Go East, Young Woman

Ever since I made my decision to attend Wellesley College, I find myself having to defend it to most of my high school classmates. Many of them know nothing about the school, and when I tell them about it they ignore its academic reputation and amazing alumnae. To them, it is simply a women’s college. And since I’ve decided to go there, they have surmised that I must hate men, am a lesbian or am doomed to life as a crazy cat lady.

It gets tiresome hearing my classmates’ reasons why I shouldn’t go. One boy even told me, “You won’t know how to interact with men past the age of 18.” (Forget the fact that I will have male professors and will interact with some of the thousands of male students at surrounding campuses.) Since I’ve also heard that women’s colleges are somewhat controversial in the feminist community, I thought I’d examine these reactions and the issue in general.

Perhaps I should explain why I chose to go to a women’s college. I applied and was accepted into both co-ed and single-sex schools. I ultimately chose to go to a women’s college because I was amazed by the strong community I found there and the notable accomplishments of previous graduates. Clearly, women’s colleges prepare women well for the world and encourage them to be passionate about what they choose to do. Of course, I understand that a same-sex college is not necessarily appropriate for every woman, but I do believe there are great advantages to attending one, if the college is a good fit.

Only 2 percent of college-aged women choose to go to women’s colleges, but those who do have overwhelmingly positive results. In spite of these positives, there is somewhat of a backlash against them. One of the common arguments I hear is that they are antiquated institutions. As the Women’s College Coalition explains:

The formal education of girls and women began in the middle of the 19th century and was intimately tied to the conception that society had of the appropriate role for women to assume in life.

But the need for these colleges has evolved over time, and now they hardly seem old-fashioned. The progressive mindset of these colleges helped educate many impressive women, including two icons of feminism, Gloria Steinem (Smith ‘56) and Betty Friedan (Smith ‘42), as well as some of the most powerful women in government: Hillary Clinton (Wellesley ‘69), Madeleine Albright (Wellesley ‘59) and Nancy Pelosi (Trinity ‘62).

Another opposing opinion states that women’s colleges no longer have a place in our world with the abundance of co-ed colleges, and that by continuing to exist are promoting sexism through segregation. But I see women’s colleges as filling a void that sexism created in the world, where women don’t get called on as often by professors and have to fight to be heard. I doubt many would be able to say this is no longer a problem. Women’s colleges are inherently feminist, not sexist, because they believe in advancing women’s position in the world. To those who then counter with, “Why aren’t there more colleges exclusively for men?” I answer, “Because men are not at a disadvantage in the common classroom or greater society and so there is no real need for all-male colleges. And yet, some still exist.” One day, women will hopefully be on equal footing with men and the remaining women’s colleges can go co-ed. However, that time has certainly not yet arrived.

When I graduate in four years, I doubt I’ll have had the cobwebby, sequestered experience my classmates envision for me. Rather, I’ll have years of practice speaking my mind and standing up for what I believe in–starting with my belief in women’s colleges.

Photo from Flickr user stevendepolo under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Vicky Zeamer says:

    Couldn’t agree more.

    -fellow wellesley ’15

  2. I graduated from Mount Holyoke, another of the Seven Sisters, this past May. Everything you say sounds very familiar. I’ve dealt with some of the same comments, but I’ve also known the same strong community, progressive education, and chance to speak my mind. For the right person, women’s colleges are a great place to be. Have a fantastic time at Wellsley!

  3. Looking at the list of alumnae, it’s hard to believe that anyone would criticize a decision to attend Wellesley…

  4. I just graduated from a 4 year Women’s university in New Jersey. I am a non traditional student (meaning above 25) and I loved the close knit community of the school. Despite being an all women’s college, although in the last 20 years has had a University College for men/women to attend, I found it to be a very diversified and engaging community. They are all about encouraging women to be the leaders of tomorrow. One of the classes that all students had to take was a Women and Gender class. This class really opened up many people’s eyes to what takes place in society on a daily basis. Before taking this class I have always thought of myself as a feminist, but I saw a lot of young women really find themselves relating to many of the topics that were spoken about in the many lectures that were presented to us. I also loved being able to go to the Brooklyn Museum to see the Dinner Party exhibit that featured many of the great, strong women throughout history. It was the best school I could have chosen and I look forward to pursuing my masters in a program that will better society in many ways.

