Minerva Statue

Save Our Sisterhood: Reflecting on Single-Sex Education Ten Years Later

Ten years ago, on October 2, 2004, Wells College, a tiny, women’s liberal arts college in rural New York State, announced its decision to become coed. Frustrated and angry, many Wells Women — myself included — protested by holding a sit-in at the main academic building in hopes of compelling the college board of trustees to reverse its decision. We refused to leave. We slept in our classrooms; we chanted and sang; we lined up from one end of the building to the other, arm-in-arm, our mouths gagged with black fabric to symbolize how we had been silenced by the Wells administration.

The decision and resulting protests sparked debate in both the surrounding communities and within the student body. The women students who staged the protests were alternately portrayed as petulant girls and righteous feminists in the media. Within the college, there was friction between students and faculty who supported the decision and those who protested it. Debates about gender and women’s rights were as commonplace in the dining hall as the classroom. Was it feminist or antifeminist that we wanted a space reserved for women only? Did women actually learn differently, or was that belief based on stereotypes? What about transwomen, and those not conforming to gender norms — should they be welcomed at the college? Did the protests privilege the voices of white women over those of women of color? It was as if the college’s decision to admit men had captured and dragged to the surface underlying anxieties about feminism.

Mary Putnam Jacobi
Mary Putnam Jacobi

The merits of single-sex education have been debated for centuries, often serving as a stand-in for Americans to discuss other issues such as feminism, the place of politics in the classroom, and issues of gender and sexuality. In the nineteenth century, as women’s colleges attempted to extend to women the same level of education available to men, health professionals expressed concern that strenuous education overtaxed women’s bodies. In reality, the fear that women would be made ill by their studies had less to do with women’s education and more to do with concerns about the changing roles of women in American society.  Harvard professor and physician Dr. Edward Clarke, in his 1873 Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls, did not question whether women could learn, but rather whether they could receive a rigorous education “and retain uninjured health and a future secure from neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements of the nervous system.” [1] The problem, Clarke believed, lay in women’s menstrual cycle, which many physicians believed drained women’s bodies of vital energies. Pursuing academic work while menstruating had the potential to make women ill. To avoid such criticism, many women’s colleges asserted control over their students’ bodies, enforcing firm schedules that provided a balance of rest and study. Daily activities often included exercise, long walks, periods of quiet repose, and frequent chapel services, along with academic classes. [2] Other feminist physicians and educators rejected the idea that women’s bodies required less rigorous study.  In her rebuttal to Clarke, physician M. Putnam Jacobi argued that menstruating women required no more rest than anyone else. [3] While bolstering their claims for women’s education, these arguments also had the potential to undermine the case for women-only institutions. If women did not require accommodations in order to learn, why were single-sex institutions necessary?

the childrens hour movie poster

In the twentieth century, the public’s concern about women in single-sex education turned away from health and toward sexuality. Women’s colleges had long provided a space for powerful female relationships, often through smashing, a form of courting between women. Women- only spaces gave women the freedom to establish strong relationships, both sexual and platonic, with other women. While smashing was initially seen as harmless, as more and more traditionally single-sex colleges became coeducational, women’s colleges, and the strong bonds between their students, began to seem abnormal. As a result, the 1920s and 1930s saw a surge in literature featuring lurid lesbian relationships at single-sex institutions, including the well-known play The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman, sparking a wave of concern that women’s colleges were incubators of lesbianism. [4] During the women’s liberation movement, when many women’s colleges became centers for feminist thinking and scholarship, concern that these campuses were breeding grounds for the twin menaces of lesbianism and feminism intensified.

The debate is far from settled today. The American Civil Liberties Union’s campaign against single-sex education in elementary and high schools, entitled Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes, has been growing momentum since its inception in 2012, as more and more public school districts implement single-sex classrooms. In May 2014, the ACLU issued a letter of complaint against a Florida school district for offering professional development seminars with names like “Busy Boys, Little Ladies” and “Gender Differentiation: Boys and Girls Learn Differently.” These types of programs, the ACLU maintains, are based on stereotypes, but the school district argues that they are just trying to find new ways to teach effectively. At the post-secondary level, women’s colleges have recently made headlines for grappling with the contradictions between their traditional identity as spaces for women and the problem of enforcing a gender binary.

