What It Means To Be a Women's College
As a tour guide, I am sometimes asked to explain Barnard’s identity as a women’s college. How does Barnard consider itself a women’s college when the campus and the classes are largely co-ed as a result of the affiliation with Columbia? It is an interesting, complicated question, and while I give a condensed version of my answer on tours, I’m eager to expand upon it in a blog post.
It is important to consider the term “women’s college” as un-fixed and ever-changing with the academic, social, and political landscape of our times. Just as the definition of what it means to be a woman has been re-opened, re-defined, and re-considered - without necessarily an agreed upon result - in recent years, so has the place, purpose, and meaning of women’s colleges.
When Barnard was first founded in 1889, it provided women the opportunity to access the same quality education available to men across the street at Columbia. Columbia only admitted men at this time - and so did most of its peer institutions. Columbia did not admit women into its undergraduate college until 1983. Several other Ivy League universities went co-educational around the same time: Harvard around 1975, Yale in 1973. The purpose and definition of women’s colleges preceding the co-ed era was clear: they were often the only higher education option available to students who weren’t male, and/or they were the “equivalent” institution of prestigious all-men universities for women. In the post-co-ed world, where the vast majority of universities enroll students of all genders, the existence of women’s colleges is less about necessity and is much more about the specific benefits of being part of the community, culture, and ethos of a women’s college.
I believe Barnard’s identity as a women’s college is far more about these elements than about the gender makeup of the student body. Part of what it means to think critically about womanhood and gender is to question what the demarcation and definition of “woman” even entails. The fact that there are Columbia students of all genders in our classrooms does not diminish Barnard’s mission “to provide the highest quality liberal arts education to promising and high-achieving young women.” In fact, there are Barnard students, myself included, who do not identify as women, and this still does not diminish the benefits of being at Barnard.
"As a college for women, Barnard embraces its responsibility to address issues of gender in all of their complexity and urgency, and to help students achieve the personal strength that will enable them to meet the challenges they will encounter throughout their lives"
(from the Barnard College Mission Statement)
Being at Barnard, then, is not about excluding those who do not identify as women, nor is it about reinforcing rigid separation, delineation, or organization of students based on gender. It is, rather, about providing people who identify and live/have lived as women with the resources and community to counter the historical obstacles and disadvantages that exist for non-male individuals within academia. It is about exploring the boundaries and definitions of what it means to be a “woman” in order to find ways to be women in ways that are empowering, community-building, and self-authored, rather than being pushed into gendered categories that are restrictive or inhibiting.
Inside and outside the classroom, everyday, I am challenged to think critically about gender issues, gendered structures, and how being a gendered individual impacts the way I move through social, academic, and professional spaces. The identities I occupy and my relationship to those categories is not taken for granted by my peers or faculty, and I feel comfortable reforming and growing them as I learn more about myself. I am not expected to adhere to a predetermined way of learning, being, expressing, presenting, or thinking. This is what makes Barnard the place that it is to me; not the gender identity or assigned sex of my peers.
- Aydan Shahd ‘20, they/them/theirs
If you have more questions or thoughts you would like to share on this topic, feel free to shoot me an email at email@example.com