  5. Roxanne Carter says:

    Outstanding! You go Anna! Article is insightful and timely as women have not fully evolved into their rightful position in society and it is vital that young women should be reminded of that. How fortunate for Wellesley to have you sitting in there classrooms. I congratulate you on your blog and wish you all the best and most wonderful experiences at Wellesley.

  6. I chose to attend Texas Woman’s University specifically because this co-ed public institution now required both genders to take women’s and multicultural studies as part of the core curriculum.

    I believed that this mandatory requirement was more conducive to promoting the type of society I wanted to see.

    People knowing why women’s history and rights are important would be more likely to support the advancement.

    It would not be portrayed as an ‘extra’ for only certain demographics/degrees, as unfortunately does happen at other campuses. And they’d also be more likely to themselves participate in out of class projects to help out.

  7. But we still have have to ask who is being supported at these schools?

    Friends and I were initially hounded by a now-gone VP for Academic Affairs, who misused her position to attempt ‘weeding out’ students with disabilities. And she had not sufficiently staffed the campus accomodations office or ensured the physical plant was acccessible to people with disabilities.

    Then, a student body president later attacked me and other students for requesting that the acomodations office recieve funds which initially would have instead go to an off-campus ‘poster child’ campaign. Ironically, when she resigned, the first male student body president (who had been the vice president) was the one who restored full-funding to the campus disability services office and stopped funding the patronizing campaign. Instead of mocking classmates with disabilities, he listened to our concerns.

    Proud of my education, I do realize that women’s colleges/historically women’s colleges are just as capable of engaging in discrimination.

  8. I’m in my mid-20’s, and my peers who went to women’s colleges seem to have a level of confident self-presentation and ability to state their opinions assertively that precious few of us who went to co-ed schools can claim. Not that we aren’t also confident and assertive, but I’ve noticed many times that the women’s college grads really seem to be a cut above. It makes me regret my dismissal of women’s colleges when I was applying to schools – if you get a chance in the next few years, I hope you’ll talk to high schoolers about your college experience, and maybe change some of their minds!

  9. Anna,

    I faced an identical experience when I made the decision to attend Wellesley. Now that I’m a couple of years past graduation, I can tell you that the experience will be everything you hope and more! The time I spent there influenced me in ways I never imagined, and I left with the belief that I could accomplish anything I set out to do. Congratulations and good luck!

  10. Anna, you are spot-on for why I chose to go to Wellesley back in ’99. I too had people assume it was a cloistered environment that would graduate timid students with no skills for the real world, but my experience (and that of every other Wellesley alum I know) was the opposite. Wellesley is a worldly, challenging place, and I graduated confident and able to hold my own in any work or academic environment. In fact, I’ve often found myself more confident in a coed environment that my peers who attended coed universities. All the best to you at Wellesley–you’re in for four wonderful years!

  11. As a graduate of Scripps college, I faced many of the same comments from friends and family as I prepared to go off to school. And yet, my experience was anything but sequestered. I was challenged and grew in ways I never knew existed.

  12. The family barriers I’ve faced (not to diminish/ignore others) have come from disability. I was among the first generation of people to be educated under special education.

    Which sounds great in theory.

    But just having been handed a high school diploma and not being told how statues would change in college really threw the family for a loop.

    Because special education legally gives parents so many rights and so much proactive control over the k-12 student’s education, they then actually fought research on the ADA which I discovered, believing that federal laws covering my college education were automatically inaccurate.

    Researching what prior generations went through with gender at a time when women obtaining the college degree was rare did provide comfort. But it was also frustrating that a new kind of the same ‘oddity’ was living on.

  13. A lovely, lovely post. I hope you love Wellesley. Your reasons for choosing it remind me of my own, 25 years ago. It was a great decision, one I grow prouder of all the time.–Anne Fernald, Wellesley, ’88

  14. I went to Smith and absolutely loved it. I had amazing professors, made wonderful friends and was challenged and grew in so many ways. Wellesley sounds lucky to have you Anna, I hope you have a wonderful college experience!

  15. This post was so incredibly helpful for me. I fell in love with Bryn Mawr and I’m planning on applying next year but I admit that I have been having doubts due to my friends’ concern about life at a women’s school. This absolutely reaffirmed my confidence that college will be an incredible experience whether or not the campus is co-ed. Thank you and good luck next year!

  16. I completely agree with you. I come from a place where very few people have heard of Wellesley, and they literally laugh when I attempt to tell them about it. I can’t wait to be surrounded by confident, intelligent women for the 4 years. See you in a couple of days!