2012 Mount Holyoke College alumna holding signs as part of the Open Gates campaign in support of trans inclusion. (Source: Tamar's Corrupter of Words Tumblr.)
2012 Mount Holyoke College alumna holding signs as part of the Open Gates campaign in support of trans inclusion. (Source: Tamar’s Corrupter of Words Tumblr.)

At the end of August, Mills College in Oakland, California announced that it would accept “self-identified women” and people “assigned female at birth who do not fit into the gender binary.” Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts made a passionate speech at the college’s fall convocation just recently, announcing that the college’s administration had come to a similar decision regarding transgender applicants. At the same time, other colleges are grappling with the economic realities of women’s education: the first male students have just arrived at Wilson College, a small women’s college in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which announced in January of 2013 that it would become coeducational. Chatham University, another women’s college in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, announced this past May that they would become coeducational in the fall of 2015.

A chalkboard in a classroom at Wells, written during the protests. (Courtesy of Meg McCune.)
A chalkboard in a classroom at Wells, written during the protests. (Courtesy of Meg McCune.)

In the decade since I slept curled under the table in my poetry classroom and wrapped a black cloth around my lips, I’m not sure I’ve come to many conclusions about some of the debates sparked by my college’s coed decision. I haven’t become an expert on the research regarding women’s learning outcomes in single-sex classrooms, and I still can’t decide whether it’s good or bad that I did not want to share my classrooms with men. What I do know is this: living and learning in a women-centered space helped me become self-assured. The ability to dress, speak, and move without feeling a male gaze helped me establish my own identity. Being a part of a sisterhood helped me understand the importance of female relationships. Perhaps most important, I know that feeling the crush of disappointment at the Wells coed decision and participating in the subsequent protests opened my young, naive eyes to the fact that feminism was not just a historical event, but a critical, ongoing fight for women’s rights. It was hard. It was frustrating. It was incredible. And it made me the feminist I am today.

Notes

[1] Edward H. Clarke, M.D., Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1875), 18.

[2] Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 29, 289.

[3] Mary Putnam Jacobi, The Question of Rest For Women During Menstruation (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1877).

[4] Sherrie A. Inness, The Lesbian Menace: Ideology, Identity, and the Representation of Lesbian Life (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 38.

For further reading:

Jane M. Dieckmann, Wells College: A History (Aurora: Wells College Press, 1995).

Ann Mari May, ed., The ‘Woman Question’ and Higher Education: Perspectives on Gender and Knowledge Production in America (Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc., 2008).

Leslie Miller-Bernal and Susan L. Poulson, eds., Challenged By Coeducation: Women’s Colleges Since the 1960s (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006).

Barbara Miller Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

Featured image: Statue of Minerva at Wells College, gagged in observance of the second anniversary of the coed decision, courtesy of the author.

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21 Comments

sandvick

Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
Sarah Handley Cousins has article about the value of single sex education. Cousins’ article describes how feminism and women’s single sex education are connected. She also places single sex education into both a historical and personal context. It is an excellent article.

S French

Thank you, Sarah, for an excellent summary of the Wells Decision and the on-going debates about the effectiveness of women’s colleges. As a silenced alumna faculty member at Wells during the protests, I feared for my job as well as my alma mater. In the decade since the decision (and the administration’s decision not to renew my contract), I have struggled with the anger and grief that decision created. I applaud your dedication to telling this story again and again.

sarahhandleycousins

Thank you, Dr. French. As a side note, I’ve always been disappointed I never had a chance to take a class with you!

Margarita

I can’t help but feel there is a double standard. Back in the seventies, in the name of feminism women barged in on male dominated institutions: universities, clubs, etc. We really can’t have it both ways. It’s not okay for women to want women-only campuses while at the same time breaking the apparent gender barrier in men’s schools, etc. Yes, there’s a great deal to be said in favor of single gender educational environments, both female and male. Perhaps it’s time to re-examine those premises and allow for more diversity in our educational choices. Thank you for telling this story!

sarahhandleycousins

Thank you, Margarita! I think the issue of men-only colleges is a really good point, that I don’t have a good answer to. Could men-only institutions offer a similarly important space for men as it does women? My belief is that since men are privileged in our society, they don’t necessarily need a safe, private space in which to speak and learn – while women have, and, in my opinion, still do benefit from those kinds of spaces. Perhaps what we really need is to have colleges that strive to be safe spaces for all genders?

