I apologise in advance that this post will be a bit Cambidge centric at first, but I hope that some of the points I bring up in relation to all-female colleges will illustrate some interesting widespread issues regarding women in society.
For those who do not know, Cambridge University has three all female college. As an alumni of one of them, New Hall, I have dealt with my fair share of people asking me wasn’t it bitchy, wasn’t I man deprived and wasn’t I molly-coddled from men? I would now like to present a defence that validates the existence of all female colleges and highlights that they can actually be very pleasant places to attend.
First of all, I shall admit I was reluctant to go to New Hall, it was not my first choice college and after 7 years in an all-girls school, I wanted to meet men. I need not have worried. I met men. Lectures and classes at Cambridge are mixed, all colleges can attend each other’s social events and university wide societies were obviously mixed. Females at an all-female college had plenty of opportunity to meet men if they so wanted.
Now I believe that a mixed environment is the ideal. Not just any mixed environment though, it has to be a mixed environment where women do not consciously notice they are the minority and that they don’t need to behave out of character, or cosy up to men to be heard in an aggressively testosterone fuelled environment. Unfortunately we do not live in an ideal society. The glass ceiling exists; high levels of domestic violence against women exist, and Nadine Dorries MP can get a bill passed for abstinence lessons to be aimed at girls only (yes women can be women’s own worst enemy, I will talk about this later).
I believe, that by having an all female community, that is part of and immersed with, a mixed community, excellent conditions are created for an environment that empowers woman. All-female colleges essentially provide a support base within a mixed society that emboldens women to take on the glass ceiling etc.
If all-female colleges really wanted to mollycoddle women, they wouldn’t have set themselves up within Cambridge, they would have become separate universities. Or at least tried to limit college interaction with mixed colleges, and as I pointed out earlier, students at all female colleges have plenty of chances to interact with men. Rather these colleges exist to widen female access to higher education, something previously reserved for men as women were not believed capable of equal intelligence. And these colleges exist to provide their students with an empowering environment that will help them in later life.
I do not think that all-female colleges are the only way to give confidence to women. Many of the mixed colleges are doing a great job of that. (Although I will point out that I have a friend who said she liked coming to New Hall as a nice break from the testosterone fuelled atmosphere of her older, traditional college – which just highlights what all female colleges are about, giving women the chance to have an environment they are comfortable in). I am merely validating all-female colleges as a useful way of doing that.
The president of New Hall, the wonderful Jennifer Barnes, has been asked by me and other students at various points whether New Hall would ever become mixed. Jennifer Barnes’ responses to this raise two excellent issues.
A response she once gave to me is that all female colleges are good because they teach women that they can work together. Given the recent flurry in the news that female bosses are nicer to men than to women, I feel this point is very relevant.
One female boss, Samantha Brick, wrote into Grazia magazine to explain that she was harder on her female employees and preferred not to employ them because they apparently gossip too much, let their personal lives affect how they work in an office and had a ‘girl –gang’ mentality and bitched about each other. I find these comments to be an offensive in their stereotyping of women. Men can be ‘bitchy’ or mean too, men can gang up on each other. Surely the city-boys are an example of ‘boy gang’ mentalities but everyone just praises them for being hard-nosed business men. Which brings me to my next problem with stereotyping of women, women are always stereotyped in negative terms, hardly ever in positive generalising terms. And as Samantha Brick shows, women take up these stereotypes against themselves. Probably, because we are living in a society where such stereotyping is just accepted.
However I formed some really strong friendships at my all-female college and my time there proved that actually you can have large groups of women who genuinely care about each other. And, that women can effectively run societies and student unions made up entirely of women without letting so called ‘bitchiness’ get in the way. Samantha Brick, you were employing the wrong women.
A second interesting issue that Jennifer Barnes brought up in response the question of whether New Hall would go co-ed was that of money. She insisted that New Hall would not go co-ed before it was rich in its own right. In other words, New Hall was not going to go co-ed to bring in more money because male alumni shouldn’t be the only ones bringing in the big bucks. Accepting that they are the only ones who can bring in money and thus going co-ed would defeat the point of an all-female college. I thought this point highlighted excellently how far women still have to go in the work place and that we shouldn’t be complacent about what we have achieved. If you look at this year’s Forbes Rich List, only 2 women are in the top ten.
In conclusion, I feel that there is still a place for all-female colleges as much as I would wish otherwise. If only to encourage women to not be their own worst enemy.