On the morning of December 11, 2012, the Huffington Post published a guest editorial by Elisabeth Pfeiffer, SC ’15. The title read, “Don’t Like the Gender Gap? Women’s Colleges Might Just Be the Answer.”
Pfeiffer’s piece praises Scripps for developing her leadership skills and broadening her understanding of women’s issues, while alluding to sexism and patronizing behavior at the rest of the consortium. But despite her impassioned support of the all-girls model, Pfeiffer overlooks some basic ideas that suggest that women’s colleges are not, in fact, superior in countering gender inequality.
So, I have to ask: What makes Scripps—or any other women’s college—any better than CMC, based solely on the gender composition?
Consider the hundreds of women, including myself, who attend an institution formerly known as Claremont Men’s College. My roommate’s mother, a CMC alumna, holds a diploma carrying that name. She graduated in one of the first co-educational classes at CMC during the interim period before “Men’s” was replaced with the gender-neutral “McKenna.” According to recent data, CMC’s student body is 55% male and 44% female, still reflecting the ever-present roots of our all-male beginning.
Despite CMC’s lingering emphasis on men, and in stark contrast to the all-female college next door, I feel that I have also received the empowering benefits that Pfeiffer attributes solely to women’s colleges. In fact, I argue that CMC has better equipped me and other female students to tackle the gender gap than most women’s colleges would have, particularly because of the co-ed environment.
CMC teaches leadership by emphasizing pragmatism, a focus that makes our school unique among liberal arts colleges. Our education gives us breadth and depth but never delves so deeply as to neglect practical applications. Our school’s gender balance acts in the same way: It reflects the practical challenges that women face (culturally embedded gender roles, male dominance, etc.) and challenges those notions by giving women the opportunity to work directly alongside men in prototypical boys’ clubs—something uniquely unavailable at a women’s college.
Pfeiffer wrote of her school, “I will never again be surrounded by such a large community of independent and intelligent women who are so motivated to make a difference.” Well, I don’t need to venture across Ninth Street to find independent, intelligent, and motivated women; CMC is full of them. And the women at CMC learn, grow, and succeed in a realistic environment where we compete with talented men for elite positions. We don’t become leaders by thriving in an atmosphere that artificially eradicates sexism but by fighting to earn our success under the same conditions we’ll face once we graduate.
I am by no means suggesting that gender barriers of this sort should be imposed intentionally, nor do I think that the male-dominated environment at CMC is engineered to be exclusive to women. The situations in which we train at CMC simply mirror the real professional barriers that women face, and they likely arise for similar reasons.
During my college search, I chose not to apply to women’s colleges. This was not because I would have felt uncomfortable at a “lesbian college” or sexually stifled by an absence of men—taunts that Pfeiffer faced when choosing Scripps—but because what I looked for in my college experience was a challenge. I wanted to enter a school that would push me to be stronger and bolder, not indulge my weaknesses by protecting me from “injustice” in an inaccurately idyllic setting.
In her editorial, Pfeiffer discusses November’s congressional elections, the results of which brought the number of female senators to an all-time high of twenty in the 113th Congress. But Pfeiffer asks the reader to “forgive” her for “not celebrating,” arguing that one out of five of our senators being a woman is not enough. And she’s right. Women should comprise more than 20% of the Senate. But we’re not going to develop a fair gender balance in Congress by scoffing at small progress, claiming the answer can come only from a room full of women; such a forum is not a microcosm of the real world.
Female CMC students are in a 44% gender minority. The five women in CMC’s Student Investment Fund last spring were in an 8% minority; the twenty female Fortune 500 CEOs are in a 4% minority; and the women in the U.S. Senate have just entered a 20% minority. Those women are leaders. Meanwhile, at Scripps—what minority?
On a fundamental level, you don’t familiarize yourself with a problem by ignoring it. You learn it by living it. We can educate ourselves about gender inequality by taking women’s studies classes, watching Hillary Clinton’s “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” speech, and talking to other women about gender issues. But, as much as those secondary sources can teach you, there is no substitute for actually battling and overcoming gender-based obstacles. And those obstacles simply don’t exist within a women’s college.
I don’t believe that the way to close the gender gap is to hide out in a college full of other women, collectively agonizing over society’s sexist underpinnings and rallying around the energizing but vague bastion of the feminist cause, as Pfeiffer seems to suggest in her praise of Scripps. The structure of a women’s college is inherently designed not to mimic the structure of society but to create one that feels more comfortable. This is a problem, not a solution.
Women cannot learn about the “female struggle” by rejecting the environment from which these struggles are born. Doing so breeds ignorance and naivety. If we endorse gender separatism by encouraging female students to attend women’s colleges, we are not challenging society’s gender gap. We’re perpetuating it.
Thus, I welcome the CMC community—even its boys’ club elements—because this won’t be the last time I’ll have to work within this system. The real world is nothing like the shelter of a women’s college, and I don’t care to indulge the fantasy that it is. Come at me, inequality. I can take it.