Margarita

Institutions that strive to be safe spaces for learning regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, and any bias I’ve missed, are certainly the ideal we, as a society, should strive for. Absent that, however, perhaps we do need safe pockets of space for those who need the additional support of a single gender, single race, or whatever, learning environment.

We forget that forging a safe environment for learning begins much earlier than college. I believe there are studies showing that girls, and boys, do better academically in single-gender classrooms. It seems to me, however, that since we do live in an integrated world– or, at least, we strive to– the “training wheels” of that “special” environment need to come off so that we may be equally comfortable interacting in broader society.

We don’t all develop at the same pace or in the same way, and I feel that there should be some accommodation for special needs, whatever they may be. I also feel that it behooves each of us, inasmuch as we’re able, to create a safe environment for ourselves and those around us.

Thanks for the opportunity to discuss this, Sarah! xoM

davidrutherfordDavid Rutherford

To me, there is a difference because of the motivation. The motivation of male-only institutions wasn’t based on research or a belief that they promoted male self-image or growth. They were more about being anti-female. Women-only institutions had a different motivation. Rather than being anti-male, they existed more to foster positive development in women. For that reason, it doesn’t seem contradictory to me.

Tom Vawter

As a faculty member at the time of the Wells decision and the protest, I supported the coed decision, although I thought the transition came too late and too precipitously. I also supported and encouraged the student protest and remain proud of my students who showed the power of their convictions.

Having said that, I believed then and still believe that single-sex education was a good idea whose time has come and gone. That’s why the rhetoric on the issue–as in this review–relies so heavily on reference to the status of women’s education in the 19th century and first-wave (and sometimes second-wave) feminism. Those conditions have not existed for many decades, so it’s time to set them aside as historical artifacts, not as data on which we base current policy.

At the belated date at which Wells decided to go coed, Wells was a dying college. Some semesters there were fewer than 300 students on campus, there was no vibrant campus life, and prospects for improvement were nonexistent. Surveys at the time of graduating high school girls showed that fewer than 3% of them would even consider applyimg to a women’s college. The coed decision didn’t bring a flood of male applicants, but that year the number of female applicants surpassed all previous years going back to the 1960s.

Like most other small, private liberal arts colleges, Wells’s future is not secure, but it survives and changes with the times. Many faculty who dedicated their professional life to the college still have jobs there, which would not be the case had Wells died as a single-sex institution. Wells alumnae are a particularly faithful group and their mostalgia for their single-sex college years is understandable and even comendable. But they all graduated and went their different ways, while the faculty and administrators left behind have had to struggle to keep the pieces together.

sarahhandleycousins

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dr. Vawter – these are important points, and underscore just how complex this issue is.

SarasFloored

My heart breaks knowing that every year there are fewer options for women seeking a womens’ college. My mother encouraged me to consider Wells…it wasn’t on my list of schools. However, I would not be the woman I am today without that single sex/small college experience.

In my four years, I pushed my own boundaries beyond my imagination. I had access to clubs and athletic activities that would have been impossible at other schools…My Wells sisters are my friends for life…I have such a deep love for Wells and my experience there. I fought bitterly against co–education with my sisters…just as my Wells education taught me…and still am puzzled why the president and trustees would condone financial investment in recruiting men but not women..

Today, I am heartened to know a current student…she enjoys many of the same freedoms, luxuries and advantages that I knew at Wells…and that gives me a great deal of peace. Her story may be only one, but for me, it gives hope that others will have a similar experience to mine.

I hope Wells can remain a magical place of education and empowerment, and I am beginning to accept that it might be ok if there are some men there who can benefit too…I just don’t know if I would have made the same choice to attend if Wells had been co-ed in 1993…

Kim

Friends and family who did not attend a women’s college have never been able to fully understand how this decision broke my heart and forced me to sever ties with a place I thought I had loved unconditionally. As it turns out, I had one condition. That Wells College forever remain a place where women can learn about the world and themselves in a single sex environment.

