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At women's colleges and after, girls rule

Deborah Spar
Debora L. Spar is president of Barnard College. Spar is the author of numerous books, including Ruling the Waves and The Baby Business. Prior to coming to Barnard, Spar was the Spangler Family Professor at Harvard Business School and Senior Associate Dean, Director of Research.

In her recent piece, Selena Rezvani makes an intriguing observation about the state of women's colleges today. They shouldn't make sense any more, she notes, but they do. They shouldn't be thriving, but they are.

Today - more than thirty years after the pill, Roe v. Wade, and Title IX - women outnumber men at nearly every college in the country. High school girls dominate boys in grades, as valedictorians, and in the legion of extracurricular activities in which both sexes now frenetically engage. We have one woman running Congress, another heading the State Department, and three serving as justices of the Supreme Court. Why would any bright 18 year-old want to cloister herself in a single-sex college? And why would her parents allow, much less encourage, her to do so?

The answer, as Rezvani so aptly points out, is simple. Women's colleges work. They continue to shape some of the best young minds in the country and to educate many of our most successful and ambitious women. And rather than isolating their students from the realities of a harsh male world, women's colleges give young women the skills and the confidence and the courage they need to go out in that world and claim it as their own.

At Barnard, that "mysterious" place that Rezvani describes, it's sometimes hard to tell that the campus is single-sex at all. There are boys in the cafeteria, boys in the library, boys lining up in droves for the pancakes and waffles we dole out each semester the night before the first final exam. Far from living in an isolated cloister, our students actively embrace the city that surrounds them. They are working in homeless shelters, interning for human rights organizations, and staying out way too late at jazz clubs. But in between - in classes and clubs, for just four precious years of their lives - they inhabit a world where girls truly rule; where women lead by definition and habit, and where female role models abound.

For four years, they can enjoy being smart without worrying whether it means they're not sexy. They can speak their minds without wondering if they're meant to represent the "women's point of view." They can talk about fashion rather than football without having their intelligence questioned. And then, four years later they leave - stronger, more confident, and bound to a sisterhood that will support them forever.

Thankfully, women's colleges are no longer the necessity they once were. Bright girls can go to the Ivy League, to the military academies, and to whatever careers and futures they choose to pursue. But they can also choose an option that is increasingly rare, and precious - four years of study and self-discovery, and a brief window of time when, for once, gender truly doesn't matter.

By Debora L. Spar

 |  September 7, 2010; 10:45 AM ET |  Category:  Education leadership , Women in leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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How strange, I can't help but think that the same people that espouse all girls schools would be the first in line to verbaly hack the crap out of the idea of a return to all male institutions.

Posted by: rohara1 | September 10, 2010 4:51 PM

I know it's a nitpick, but Nancy Pelosi does not run Congress. She is the leader of the House of Representatives. Under the U.S. constitution, there is no overall leader of Congress - the U.S. Congress encompasses the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each has its own leaders. Spar is the president of a college, so she should know better.

Posted by: AnonymousBE1 | September 8, 2010 10:29 AM

I would love to send my daughter to Smith someday.

Posted by: StowMom | September 8, 2010 9:13 AM

Very well put. I'm a Mount Holyoke grad and that's exactly what it gave me.

Posted by: ajbouche | September 7, 2010 2:28 PM

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