In 1970, when I entered college, I was less than enthusiastic about the school my parents had chosen for me. I had had my heart set on Middlebury, mainly because my favorite high school teacher had gone there, repeatedly told me I would love it, and had offered to push my application through. Two of my good friends were going to McGill and Cornell, both of which sounded brainy and exciting. My grades were good and my SAT scores were almost perfect; I would have had a good chance at getting into any of those schools, but I wasn't allowed to apply.
My parents, as I have noted here before, did not believe in higher education for women, and although my high school teachers convinced them that college, rather than secretarial school, was the road I needed to take, they resented the intrusion and didn't intend to pay any more than they had to. Private schools weren't even on the table. I would have liked to go on my own, but I couldn't get financial aid, because my parents had too much money. There was probably a workaround for this, but I was a teenager, and I was embarrassed to ask the teachers who had done so much for me to give me even more help.
My Virginia-bred mother had the idea that a Southern women's college was more like a finishing school, which she approved of—she already felt that my academic interests were in danger of rendering me unmarriageable. There was only one public women's college in Virginia then — Mary Washington, the women's college of the University of Virginia—and that was where I had to go.
My first several months were pure misery. Everyone was so polite! This doesn't sound like it should be a complaint, but I was used to the outspokenness, sometimes tipping into rudeness, of New Yorkers, and I was used to being around boys. Many of my classmates had attended sex-segregated private high schools, and they seemed to speak a genteel language that left me feeling lost and frustrated. I heard what they said but I felt they meant something different. And when I spoke my mind, everyone seemed embarrassed. My classes were interesting enough, but I felt the intellectual bar was set very low. To my mother's chagrin, the school started letting in a few boys that year, but there weren't any in my classes.
Eventually I got my sea legs. I made friends, both female and male. My hallmates in the dorm developed a laughing tolerance for my bluntness, calling some of my more memorable statements "Yankee Doodles." I discovered that many of my professors and classmates were actually brilliant; they just didn't advertise it the way people did back home. Women performed many functions that I had previously seen only men do: they ran the school government and newspaper; more pertinent for me, they headed sound and light crews in the theater.
I grew in ways I could never have imagined.
I realized I would have been depressed and miserable in the Montreal, Vermont, or even upstate New York winters. When I went home for school breaks, it didn't feel like home anymore. Everyone seemed rude, disrespectful and without nuance. I couldn't wait to get back to Mary Wash. It wasn't utopia by any means, but I felt I belonged there. When graduation came I didn't want to leave.
Over the years, I have watched the school change in a number of ways. One of them has been the increasing number of male students—men make up approximately 40% of the current student body. There has been a parallel rise in emphasis on sports and a push to institute fraternities. Several years ago the college proposed changing its name to Washington and Monroe College, "to reflect the changing demographic of the school," or, as my friends all agreed, because the men were embarrassed to go to a school named after a woman. (The alumnae shot that one down; the school is now the University of Mary Washington, most commonly referred to as UMW.)
Most recently, a prominent campus feminist/LGBT activist was murdered by her male housemate, and the campus feminist organization has filed a complaint claiming that the university failed to protect the victim or other members of the organization from harassment and threats.
Before my beloved trolls crawl out and bludgeon me with misandry charges, let me make it clear that I am not saying that Grace Mann was murdered for her activism or orientation, or that having men on campus is the cause of all campus violence. I'm not saying those things aren't true, either. I'm just explaining why this particular case is meaningful and distressing to me. I will have more to say about what I think at a later date.
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