In my time there (1993-1997), we never imagined our beloved alma mater would ever admit men. It certainly wasn’t on MY radar screen at all, I can tell you that. Yes, Wells was small, but my class was the largest in several years. At least for our first year. Then I saw classmates jump overboard like rats on a sinking ship. Wells failed at RETENTION far more than admissions. If the powers that be had paid attention to that piece of the puzzle, there might have been different conclusions made.

I didn’t believe then and I don’t believe now that this change was “inevitable.” Few people know what really happened during this decision process. And I remain convinced not all of it was above board. There are several examples of women’s colleges who continue to thrive today. Yes, they are fewer in numbers, but with the right leadership and sound financial decisions, they are not only still open and single sex, they are expanding! If there was truly no need for single sex women’s education, all women’s colleges would be closed or co-ed today. That is simply not the case.

Since Wells went co-ed, Cottey College has actually expanded many programs from 2 year to 4 year degrees. Mt. Holyoke and Smith continue to be shining examples of what single-sex education can be.

Small liberal arts colleges are a dime a dozen in the Finger Lakes. By not embracing what made Wells unique, the leadership chose to strip the college of what made it special. The Wells I knew and loved is dead. I have mourned it for 10 years. I have chosen to remove myself from all mailing lists. I refuse to attend a reunion. And I will never, ever donate a dime.

karinwikoff

As an alum, former employee, parent of an alum, and local resident, I lived and breathed Wells College for a lot of years, including through the time of the change to co-ed. I marched with the protesters and brought food to students occupying buildings. To this day, I do not believe the decision had anything to do with “saving the college.” (My take on that is a long story, not for here). Wells was very poorly managed by administrators I believe were corrupt as well as inept. Adding men to the mix did nothing to solve that problem. It has just made Wells one more tiny co-ed liberal arts college no one has heard of. Wells has lost its niche market. The conditions and salaries of employees there are as bad or worse than before co-ed, and the buildings are taking a much greater beating without the money or personnel to maintain them.

My son ended up graduating from Wells in 2011. Wells was a welcome port in the storm after he got mono and had to drop out of RIT, amd I greatly appreciate Wells for taking him in. His being a student meant that I was on campus and in and out of dorms in the past few years. I find it very changed, and not in a good way for women. All the things we feared about males dominating positions of authority, in the classrooms, in the living spaces, all came true. The first class president of the first co-ed class was male, for example — no surprise there!

I don’t think single-sex education’s time has come and gone; it has just evolved. It’s no longer so much about women having access to a good education. Now it is more about providing a learning environment where a female student can build her self-confidence in her abilities to lead away from the male-dominated world, so that when she re-enters co-ed society, she is much better prepared to contend as an equal than female students who attend co-ed schools.

At the time Wells went co-ed, I read a study indicating what percentage of female high school students wanted to go to a single-sex college. As you can imagine, it was a tiny percentage. However, by that time, there were so few single-sex schools left that there were enough students to fill the openings at those schools. The real question should have been — Why was Wells not attracting its share of the tiny pool of students who wanted to attend a single-sex school? It wasn’t because there weren’t enough to go around.

The management issues remain — and they have zip to do with the co-ed/single-sex question. I don’t know if it is too late for the new administration to pull the place out of the deep hole into which it has dug itself — only time will tell. But clearly, adding men did not “save” Wells College, and the loss of a very special place where an uncertain but intelligent young woman could build the self-confidence to take on the co-ed world was tossed out the window.

Jen Robinson

As an alumna, I agree with the idea that mismanagement played a key role in the demise of Wells as a women’s college. Certainly I never saw them at a college fair when I was in high school, and I cannot think that they ever truly marketed themselves in a way that would attract students. Slick brochures are all well and good, but they don’t give a complete picture of a school. Interestingly, I didn’t initially want to attend a women’s college but fell in love with Wells while visiting, after my mother encouraged me to “just take a look at it”. And Wells wasn’t even my first choice, but after being wait-listed at Smith and accepted to Wells, I knew it was where I was meant to be. What changed my mind? It was the feeling that I got from the students I met while visiting – the feeling that anything was possible. I don’t think that was capitalized on enough by admissions or recruitment teams. Wells was, at that time, a very personal experience, I feel.

