As described last week, I entered college in the fall of 1970 with some trepidation. Recent exposure to a group of extremely ladylike women’s college alumnae had left me concerned that I would feel out of place and intimidated. A spread in Mademoiselle’s fall college issue, shot on my college’s campus and featuring students as models, didn’t ease my anxiety any.
I needn’t have worried. My school, unlike the college that had sponsored the scary tea party, was part of the state system. The DAR and glamour-girl crowds were certainly in evidence (and some members of each group became dear friends) but the student body was fairly diverse, and no one group dominated.
This was also true, of course, at the more coeducational public schools — and some of the private ones — my friends attended. So what were the differences between my experience and theirs?
The plus side included:
--Safety: I hadn’t realized, until I moved into an all-female dorm, that I lived in fear of men. I don’t mean the actual, decent, responsible men with whom I interacted on a regular basis, but those mythic Men for whom I had to be attractive or risk dismissal, yet to whom I couldn’t expose my body for fear of rape or at least being labeled a slut. We wandered around the dorm in our nightgowns; on hot evenings we held study groups in our underwear. We almost never wore makeup or styled our hair during the week. If we overslept, we might throw on a raincoat over our pajamas and race out to breakfast or even an 8 AM class. We engaged in passionate, sometimes heated debates over the Vietnam War, animal rights, sexual ethics, abortion, religion, and any number of other volatile issues, yet I was never afraid that the situation would devolve into physical violence or even name-calling. We disagreed without imperiling friendships or civil discourse. I felt free.
--Validation: With a few outrageous exceptions, our professors—both male and female—seemed to enjoy their jobs and respect the students’ minds and thoughts. They were also respectful of women’s contributions to the larger world. I didn’t realize until years later, comparing notes with literature students from other colleges, that Jane Austen was considered an inferior writer to Henry James, that Charlotte Brontë was a second-rate Thackeray, or that Virginia Woolf was something like Joyce only not so gutsy. Imagine.
--Experience: I had acted in plays throughout high school, but was never exposed to set design or construction. The boys took care of that. After all, they were the ones who took shop classes. The girls took home ec and were allowed to sew costumes and help with makeup if we liked. In college, there was nobody else to do the heavy work, so the other women and I learned to operate power tools, to design and build sets and large props, and to design and operate lights and special effects. I never really got the hang of wiring, but I developed a number of carpentry skills that serve me well to this day, and heading set crews gave me valuable experience in leadership and diplomacy. Women also ran the student government, the school paper, the literary magazine, and other organizations efficiently and well. Working with and for women in all capacities seemed normal and right.
--Encouragement: The combination of safety, validation and experience allowed many of us to grow bolder in our ambitions and in self-expression. We stopped qualifying our opinions so much; we began ending sentences with periods instead of question marks.
--There is no reason why these growth-enhancing experiences couldn’t have taken place in a thoroughly co-ed atmosphere. Maybe they do today. Maybe they did back in the 70s, but not so much among my friends. We had been acculturated to defer to men, and to fear them. I had not realized the extent to which I had taken in these cultural messages until they were challenged by experience every day. So in these respects I felt I was moving ahead of friends who were in mixed colleges.
In other important areas, though, I started lagging behind. More on that next week.
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