The Virtues of a Single-Sex School (or Not)

The author looks back on her misspent youth.

Posted Jun 01, 2015

Source: jmittenburg/morgueFile

The minute my mother and I pulled up in front of Rhoads Hall at Bryn Mawr, I knew I had made a mistake. All girls. (That’s what we were then). It felt unnatural. Why had a signed up for this? Applied to three Seven Sister schools?

First, it looked good on my resume. Second, I’d grown up on Long Island in a 1950’s split-level house, gone to a “modern-looking” high school—its turquoise facade resembled a bathroom. I wanted the turrets and ivy, the F. Scott Fitzgeraldness of it all.

In those days, the Ivy League colleges were single sex, too, but not of the female persuasion. Had they been co-ed, I probably would have ended up at one of them.

Recently, one of our classmates sent an email to others in our class, asking: “At what age or in what decade did your life convince you of the benefit of living four years in a women-only educational environment? This is for you specifically, not women in general. Or, if you've never been convinced, say never.” She asked for two or three words, but this was obviously a thorny question. Most people wrote two or three paragraphs; some wrote mini-memoirs.

“Never,” I replied. The person who’d asked for our input said she was shocked.

I do see advantages, like the fact that we weren’t intimidated by men raising their hands to speak in class or compete with us. But when I got to law school, predominantly men, I was hesitant to raise my hand—even if I had understood what they were talking about.

To escape the Girl Ghetto of college, I spent my junior year abroad. I chose the NYU program in Madrid for the first semester, then a program in London for the second.

“We’d like you to go on the Smith program,” the dean told me.

“But that’s what I want to escape! Why should I cloister myself with fifteen young women in the Smith program when I could be part of a coeducational experience on the University of Madrid campus?”

“Es mas elegante,” said my Spanish professor. He shook his head in that sad Garcia Lorca way. I did love his Latin mix of fun and fiesta combined with a splash of drama, depth and despair.

After receiving a flurry of responses to her email, our classmate clarified her question: “The question is really a focus on your life from the minute you got to Bryn Mawr. When, if ever, did you realize you benefited from the experience of your time lived there?”

I benefited from having a Bryn Mawr degree, mostly in terms of prestige, but I would still say it wasn’t the right place for me. Of course, I value my friendships, but in the end it depends on the best learning environment for each individual (and whether you can find a single-sex college these days). For me, a single-sex college wasn’t a good fit. And that was before co-ed dorms and bathrooms and a host of modern, gender-neutral issues. I was a socially adept introvert, who had more fun in a co-ed environment. Not in a small women’s college or a predominantly male law school. Even back then, I knew who I was, but I went for “success.” I went for the turrets and the ivy.

Writing prompt: What kind of environment do you thrive in?

Copyright (c) 2015 by Laura Deutsch