When the decision to go co-ed was first discussed, I made many phone calls and emails to certain alumna who were employed by the college and asked what we could do. The answer was pretty much, “Nothing. It’s all been settled.” This made me feel adrift – I could not imagine the Wells I knew with men in the classrooms. As the years have progressed I have found that I learned so much more than what was taught in class and I am affirmed in my belief that being a women’s college was a special environment and one of the best things that Wells had to offer. I agree with Karin – Wells was a place where young women could develop their sense of self, make their own decisions about their existence and learn to lead as equals to men. I am sad that this is no longer available to my oldest daughter who, while she is only a high school freshman, would probably have been an ideal candidate for the Wells I knew (1990-1994) and would have blossomed there. I don’t feel that I can recommend Wells to her as a good choice for her college education, because we all know that college is so much more than getting a degree. I want more for her than what a co-ed school can offer, even one as small and student-centered as Wells is.

Leah '96

It was interesting to read this summary of how the objections to single-sex education have changed over the past 150+ years, but sadly, at the end of the day, the co-ed decision at Wells was largely a business decision, the wrong one in my view. Since graduating Wells 18 years ago, I have spent most of my working life in that time analyzing numbers, and the numbers simply do not support a co-ed decision then or now. Yes, as Prof. Vawter (as an aside, his biology class was an academic bright spot during my freshmen year) mentions, the school does have some fairly serious operational financial issues driven primarily by low enrollment and retention. That is very true but the way out of that mess is to capitalize more fully on the school’s strengths which used to be single sex education first, closely followed by the liberal arts.

So many alumna have commented on the failures of the administration in a broad sense. Specifically, I think the shortfalls are one, Wells could expand it’s reach and target more women (admissions), two, boosting fund raising from graduates through enhanced giving and third, enhance career services so graduates can find rewarding work once out of Wells which translates later to not only increased donations to the school but also enhances the career services function to help current students with connections to internships and/or full-time employment. These are all fixes which build on existing infrastructure which is always less of an investment than building something entirely new in a new market. The prevailing argument at the time was enrolling men would provide an instant boost to enrollment and tuition dollars collected but that ignores the expense side of the equation. I mean, what attracts men to Wells as compared to any other co-ed school in central New York or elsewhere? Athletics cost money to build and it looks like that has been happening. Worse, now the liberal arts are under attack and parents now want their children to stick to career focused majors and Wells is trying to play catch up in this game. One example is its relatively new business center yet four years later there is still no approved business major.

The demand is there. One of the links in this article led me to an interesting statistic. At the time Wilson decided to go co-ed last year, there were 40 women’s colleges left, down from 200 in 1950. Over that time, the number of women interested in single-sex college certainly has not decreased five-fold. Also, there is the hidden demand in women, like me, who were not considering attending a women’s college but are attracted by that element that makes Wells the place it was, a place to be among women for four years to be more confident in a co-ed world. Now that is gone. If Wells decided to take the high road and stay the course, I am certain Wells would have been way on the way to recovery. Now we will never know.

karinwikoff

A little story about how I knew it really wasn’t about the money or saving the college: When the co-ed decision was made, the administration put on a dog-and-pony show to introduce the alumnae to the idea, and they took this show on the road, but first they pitched it to alums living in the Aurora area. I went, and, by chance, Jane Marsh Dieckman, honored Wells alumna and author of the history of the college, sat next to me. We listened while the presenters showed us a flipchart of the various ways that going co-ed would bring in new income — according to the consultants they hired to study the matter, Wells would see $75,000 in the first year, some more in the second year, $1.1 Million in the third year (I think I am remembering the figures correctly). When they asked for questions, I raised my hand and asked if those figures had been adjusted for expenses and losses, such as from fewer donations from alumnae. The presenters said, No, those figures were just new income, not adjusted for projected expenses or losses. So Jane raised her hand and said, OK, then — what are the projected expenses and losses? And the presenters sort of all looked at each other for a moment, then replied that they didn’t know — that had not been studied. And there was a moment of dead silence. I thought to myself — What kind of people decide to change the fundamental mission of an institution (the education of WOMEN) without even considering the costs?!?? They are either total blithering incompentant idiots — or it really has nothing to do with money or saving the college. In the end, I concluded it was a bit of both.

But, seriously, you don’t need a degree in economics or accounting to realize you don’t embark on such a huge change without looking at the costs as well as the potential income.