    -Fellow Wellesley ’15 Woman

  17. Welcome to the sisterhood!

  18. Fabulous article, thank you so much for putting this out there!

  19. Wellesley was the best and most important decision I have made. It changed the path of my life. Welcome to the club and best of luck.
    MaryAnne ‘84

  20. dominique says:

    well said. enjoy your four years at wellesley – they go by so fast, but are indeed an amazing launching pad into the world!!!

    wellesley ’02

  21. Wellesley06 says:

    Your high school experience is good practice as you will be dealing with ignorant questions and comments about your choice to attend Wellesley long after you’ve graduated.

  22. I must admit that I was a little surprised to see this on the Ms Magazine website. Things I’ve read from so many feminist organizations condemn single-sex education (despite that so many of the women in them went to women’s schools!). I’m so glad to see this article here.

    I graduated from Mississippi University for Women, which was all female until 1982. These days, it’s still 80-90% women and has retained its women’s emphasis. It seems that the experience of attending a small single-sex university is somewhat of a universal one. Though we have some differences, the feeling of community and tradition is one we all share. So many people who attended large co-ed institutions never really get why we’re so fiercely loyal to our alma maters! “What?! No football? Then why go back??” It’s about going “Home,” to the place where I became the woman I am today. It’s about seeing the best friends of my life!

    • I too graduated from Mississippi University for Women. As the saying goes, “the proof is in the pudding” and the sheer number of women graduates of the “W” (as it is affectionately known) who become pioneers in their professional life and leaders in their communities, schools, churches, government, attests to the success of a women’s emphasis education in preparing women for leadership roles. The continuing existence of single-sex schools is essential to give that 2% of women who attend them a real choice. Perhaps it is a self-sorting process where women who choose the single-sex school do so because they already possess the qualities that will help them rise, like cream, to the top 2% of their chosen profession. It is certainly no coincidence that women in government, CEOs of corporations, and outstanding leaders in a variety of professions have one common denominator…they were educated at a single-sex institution.

  23. Nice post! By the way, in my experience, you’ll end up *better* able to interact with men over the age of 18. You’ll spend four years being encouraged to speak your mind, share your ideas, and stand up for yourself, rather than being told to sit down and shut up (and as a transfer from a co-ed school to Wellesley, I’m not just repeating some stereotype). There are those who will think that this boldness will evaporate when women’s college alumnae are faced with a big, scary man outside the safety of their campus, but there’s a quick cure for that: just smile and ask if they would like to express that opinion to a couple of your new siblings. 😉

    Good luck, girl–you’re on the right track already!

    –Lindsey, Class of 2011

  24. Kathy - Wellesley '73 says:

    I loved your article! As they told us at Alumnae Council last fall, “At some colleges you go for four years, but at Wellesley you go for life.” It is so true! The comments that you have heard are not! It is great that you did not listen. I am so proud of the accomplishments of my classmates, and you will find that your network of friends from Wellesley will serve you well throughout your life.

    No worries about interacting with men either. Men from all over the area are available for socializing, and you can take courses at MIT, etc. It’s the best of all worlds!

    Good luck to you!

  25. A decade out and I agree even more wholeheartedly with what you posted than I did when I arrived on campus. Congrats on your decision, and enjoy every single moment of the community in that amazing place. You won’t find another Wellesley in the world–whatever you do, don’t take those four years for granted.
    Congrats and enjoy!
    Wellesley ’01

  26. You’re going to LOVE it.

    I went on exchange to a co-ed school my junior year and also went to a co-ed graduate school. Neither could compare to my classes at Wellesley. I don’t think until I had those experiences that I even recognized how the experience at Wellesley is different. The women in my classes at co-ed schools participated much less compared to the men, were treated differently by professors, and often even women’s language was different – more tentative, less bold. I don’t know what it is about Wellesley and other women’s colleges, but when I worked in a male dominated tech field, I could pretty much pick out the other female execs who had been to a women’s college. There’s just “something.” You’ll see.

    Oh, and the alumnae network is amazing.

    Someone once asked me, don’t you have trouble meeting men? Isn’t dating hard at a women’s college? The answer: No. It’s just like the real world, actually… If you want relationships, there are plenty of opportunities – you just have to work a little at it. The good news is, the guy who breaks your heart won’t be showing off his new girlfriend in your Biology class next month.

