by Rhian Sasseen on March 7, 2012
By now the Barnard-Columbia clash concerning Obama’s commencement speech has veered from the annoyingly competitive to the downright vile. I won’t type out the horrifyingly misogynistic comments here, but as another soon-to-be-graduate at a fellow Seven Sisters college, all I can say is that displays like this consistently reaffirm my decision to attend a women’s college.
I took early to feminism: at twelve I read The Bell Jar; at thirteen, The Feminine Mystique. My teenage years were spent idly driving through my West Coast suburban town blasting Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Le Tigre while attempting to sneer at any soccer mom that crossed paths with me. I doubt that anyone in my graduating class was surprised when I applied early decision to Smith; I read my acceptance letter in our high school’s English department office and, as I vaguely recall now, screamed, “I’m going to the same college as Gloria Steinem!” But before I hit “send” on the Common App – even after, even upon my arrival – I will admit that I doubted.
It almost sounds silly now, doesn’t it? – Like some convert recounting their darkest hour. But the Seven Sisters have a way of sucking you in – their beauty and their history can be intoxicating, and this is part of their selling point: walk the same hallowed halls as Sylvia Plath (Smith.) Hone your political skills in classrooms that were once familiar to Hillary Clinton (Wellesley.) Dive into the same fountain as Katherine Hepburn did one mischievous evening (Bryn Mawr.) To express any doubt seems almost like a moment of betrayal.
I toured nearly all of the remaining Sisters, alongside a few co-ed choices, Vassar being the most prominent in my memory. Vassar, too, was what caused me to doubt my decision – what if the all-women atmosphere drove me crazy (towards an oven?) It’s an insidious myth in our culture that women can’t get along, and it simply isn’t true. Though I often roll my eyes at Smith, my exasperations are often merely symptoms of the New England liberal arts experience – the predilection for LL Bean, for instance. But though I am ready – eager, even – to graduate and begin life outside of academia, I find myself thinking “Smithie” first, student later.
Columbia’s derision towards Barnard is yet another symptom of our culture’s denigration of women’s education. The very idea that a woman would want to spend four years of her life in an environment created for her – not a college founded for men, by men, a begrudging host to co-educational intellectualism – means that she must be both desexed and oversexed, an idiot, and a leech. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t: people unfamiliar with Smith always look at me a little peculiarly, as though my education were an eccentricity.
It’s not and it never will be. To be a woman in America today is still, unfortunately, a political act unto itself, and my choice in colleges betrays my politics to the world. So be it. As long as misogyny still exists, as long as incidents such as the Barnard commencement announcement still inspire hatred and derision towards my fellow female scholars, I will always support women’s colleges. Smithie first – student second.