Sure enough, talking with faculty and particularly staff friends after the co-ed change, they’d tell me how in the first couple years there were indeed more bodies on campus — but there was no more money provided to support their needs, or pay the additional faculty and staff required — the college was hurting financially even more than when it had been low-enrollment single-sex.

I was at Wells 4 years as a student (1982-86) then about 17 years as a staff (1986-2003), and I saw a lot of things, believe me. What I did not see was much in the way of marketing. There was ONE marketing campaign – I believe it was in the late 90s — a TV ad, some ads in the NYT, etc. At the same time, tuition was CUT about 30%. The two things together made a huge difference, bringing in enough of the target students (kids whose families made JUST enough too much to not qualifiy for financial aid, but who couldn’t really afford to pay a really high bill, looking for a place where they could get a good education at an affordable price). The marketing agency that did the campaign told the college not to sit on their laurels — the campaign worked, but then you had to keep following it up every year. Instead, there was that one push, then back to doing nothing. Again, I see agreement among others here that part of the problem has been a failure to market in the right places and consistently.

And then there’s retention — another issue brought up by my sisters here. When you don’t put enough money into supporting the students once they get to the college, you are going to see a lot of them disappointed and leaving. I know the network and library services provided were always way far behind what one could expect when going off to college — and not because the staff in those areas weren’t busting their butts to do the most they could with what little institutional support they got — but for lack of adequate funding, and a lack of interest in understanding the needs in those areas by the upper administration.

And still, all the while, unnecessary consultants kept being hired to do projects that were not only not needed, but often projects which made things worse — and they’d fail and instead of firing their rear-ends, they’d be re-hired to fix the problems they caused. And later you’d find out the President had dated the lead consultant in high school, or was some friend’s buddy or something. So money needed to support students was being funnelled out of the college into the good old boys’ pockets. (I could tell true stories like this all day).

The business center is just one example of how Wells keeps trying to find a “magic bullet” to solve their financial problems rather than get down to the work of attracting and keeping students. Whether it was the Women’s Leadership Institution, or the Business Center or the new Sustainability Institute (or whatever they are calling it), whole bunches of money are thrown at these hair-brained ideas which then fizzle and fade away without any success, one after another. (Though I will say — I know the gal they have hired to head this latest institute, and she is a sharp cookie — if anyone has a chance of making a go if it, Marion Brown is the one to do it. Still, she’s working in an all uphill environment).

I still know a fair number of people at Wells, most of them really good people, working very hard to do the best they can in a dysfunctional environment. I’m hoping that sweeping out some of the rot at the top will be a help, but I can’t help thinking that it’s been too late for a long time already.

karinwikoff

P.S. I forgot to mention — in that first year alone, the one where the college was projected to bring in about $75,000 in new income, the college also lost that same exact amount in the form of just one endowment — the Richard U. Light Foundation gave the income from an endowment annually with the condition that the college remain single-sex. In the first year, with that ONE piece alone, they lost all that they might gain. There were also all kinds of expenses — altering facilities, new programs and faculty/staff, etc, and there was a steep drop-off in alumnae giving. Not to mention having to have staff re-write every single piece of literature the college published to expunge any mention of the virtues of a single-sex education. To have failed to consider the costs and losses was a major error, and I have no doubt that those costs and losses far outweighed any new income in those first three years. Since then, the college was allowed to borrow out of its own endowment — to eat its own seed corn. Now those loans are coming due, and with interest, and the college is in no shape to pay the debt back. It’s going to take a real magician to pull it out of the bag. And the saddest part was that I do not believe for one moment that it was necessary — something needed to be done, but going co-ed was not the solution. My secret wish is to think what a huge PR story it would be for Wells to be the only formerly all-female college to abandon co-ed and go back to being single-sex — with strong outreach to that tiny pool of less than 3% of high school women who want to attend a single-sex college. But I am probably dreaming.

Colin '12

Full disclosure: I am a male graduate of Wells. If you don’t want to read what it is on my mind that is your decision. But I hope you do.