  27. I went to Wellesley because I liked the atmosphere when I visited and I was impressed with the calibre of the classes. That said, I was apprehensive: I was a tomboy and uncertain what I would do surrounded by females. It took a while for me to realize that part of the reason I liked the atmosphere at Wellesley was because it was a women’s college; this was something I was unwilling to accept before I arrived.

    Wellesley does have opportunities for education, and I’d like to believe that most people go to college for a good education, not for sex. For those who are after the latter, there are opportunities and many Wellesley students have boyfriends/girlfriends from Harvard, MIT, or any of the number of colleges in the area. Yawn.

    I do recall one objection from a high school teacher: he said that those who went to women’s colleges learned to speak for themselves. He implied that this was a negative, since in the “real world” things did not work this way. In his interpretation, what to do with a bunch of women who did not see why their opinions mattered any less than that of their male counterparts?

  28. Whenever people ask why I chose a women’s college, I always reply that I chose Wellesley because it is an amazing school. Your Wellesley sisters have been accepted at other high-ranking, “name brand” institutions, including the likes of Harvard and Princeton, but still chose Wellesley. No, we weren’t hiding from men. We wanted the best education for ourselves and a richer classroom experience. Wellesley currently ranks #1 in Forbes magazine for its Professors, is among the greatest college endowments of liberal arts campuses (and exponentially more wealthy than many large universities), and has one of the strongest Alumnae Networks in the country.

    Anna, thank you for sharing – and congratulations on your admission to Wellesley! I believe that your class is also designated a yellow class, as was mine (’07) – they will certainly be some golden years!

  29. Elisabeth says:

    Welcome to the sisterhood! I picked Wellesley for the same reasons and it was an amazing four years. Enjoy it!

    Wellesley ’09

  30. Welcome to Wellesley! Excellent article. I, too, heard a lot of these same objections when I chose Wellesley (Class of ’98, woo!). I didn’t choose Wellesley because it was a women’s college, but because it is an absolutely incredible school. I’ve never once regretted the decision, and I’m guessing you won’t, either.

  31. Wellesley ’83

    The best decision I ever made, although I didn’t know it at the time. Whenever I relocated, the local alum were always the most amazing, interesting people; my Wellesley friends have flown across the country to help take care of my household in times of crises, and two of them became my daughter’s godmothers. Although she elected to matriculate elsewhere, I still have a twinge of regret that she will never have the incredible experience of an all-women’s college. (But her older brother kind of did, having graduated from Vassar!)

  32. Lovely article. So excited for you to join the sisterhood.


    Wellesley ’11

  33. Funny thing is, one of my first observations upon arrival to medical school was that the boys had not changed one bit since I left them in High School.

    You’ll do great.

    Rose, Wellesley, 1990

  34. Having spent my Junior year at a co-ed institution overseas, and now finishing graduate school at the same university, I can assure you that Wellesley prepares you incredibly well for the ‘real world’. If anything, the real value of a women’s college has only become apparent to me since leaving Wellesley. Being outspoken, confident and totally unwilling to be cowed into silence will serve you better than you can imagine – even if it does earn you a reputation as a troublemaker!

    Welcome to Wellesley (and to the Yellow class)!

  35. You’ve hit the nail on the head, Anna. Just you wait until move-in day…

    – L, Class of 2012

  36. Anna,

    Good luck, and ignore your highschool classmates comments. I experienced the same frustrating commentary with my choice to attend Scripps College. I can tell you from my experience, nothing could have topped my women’s college experience!



    Scripps College 09

  37. Nance Cedar says:

    My oldest daughter went to an all-girls high school, and her sister attended Hollins University, a women’s college in Virginia. Both of them developed leadership skills they might not have otherwise.

  38. Frieda A. Stahl says:

    After 4 years of sass at a co-ed high school for being what today would be called a science nerd, I went to Hunter College when it was for women only, pre-WWII. As a physics major, I grew into a viable career without the one-upmanship of boys. Wellesley (which my family could not have afforded) is an excellent institution. I suggest the writer of this article (and others interested) read Patricia Ann Palmieri’s “In Adamless Eden,” a history of Wellesley, and Google Sarah Frances Whiting, a Wellesley faculty pioneer.

  39. I went to a co-ed college but attended an all-girls high school during the 70’s. Maybe it was the times, but I believe the education & support that was given empowered me to stand strong & believe in myself. Family members & friends who attended all-women’s colleges also have achieved their goals and remained close to their alma mater. By the way, there are excellent women’s colleges on the West Coast too, Mills College in the Bay Area just to name one!

