Since the moment I mailed in my acceptance to Barnard College, I've been defending my decision. Besides the ever-present, "Ooh are you going to become a lesbian now?" which is just plain ignorant, I received the same frustrating question everywhere I turned: "So are you like... feminist?" Luckily, I had mulled this one over for quite some time, and my answer was rehearsed and regurgitated at every opportunity. "No, of course not. I support women's rights, of course, but I don't consider myself a feminist." Thinking about this ridiculous answer from just one year ago makes me laugh, because I know now that it was based entirely on stereotypes and misinformation; were you to ask me today, I would respond with an unwavering and resounding "Yes... Aren't you?"
Looking back, I clearly had no idea what that even meant. To me, "feminism" was equated with "radicalism;" it conjured up images of man-hating, bra-burning protesters who were both irrational and unrealistic. Were you picturing the same thing? It's probably because these wildly inaccurate stereotypes are so widespread in our society that feminists everywhere get a bad rap. (That's probably why the atrocity, Women Against Feminism exists... But don't even get me started on that.) The actual definition of "feminism" is "the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men." Note the word "equality" -- this means that, despite common misconception, feminists don't seek superiority to men in some sort of women-rule-all matriarchal society, but simply equal rights and opportunities. This definition is one of the hundreds of things I've learned in my first year at Barnard, and I couldn't be more grateful that I did.
Truthfully, I did not apply to Barnard because it's a women's college -- I applied in spite of it. Luckily, the school had enough positive aspects to outweigh this negative. Surrounded by only women, 24/7? Ew, no thank you. I agreed with the sentiment that, in this day and age, women's colleges are somewhat irrelevant. If women no longer need to attend female institutions to achieve higher education, then why would they? There are hundreds of perfectly good co-ed colleges in the world! Yet in only one year at Barnard, I've learned my lesson: women's colleges are not only relevant, but necessary in today's society. I could tell you the facts -- that while only 2% of women graduate from women's colleges, these graduates comprise over 20% of our congress; that women's college alum include the likes of Emily Dickinson, Hilary Clinton, Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City, anyone?), Meryl Streep, Barbara Walters, Nancy Pelosi and hundreds of other household names -- but instead I'll explain my own experience at Barnard, and why attending a women's college is one of the best decisions I've ever made.
One of the most overused, age-old arguments against schools like Barnard is one you've probably heard before (I certainly have): a community of only women is unrealistic -- it's nothing like the real world. (News flash: neither is regular college!) The logic is, "how can women successfully assimilate into the work force, where men are not just present, but dominant, if they've spent their days surrounded by other women?" Believe it or not, 81% of women's college graduates reported that their college was extremely or very effective in helping prepare them for their first job, versus 65% of women who graduated from public universities. Yes, I'm surrounded by a lot of estrogen, a lot of the time. No, I don't feel as though the lack of men is leaving me ill-prepared. Rather, I feel confident and ready to speak my mind, thanks to the simultaneously nurturing yet challenging environment. I never feel as though I'm in competition with my classmates, because I have the opportunity to speak in a free space, without feeling as though I'm being judged or criticized. Every class is an ongoing discussion between peers and professors alike. While this may be possible at co-ed universities, studies have shown that women are less likely to speak up when they are outnumbered by men. Women's colleges teach leadership and confidence through active participation. (And believe it or not, "women's studies" isn't the main focus of every class -- and when it is, we analyze gender roles from every side, including the male perspective!) After four years of this, you can imagine that graduates emerge empowered and ready to take their seat at the metaphorical table. In a study by Marie Claire magazine, researchers found that overall, employers were less likely to hire women because they lacked something called executive presence - basically, the kind of presence and self-assured attitude that makes you CEO material. Women's colleges produce these kinds of women, without a doubt.
In fact, most of the things I've learned thus far didn't come from the classroom at all -- they came from my peers, a community of intellectual, independent and opinionated women unlike any others. Our motto is "bold, beautiful, Barnard," and it's not for nothing; my classmates and club members are constantly questioning, eager to learn, and always unafraid to speak their minds. They stimulate conversation at every opportunity, whether it's posting articles about the societal implications of One Direction's "That's What Makes You Beautiful," writing theses on the cultural relevance of women's magazines or discussing the psychology behind serial killers (true story: I had a fascinating conversation with my RA and several random girls at 3 a.m. in our hall bathroom about morality and how we would respond if our child was a murderer.)
As you can probably tell, I've learned a lot of things in my first year at Barnard. The most important lesson I've learned thus far, however, is one that I know would have been out of reach had I attended my co-ed, state university: don't be intimidated by these amazing women, but rather seek them out. Surround yourself with those who challenge you and enable you to grow. In high school, I competed with intelligent classmates - in college I respect and befriend them. The only thing better than being on top is being on top with a network of successful and interesting women from all walks of life! I can thank my relevant, necessary, amazing, empowering college for teaching me that lesson, and ensuring that I am one of those women.