of regret and confusion about the loss of their former identity. When Harvard began allowing women to join its newspapers and yearbooks, participation in the Radcliffe publications dwindled and ceased. Harvard students of both sexes were desperate for co-residence, yet the dorms that had been Radcliffe's were so inferior in facilities and location that few men wished to move there. In a sense, women at the pre-coed Radcliffe were caught between the ideals of the intimate and empowering women's college and the intellectual and activist coeducational one, without gaining the benefits of either. Moreover, even in the current climate of complete coeducation, tenured women faculty at Harvard are outnumbered nearly six to one. It remains a project of the next century to equalize the gendered hiring and tenuring process at Harvard--and at universities nationwide.
Brunette Amidst the Blonds: One Dartmouth Woman's Story. Some of the most compelling essays in Yards and Gates were the personal accounts of women who slogged through the early stages of coeducation at Harvard. In her memoir, Babes in Boyland, feminist scholar Gina Barecca leads us through the tangled webs of sexism, class, and ethnic biases as she chronicles her days at Dartmouth in the 1970s. By turns side-splittingly funny and painfully self-revelatory, Barecca paints a clear picture of the frat-boy old-money school struggling through the growing pains of coeducation. She came to Dartmouth in 1975, a dark-haired ethnic minority in a sea of blond and tanned athletes, just a few years after the college began admitting women. In her memoir, she tells of teachers who told girls that there was "still time to transfer to state schools" on the first day of class and of the "Better Dead Than Coed" signs hung by male classmates protecting their turf. In the midst of this hostility, Barecca finds herself a group of like-minded women with whom she can wonder and sneer at the oppressive environment. One of the book's most poignant scenes comes when the Dartmouth women watch girls from a women's college disembark from a bus for a dance weekend, each one presented with a carnation and taken on the arm of a Dartmouth man. In the classroom and on the dance floor, Dartmouth women were made to feel inauthentic both as students and as women.
Barecca's biting humor does not merely comment on her struggles with coeducation. As Dartmouth began to admit women, it also began to admit students from classes and ethnicities not often represented in this sleepy New England town. Barecca spends pages describing how her thick dark hair and love of peasant skirts made her stand out as much as her gender. While the other books reviewed here do make mention of the ethnic and racial integration that accompanied coeducation in the 1970s, Barecca's first-person account adds immeasurably to our empathy for someone who, in the early days of coeducation, felt like a minority in nearly every way. Other than mentioning some gibes she receives for her Brooklyn accent, Barecca notes few instances of outright bigotry about her class or ethnicity, but her story is suffused in the frustration of being working-class in a school of privilege. One path she finds toward self-empowerment is in academic success: the bonds she builds with a female professor lead to her professional calling in academia.
Although Barecca managed to excel academically and find a clique for comfort, her memoir remains steeped in bittersweet longing for an ideal college experience. Indeed, reading Babes in Boyland can be cathartically painful, as we experience the constant alienation and longing for inclusion along with our terribly funny narrator. As the memoir nears its close, Barecca leaves for a year in England and embarks on exhausting love affairs, leaving the amusing anecdotes of sexist college life for a more soul-deep ennui. Luckily, with chapters short as a couple of paragraphs, the memoir is able to steer free of the torments of early adulthood by interjecting humor, like the note-perfect recountings of overheard conversations or appropriate sophomoric poetry. Sometimes wrenching, always witty, Barecca leaves the reader grateful for a Dartmouth experience that could produce a memoir as distinctive as this.
Thirty Years Later: Coeducation a Reality? At this point, nearly all formerly male American colleges and universities have become coed, while there still exist a good number of women's colleges in the U.S. Women who now choose to attend single-sex schools do so for the intimacy, personal attention, and community therein, rather than because it is their only option. In reading these studies of formerly male colleges, one wonders whether a similar male culture of banter and belonging has been lost in the rush towards coeducation. When I attended Yale, I became aware of the rich legacy of "Old Blue," and I wanted to understand what was lost and gained in coeducation, aside from the cancellation of dances with our sister school. Perhaps more studies of women's and formerly women's colleges can help illuminate what makes a college intimate, nurturing, and successful for both men and women. Miller-Bernal and Poulson plan a follow-up to Going Coed focusing on women's schools--I await it eagerly.
These four books are wonderful places to begin one's study of coeducation at American universities. Going Coed may be of most use to researchers and scholars of education, while Changing the Subject is an extremely readable history for anyone in education or women's studies. Yards and Gates would primarily appeal to historians of Harvard, although historians of education or women's studies will also find it valuable. The very different Babes in Boyland has my unqualified recommendation for the casual or professional reader in need of a good laugh--or cry. Together they tell the story of a tumultuous few centuries of women's education in American universities and colleges. I look forward to more studies of the roles of gender in colleges and universities, coed and single-sex, to complete this picture.
[Sara N.S. Meirowitz is Associate Editor in Science, Technology, and Society at the MIT Press. One of her favorite haunts is the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, which is housed at the Radcliffe Institute.]
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|Title Annotation:||Babes in Boyland : A Personal History of Co-Education in the Ivy League, Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think About Sex and Politics, Going Codes: Women's Experiences in Formerly Men's Colleges and Universities, Yards and Gates: Gender in Havard and Radcliffe History|
|Author:||Meirowitz, Sara N.S.|
|Publication:||Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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