“And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy”: A Case for Women’s Colleges

There are approximately 45 women’s colleges in this country. A great many of them are Catholic institutions founded principally by religious orders. The Church has a long history of supporting the education of girls and women. As Catholics, we possess a rich legacy of great woman-philosophers, theologians, and saints. The truth is I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s education lately. A few weeks ago, those at the administrative helm of my alma mater — Wilson College — decided to end her days as a college for women by admitting men into all of its academic programs. This decision (as I understand it) was made in an attempt to dramatically increase enrollment in hopes of bolstering the college’s dire financial outlook. I have heard many people — highly intelligent people for whom I have sincere regard — suggest that the day of the women’s college has come to an end. I have heard it suggested that women’s colleges are archaic. I have been told that they are no longer needed. I respectfully and passionately disagree.

In a letter written to the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, James F. Conneely, president of Notre Dame of Maryland University, responded to Wilson’s decision to become coed by stating that NDMU (the last remaining women’s college in Maryland) and those responsible for her success “will not waiver in our belief in the value of single-sex education for young women, because we know that women’s colleges produce confident, capable leaders at disproportionate levels. Our solution to the challenges of preserving our mission may not be right for all, but it is working, and it enables us to continue to welcome women who seek the many benefits of studying at an institution dedicated to their success.”

Women’s colleges do have a unique mission. They are communities where women learn to view themselves as leaders. Young women learn to appreciate their own strength, their own intelligence, their own voice. They learn to see each other as sisters. They learn to strive for excellence — academically, ethically, and spiritually. I’m not saying that these ends cannot be achieved by women attending coeducational institutions. What I’m saying is that women’s colleges are bastions for the intellectual cultivation of women in a world where most college guides aimed at female undergraduates focus on how to avoid the “freshman 15,” how to circumvent date rape, how to dress to impress, how to compete with other “girls” for the attention of male students (i.e. don’t seem too smart/assertive/opinionated/capable), and, having achieved the former, how to keep a boyfriend (with such helpful tips as do his laundry and write his papers). I am thankful that my college experience was devoid of any of these concerns. I want the same thing for my daughters … for all daughters. I am thankful to the Church and to her numerous religious orders who have committed themselves to safe-guarding women’s colleges.

So really I am writing this to say thank you. Thank you to the sisters and professors and administrators and staff members who have fought hard and innovated courageously to keep our Catholic women’s colleges alive and thriving. Thank you to the young women who have chosen to embrace the experience of woman-centered higher education. I am also writing to say please. If you are a young woman applying for college this winter, please consider a women’s college. Consider a women’s college BECAUSE it is a women’s college … not in spite of that fact. If you are a person who mentors high school or college-aged folks — a priest, deacon, sister, youth minister, teacher, counselor, older sibling, aunt, or uncle — please encourage the young women in your life to investigate the unique opportunities afforded to them by women’s colleges — here’s a list of them. I am profoundly saddened and disappointed that my alma mater has forsaken its 144-year mission to educate and empower women. But I am grateful that my Church still believes in this mission. I am hopeful that there will be Catholic women’s colleges for my daughters. I am hopeful. As the Prophet Joel envisioned the coming Reign of God being ushered in by the voices of strong, prophetic daughters, I take heart that my Church has committed herself to ensuring their readiness.