Contradictions in Womenís Education: Traditionalism, Careerism, and Community at a Single-Sex College
reviewed by Athena Perrakis - 2004
Title: Contradictions in Womenís Education: Traditionalism, Careerism, and Community at a Single-Sex College
Author(s): Barbara J. Bank and Harriet M. Yelon
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807743631, Pages: 184, Year: 2003
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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Indeed, in higher education, the more things change, the more things tend to remain the same. Among those ‘things’ that has hardly changed over the last two centuries is the debate about gender in higher education and whether or not the process of earning a college or university degree is the same for men and women. In Contradictions in Women’s Education, Barbara Bank sheds light on the many tensions and controversies that characterize discussions of women’s higher education. She argues that many women model their educational careers after men, yet find that they are neither welcomed into nor adequately trained for careers men traditionally pursue. Caught between paradigms of gender traditionalism and academic careerism, women struggle to find a supportive environment within which to pursue their degrees. By raising important questions about the role of community or social networks for female undergraduates, Bank explores how one cohort of female students at a small women’s college negotiated the contradictory imperatives of traditionalism and careerism in pursuit of their baccalaureate degrees during the mid-1990s.
Many studies of women’s higher education have focused their attention on what Bank refers to as “the Seven Sisters”: Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. Bank deliberately chose to study a college that is non-elite. The point of researching a non-elite institution is not to suggest a difference in students’ perception of their academic experience; the students she studied did not indicate an explicit awareness of or concern for the status of their college. Rather, her goal is to underscore the importance of institutional status as one characteristic that affects the way themes of careerism, traditionalism, and community are constructed and researched.
As the focus of this book, CWC or Central Women’s College is described as a residential Female Academy founded in the mid-19th century. Originally a secular institution of higher education for women, the college granted its first baccalaureate degree in 1964. Total enrollment is limited to roughly 800 students each fall. Although the college added a graduate curriculum in certain departments during the time of Bank’s study, her research focused specifically on the undergraduate programs. Most of the women studied were traditional-aged, White and Christian. Shortly after Bank’s research at CWC was complete the college administration implemented a decision to admit male students. The effects of this decision are not discussed in this book.
During the initial phase of Bank’s research she administered a questionnaire to students about gender norms and personal values. In broad terms, she found that the student ‘culture’ of the university was primarily emancipatory, i.e., women on campus felt that gender equality and autonomy were values espoused by college faculty and administration. At the same time, traditional values were also advocated among students and faculty. Marriage and family were indicated as priorities both for students and faculty who participated in the study. Some stress, though not a significant amount, was placed on women’s self-orientation. Thus, although female students encountered an emancipatory sentiment on campus, they were not actively encouraged to break free from conventional roles or proprieties.
Perhaps this ambivalence toward conventional gender roles helps to explain why only eight percent of students at CWC in 1995 answered an unequivocal “yes” in response to the question, “Are you a feminist?” A surprising 60 percent answered “no” to the same question. Regardless of their responses to the question about feminism, however, Bank found that most students endorsed gender equality. Specifically, more than half of the respondents who rejected the label “feminist” indicated their support for women’s rights. Bank stresses that the unwillingness to use this particular label is not unique to CWC; Barbara Findlen, cited in Bank’s book, notes that many young women tend to associate feminist status with a persona that is man-hating, unattractive, and lesbian. Bank, however, suggests that rather than out of fear of being perceived as unattractive or lesbian, students at CWC rejected the label “feminist” because of perceived political radicalism and rigidity.
From feminism to sorority life, this book examines numerous and diverse areas of female student development. Sororities are discussed in Bank’s study as mechanisms for student retention and persistence – not sites of indoctrination into the ‘romance culture’ of college, as some might presume. Women at CWC who joined sororities on campus had almost double the rate of retention of women who entered the college without joining sororities. However, Bank qualifies this startling statistic by explaining that sorority membership is not a guarantee of retention; some students who abandoned their studies prior to graduation mentioned sororities as one of the major reasons for leaving the college. Many educational researchers have cited campus involvement and social integration as keys to retention and persistence in college. Involvement, then, in a sorority may for some students serve as a means for developing social networks that help them navigate the difficult emotional and intellectual terrains of college life; while some of these networks involve romantic relationships with members of the opposite sex, most involve peer friendships that nurture a sense of self-importance and self-worth. Friendships established outside the Greek system and athletic team affiliations also helped to integrate students into campus life at CWC.
Without question, female students receive more specific attention at women-only colleges. Faculty support and encouragement at CWC contributed positively and significantly to academic performance. Self-esteem was also positively affected by attendance at CWC. Bank measured the self-esteem of students prior to their matriculation at CWC, after their first year, and during their last year at CWC. These comparisons revealed that spending all or most of one’s academic career at CWC increased students’ self-esteem. Although some of this boost in self-esteem could probably be attributed to strong academic performance, Bank suggests that CWC offered students multiple avenues for self-exploration and personal development, which also led students to feel better and more confident about themselves. Unlike students at other women-only colleges, however, students at CWC did not correlate the quality of their social lives with their level of self-esteem. That is, a larger sense of satisfaction with self and environment contributed to overall satisfaction with their experiences at CWC. Perhaps elite colleges, and research institutions for that matter, have something to learn from this study in general and from this campus, in particular.