Recent discussions on this blog about gender balance in colleges and universities have sparked a number of memories of my own college experiences. I thought it would be interesting to share them here and to invite you to share yours, as well.
As noted previously, in 1970 I entered a small college that had, until that year, been the “sister school” of a nearby men’s university. There were only a handful of men in my class, and of course none in the more advanced classes.
I had applied to only three colleges in total, all chosen by my parents, and all in the South; two private women’s schools and this, a well regarded branch of a state university system. I was accepted at all three, and my parents chose to send me to the cheapest school. I was in no position, or mood to argue; I had narrowly escaped secretarial school, at which I would have been a complete failure; I had no money, and because my parents did have money I was not eligible for the juiciest scholarships. I was grateful to be going anywhere.
I was a bit apprehensive, though, at the idea of a mostly boy-free environment. I had not dated a lot in high school — I’d had one fairly traumatic romance, and was both the subject and object of a few serious, unrequited crushes. Mostly, I was the girl that boys sought out to confide their love for other, more distant and glamorous girls, or, on a couple of occasions, boys. It wasn’t my ideal role, but I was pretty good at it, and I enjoyed these friendships, which felt less complicated to me than many of my more fraught relationships with girls back in those days of often thoughtless differential socialization.
I had been taken aback, on attending a tea for applicants to one of the women’s colleges, by the gentility of the alumnae who greeted us and answered our questions. Even the most recent graduates wore dainty suits, button earrings, stockings and heels. I’d been hoping for an environment more like that of Smith or Sarah Lawrence, with aggressively smart women in jeans and black turtlenecks, but of course my parents would never have sent me to one of those schools. "So," I asked a cluster of them gathered around the tea table, "What’s it like to not have boys around?"
One woman said, "The men’s college is just the next town over. There are all sorts of mixers and themed dance nights."
"But don’t you miss seeing them every day?"
After a brief silence, one of the other women said, "You know, at a certain age, it’s appropriate to stop thinking of boys as playmates and start relating to them as potential boyfriends and husbands. It’s easier to make the transition if you’re not in each other’s hair all the time." The others nodded.
I nodded, too, trying to appear as mature and sophisticated as these women seemed to be. But I felt lost. Was this what growing up meant, imposing an artificial structure on previously natural relationships? Would my school be like this? Was I totally unequipped to handle the social demands of college?
(To be continued)