The number of women’s colleges in the United States has declined since the 1960s, leading some to question if there is still a need for them. Women’s colleges started in the 1800s to provide women access to higher education. However, a women’s college education provides many benefits that go far beyond providing the simple access once denied.
Women’s colleges provide safe spaces, allowing young women to find their voices and to fill leadership and other extracurricular roles that are often filled primarily by men. The Women’s Colleges Coalition notes more women graduate in four years or less from women’s colleges than from coed institutions. Other benefits typically include small class sizes, faculty using student-centered teaching styles, collaboration with other women, and opportunities to be mentored by women.
Is there still a need for the safe spaces afforded by women’s colleges? Centers for Disease Control data show that 1 in 3 women experience sexual harassment in public places compared to 1 in 9 men. A Campus Climate Survey done by the Association of American Universities in 2019 found that “more than 1 in 4 undergraduate women reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact since enrolling in school.” These numbers speak for themselves.
Regarding wages, women are still not equal to men in today’s world. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Blog, the Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that in 2020, women made 82.3% of what men made in the workforce. The earning gap is, not surprisingly, larger for women of color. In 1973, women made 57 cents on the dollar when compared to men. Wow — women have closed that gap by a little over 25 cents in 47 years, averaging a little over half a cent per year. At this rate, and with a bit of luck, women might be earning equal pay by about 2050 — at least white women.
The labor department also notes that in almost all occupations, women earn less than men. This holds true when compared to males of the same race and ethnicity at every level of educational achievement. What is even worse, the pandemic has flattened gains and pushed many women out of the workforce completely. Child care responsibilities still tend to fall more on women than men.
In 1960 “the pill” was not available for use as a contraceptive for all women. In some states it was outright illegal, in others only married women could access it for “family planning.” Eventually, it was approved for all women, which meant women could complete their education and enter the workforce. As a result, women have made big steps forward since the 1960s, yet today, some conservatives want to limit women’s access to contraception, thus attempting to again exert more control over women’s lives. However, no new legislation is being proposed to hold men accountable for unwanted pregnancies and the children who are born as a result. One might argue that the need for safe women’s spaces and the power of a women’s single sex education is becoming more necessary than in recent decades.
I taught in the women’s college at Notre Dame of Maryland University for over 30 years. I am sorry to see it plans to go coed in the fall. I saw firsthand how transformative the experience of a women’s college is. I witnessed many students find their voices, gain self-confidence and graduate as strong women, literally, with the ability to transform the world. I saw women who were not hesitant to speak up or disagree with a man during discussions. While women have made substantial gains, there is still much work to be done. There are barriers that need to be broken and attitudes that need to change. Any woman who has been in the minority in a workplace, or social setting traditionally dominated by men knows what I am talking about. Women’s colleges focus on empowering women by giving them the tools they need to keep marching forward toward true equality.
Melissa Falen (email@example.com) is a retired associate professor from Notre Dame of Maryland University.