I must have seen the photo a few dozen times in my Facebook feed recently: a female Harvard University student holding a sign that reads “I should have gone to Bryn Mawr.”
My fellow Bryn Mawr alums, unsurprisingly, jumped at the chance to share the photo—taken at a protest against a new Harvard policy designed to discourage single-sex groups and clubs, including fraternities and sororities, as well the university’s exclusive “final clubs.” The university claims the policy will reduce instances of sexual assault on campus.
When I saw the photo, I immediately thought, “Yes, you should have.”
It’s easy to think that in today’s world single-sex institutions—like clubs, sororities, or even colleges—are antiquated and maybe even hold women back. But what’s happening at Harvard, a co-ed institution, ironically demonstrates why women’s colleges are so vital.
Students at Harvard obviously attend a co-ed institution, but the protesting students all spoke about the benefits of their single-sex groups. In these interviews and speeches, a common theme emerged. They all spoke about feeling empowered in their women-only groups in a way they weren’t in co-ed spaces.
Sophomore Caroline Tervo said, “Female spaces are crucial sources of empowerment.”
“My women’s organization taught me how to be a leader. It taught me when I could take the initiative and when to ask for help,” senior Whitney Anderson said.
The new policy, according to Harvard junior Rebecca Ramos, has “taken away our place to speak openly about women’s issues and actively empower each other and other women, and in doing so, they effectively turn back the clock on all of our progress.”
Having attended a women’s college, I understand what these students are saying. There’s something very powerful and inspiring about being at a place where women were in charge. Everywhere you looked on campus, women were running the show (literally when it came to drama and musical theater, but also on sports teams and student government).
As Jenny Rickard, the former director of admissions at Bryn Mawr, once told me, “Our students develop the expectation that they should have those leadership positions, and that other women should too,” she said.
This sort of mentality follows graduates of women’s colleges for the rest of their lives. They regularly break into and succeed in male-dominated fields. Women’s college graduates make up just 2 percent of the college graduate population, but are more than 20 percent of women in Congress and 33 percent of the women on Fortune 1000 boards.
The first woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, the first woman to attain the rank of brigadier general of the U.S. Army, and the first women senator all graduated from women’s colleges. So, ironically, did Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, who graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1968. Faust, though, now seems sadly intent on denying Harvard’s female students the same kind of empowering experience she had at Bryn Mawr.
As Ramos put it, this policy “turns the back on progress.” It will make it harder for women to become the strong leaders female-only institutions develop. For that kind of experience, maybe ambitious young women shouldn’t go to Harvard. Maybe that sign is right, and they should go to Bryn Mawr.