I can’t speak to what an alumna experienced before Wells went co-ed. I have no way of knowing what that was like. I can’t even imagine it because I am male. But what I can speak of is what Wells gave me. As a straight, white male, Wells gave me the ability to be a caring, compassionate, strong-headed feminist. The history of Wells overwhelms you the moment you step on campus. It can’t be ignored. The decades of rich, female-only education seep through the walls. And every student, male or female, is affected by it. It is as though there is this image that as soon as the first men stepped foot on campus that it was the end of moral reasoning at Wells and that is just not the case. The kind of men that are attracted to Wells are similar to the women that were attracted to Wells before the decision. Men who don’t want to be influenced by athletic-driven, party-only campuses and cultures. Men who want to be in an environment to form their own ideas about what a man should be, not the one society creates for us. I am receiving a graduate degree from such an institution right now that is huge and athletic driven and the differences between my experience here and my experience at Wells are complete opposites. And no matter what anyone says, you cannot tell me that the Sisterhood of Wells is over. Every time we circled around the sycamore or circled up after Odd/Even, when we sang the Alma Mater, we (all women and men) chose to use the real lyrics “Thy daughters ever sing” instead of the gender neutral lyrics they came up with. I am a daughter of Wells and always will be, regardless of what gender I am assigned to. My heart hurts for every alumna who feels personally attacked because I was able to go to Wells. But I guarantee that I wouldn’t be the person I am today had I not received the education you were all able to receive as well. And what is wrong with that? We should be challenging every male on this planet to be a feminist. Wells gave me that. Wells has given that to many men I know. Wells is giving that to my younger brother who is graduating in May. I have read all these comments and I see the merits in single-sex education, I really do, but I cannot be mad that Wells went co-ed. Maybe the decision to go co-ed was financial and maybe it wasn’t and maybe there was more going on, I don’t know. But I do know feminism is alive and well in Aurora.

sarahhandleycousins

Colin, thanks so much for your thoughts! I think you’re completely right, and that’s why I suggested in an earlier comment that perhaps a solution to this is to have colleges that focus on creating a safe, feminist space for all genders. While I am (and probably always will be) heartbroken that we lost the single-sex Wells, I’m pretty glad that men like you, and the many male friends that I made in my later years at Wells, got the experience of a feminist campus. For me, it was particularly interesting change: my male cousin, who is one of my dearest friends, was among the first men accepted at Wells. It was amazing to share my college with him! I to think that Wells has created some pretty rad male graduates – and that’s why, for, this is complicated. I did not want a coed education, but I also enjoyed many of the men who I went to school with.

I also went on to do my graduate work at a huge, athletics-drive university. What a shock that was when I first arrived! It made it me all the more glad I got my feminist education (in and out of the classroom) at Wells.

karinwikoff

Colin — I am glad you wrote, and expect other Wells Women will be too. I am glad you had such a positive experience at Wells. You must have been there about the same time as my son, Michael, who graduated in 2011 (English – Creative Writing). He came to Wells after RIT. There were 2 differences for him: at RIT, he socialized all the time with all the other geeky kids studying computer science and in related fields (he changed his minor at RIT to his major at Wells). At Wells, he was mostly just holed up in his room, and seemed to seldom socialize. I expect that has more to do with him than with Wells (he was at that time a not-yet-diagnosed adult with Asperger’s). But on the plus side, he really bloomed with the more individual attention he got in the small classes at Wells, and developed a great relationship with Bruce Bennett.

My own thought is that the reason you were able to get such a feminist-positive experience at Wells is because there are still quite a lot of faculty who taught there when it was a single-sex college who work hard to insure those values continue. In time, that will fade away as older faculty retire and new folks who never taught in a single-sex environment come on board. Only time will tell.

I can say what I saw on campus from Jan 2008 (when my son transferred into Wells) to May 2011 when he graduated, was not the woman-supporting environment you describe. Michael lived briefly in Dodge and the rest of the time in Leach, where male athletes all left their stinky sports equipment out in the halls so that it smelled like there’d been a week-long fart festival when you walked onto the floor. On more than one occasion, I saw the kind of typical crudely drawn penises on the white message board on guys’ rooms like you’d see grade school boys draw. And on the bulletin board, someone had thumbtacked a pair of women’s thong underwear with crude comments written alongside. It is exactly that kind of crude and disrespectful environment that we all wanted to avoid while going to college.