  40. and barbara bush.

    best boston perk is boston symphony orchestra.

  41. Wellesley is fabulous. If you have any desire to go to a women’s college, do it. But I also definitely recommend taking a semester or year abroad as well. I had a great college experience and got a stellar education.

    Wellesley ’94

  42. —- “Why aren’t there more colleges exclusively for men?” I answer, “Because men are not at a disadvantage in the common classroom or greater society and so there is no real need for all-male colleges. And yet, some still exist.” —–

    While I’m not opposed to all-female colleges, I find it a bit disturbing to see an article written in 2011 with the justification for women’s-only colleges that the author uses without any seeming recognition or acknowledgment of the incredibly privileged position that (many) women at colleges such as Wellesley already clearly possess – whether of class and socioeconomic status, (hetero)sexuality, race, and gender identity. To talk about classroom dynamics or those of “greater society” from a feminist perspective that presents a singular “women’s” perspective reveals what is perhaps an outdated perspective on what “feminism” actually includes – both implicitly and explicitly. The implicit exclusion here of other correlating and intersecting issues maintains an invisibilized and normalized privilege that perpetuates marginalization of particular groups at the expense of some women – presented as though they are represented of us all.

    • What about Hollins University? It’s an old Women’s only college where the majority of the student body are on financial aid, the Gay-Straight Alliance is one of the biggest clubs, and the school revels in the diversity of the student body with drag shows, coming out week, protests, and other events. I have to say that while some who attend the school come from a place of privilege, the majority don’t.

      Don’t paint everything with the same brush.

      • Thanks for pointing this out – I’m not American and not familiar with many schools in the states. Definitely didn’t mean to claim that this is always the case.

  43. I love that you were moved to write this piece, Anna! What an amazing opportunity for you to explore yourself, and to grow in a stimulating and feminist environment. In a world in which so many young women, (and not so young), are rejecting the word “feminist,” your insight and thoughts are inspiring.

    I have two young children. We’ve been lucky to have several babysitters who attend an all girls high school. I can not say enough about how these young women stand out with their self-confidence and ability to take ownership of their place in the world. Having that experience in a college setting, before you go out into the world, will be something you will treasure someday, I am sure.

    Best of luck!

  44. Welcome to Wellesley!! – ’12

  45. I haven’t started my Women’s college education yet, but I made the decision to attend one for these exact same reasons. The leadership skills, confidence as well as friendships I believe I’ll start gaining in the fall will be priceless.

    Hollins University 2015

    Also, in regards to Lindsay’s comment, while I do not doubt that in some cases young women and men who attend private schools are more privleged than others in many different aspects, anyone researching colleges and the cost of education will ultimately find that in many cases Private schools, like Women’s colleges, often offer more financial aid than public schools thus making it equally accessable to lesser privleged students as their counterparts in the higher tax brackets, if not ,in some cases, more accessible.

    I know this not only from my research of the topic in the past year but also from personal experience. 79% of the kids I went to high school with have free or reduced lunch, nearly 17% of the residents in my County are unemployed. My High School offered minimal Advanced Placement classes and no IB classes. You could dismiss me as an exception, but personally, I think it’s parents, counselors and advisors who drill into kids heads that private schools are singularly for the “privledged.”

  46. Congratulations on your admittance to Wellesley! There is something about the educational structure there that produces outstanding individuals. The only reason I can think that someone would be critical of a woman attending an all women’s college is rooted in prejudice; an assumption either that somehow attending a school without men makes it inferior, or the antiquated notion that a woman should be looking for a husband while in college because her biological clock is ticking. Every student should go through a thoughtful process of choosing which college or university is the best fit for her (or him), to help ensure success.

  47. Nichole (Wellesley '94) says:

    I made the move from a huge public high school in San Diego to Wellesley in 1990, and faced many of the same questions from my high school classmates. Good for you for following your heart — and taking a leap of faith. Wellesley was an amazing place for me. This community of women will be with you for your entire lifetime if you want it. Congratulations, and thanks for your articles here.

    My parents were schoolteachers; I received financial aid at Wellesley and am very grateful. And I’ve paid back all of my student loans by working at Microsoft.

  48. Wonderful article! These next four years will be the most interesting, eye-opening, and the most exciting journey of your life. Hold on for the ride and cherish every moment!

    Saint Mary’s College ’10
    Notre Dame, IN

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