Also, in his first year in Leach, someone had torn a large swath of wallpaper off the wall in one of the stairwells. It was just hanging there off the wall for the rest of the year. He was in the same dorm the next year — and by then someone had torn it all the way off, but just left the wall like that. We were not angels or saints, but women are just not that kind of rough on the buildings. This incident also goes towards showing how the college did not have money or personnel to even do basic upkeep and maintenance of the facilities.

The view I saw in the living spaces was not what I’d call a positive and healthy environment for female students. Don’t take that wrong — I am very heartened to hear your words, and I was very grateful that Wells was willing to take in my son and give him a supportive place to complete his degree. I don’t think anyone holds it against you personally, or other male students either. But we do feel very keenly the loss of something very unique and special, especially those of us who feel the change was made for underhanded reasons, not the reasons stated, and that the change did nothing to correct the underlying problem of mismanagement and corruption. IMHO.

Colin

Karin,

Coincidentally I lived in the same suite in Dodge as your son during my first year at Wells.

I agree. I certainly think that I benefited from the faculty who were there before the co-ed decision, like Dr. Vawter for example. But I also benefited from the amazing student leaders who didn’t let the history of Wells fade. As I was in the class of 2012, I was the first incoming first year class that had men in all three years above us, yet the student leaders, men and women alike, passed on to us the history and tradition of the school. And I believe my class was able to do the same to the classes below us.

About Leach, I couldn’t agree with you more. I had several friends who lived on the infamous Leach 2nd my first year. It was truly horrendous. But it was also the only place those kinds of incidents happened and for the most part, women avoided it like the plague. Leach 2nd wasn’t a positive and healthy environment for anyone. I think that was really the only place on campus that those sort of things happened, which I really do know because I spent my sophomore and junior years as an RA and my senior year as a Hall Director. In places like Dodge, Weld, Main, and Glen Park those kinds of distractions were rare if they occurred at all. That floor in Leach really was an anomaly that I feel misrepresented how most of the men at Wells acted. Unfortunately that is what happens when you put 30 18-year old men on the same floor together. In the co-ed suites of Dodge and co-ed floors of Weld and Main 2nd, it was much better.

But I definitely see what you are saying, because even one incident like some of those you described can create a toxic environment that does not benefit anyone, and certainly lessons the type of environment you were able to enjoy.

AveryL

What a fascinating article and discussion! I am especially interested in the question of whether learning styles are affected by gender. My career has been in Montessori education and I have worked with children from preschool through middle school ages. When I first began teaching I was certain that children learn and develop the same way. Now I know differently and believe that gender is a factor in learning styles. But I don’t necessarily agree that the answer to that is single sex education.
In my upper elementary and adolescent Montessori class, I gave lessons in sexual health and education to my students. I taught the classes with the boys and girls together and many parents questioned my reasons for doing this. I explained that when we separate the girls from the boys, we are sending a message that there is something mysterious and possibly secret about the opposite sex. I didn’t want the students to feel as though they wouldn’t be able to count on their friends of either gender for support, or to be able to talk with their future partners about sexual health. I didn’t want them to feel as though any aspect of sex or reproduction is somehow a taboo subject, not to be discussed with their intimate partners.
I, too, was dismayed at the decision Wells made to go co-ed. I loved my years there (class of ’84) and believe that I was able to make more of my own education because of the strength and the bonds that the sisterhood afforded me. My daughter looked at Wells and loved it, but opted to go to school closer to home. She did tell me that, had Wells been a women’s college at that time, she probably wouldn’t have been very interested in applying there. She went to Montessori school through 8th grade and is the product of a mainly single mother, feminist household. While she has friends from diverse backgrounds, her closest friends happen to be men.
I believe that single-sex education should be available to people that desire it, however I don’t think that it is the answer to optimizing the educational experience for young learners. In a Montessori classroom, children are free to direct their own learning based on what interests them the most. Emphasis is placed on social development with a theme of peace present in every classroom. I believe that, rather than separating students by gender to optimize their learning experience, we would all be better served if our schools placed much more emphasis on social skills: peaceful conflict resolution, mutual respect, celebrating our strengths, and loving one another. Starting this at a very young age, and then continuing it throughout a child’s educational experience can open the doors to a much more positive experience for every student, and could be the basis for gender equality in the long run.

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