Editor’s Note: The Weekly continues its series of articles exploring the issues surrounding feminism today.
While students at women’s colleges are often stereotyped as man-hating, militant lesbians, their reasons for choosing against a co-ed environment can’t be so easily labeled.
For many, Mills is a sanctuary where they can escape stereotypes and express their point of view without being marginalized.
“I’m constantly told that I’m putting a damper on the fun or being intense when I’m addressing issues,” said freshwoman Nicole Hudley. “Here, I feel less militant. I’m learning and growing from other models of women like me.”
Like Hudley, freshwoman Jane Kennedy feels the pressures from those who label her feminist viewpoints as “lesbian,” or “man-hating,” which are labels she sees applied to students at women’s colleges in general.
“The same words come up every time I take a feminist position on issues,” Kennedy said.
Margo Okazawa-Rey, a professor in the women’s studies department, said that the evocation of a “man-hating” vision of Mills in the February issue of Hustler was deliberate and calculated.
‘It is a way to undermine solidarity with each other and cause confusion among ourselves,” said Okazawa-Rey.
Okazawa-Rey sees women’s colleges as an appropriate response to oppression.
“Any time a group of women claim space, they are always seen as anti the dominant group,” said Okazawa-Rey. “This backlash tries to undermine ways in which women build solidarity. If there was no female oppression, there would be no need for a women’s college in the first place.”
President Janet Holmgren said that Hustler’s focus on Professor Emeritus Diana Russell and the angry speech she’s directed toward the magazine and its publisher Larry Flynt is misleading.
“While I respect Diana Russell, Mills is not a man-hating institution,” Holmgren said. “We are an institution which stands for very strong women. That’s what feminism means at Mills.”
Holmgren said that a belief in a women-centered education is deeply rooted among Mills students. In 1991, the Mills Board of Trustees voted for the college to go co-ed but students protested and shut the campus down for two weeks, resulting in a reversal of the decision. Holmgren, who came to Mills shortly after the strike, said that it is essential for Mills to remain a women’s college.
“It is not dangerous to have men here, however we need to keep our focus on women who have been shortchanged for so long,” Holmgren said. “Mills is a beacon for teaching women.”
According to the 2002 report “Women Students at Coeducational and Women’s Colleges,” women at “single-sex colleges are more engaged than women at co-educational institutions” and “reported higher levels of academic challenge.” Additionally, research shows that women are more likely to participate in class discussions in a women-centered environment. Many students see these statistics directly reflected in their classrooms.
“I do like how women can show their strength here,” freshwoman Molly Bower said. “At a women’s college, women don’t have to be so physically conscious about themselves, classes are more focused and women are more open about discussing issues.”
Kennedy said that another advantage is that the women are much nicer to one another because they aren’t defined by attempts to attract men.
But for many, the benefits of a women’s college can also prove to be a negative.
“It’s really isolated in every sense,” Hudley said. “I love Mills so much that I find myself being trapped and I don’t want to see the outside world.”
Hudley doesn’t stand alone in terms of perceiving both the positive and negative aspects of attending a women’s college.
Both Kennedy and Bower said the primary disadvantage they see is the marginalization of the straight community.
“I feel like the lesbian community is overcompensating for past suppression and are aggressive towards heterosexuals,” Kennedy said. “I feel I have no contributions [to the community] as a white, straight woman.”
However, Hudley, who is bisexual, said that one of the benefits of being in a women-centered environment is that she isn’t “marginalized for being of [a] different sexual orientation.”
Dawn Dalili, a graduate student, feels that attending a women’s college allows for a rare and special opportunity, but also notes a downside. Citing the common use of the word “freshwoman” as opposed to “freshman,” she said that gender is often overemphasized.
“Maybe part of my feminism is feeling that I do not want to be viewed differently due to my gender,” said Dalili. “I think we should all be viewed as individuals on a level playing field. On the flip side of the coin, much like affirmative action, it’s entirely possible that more attention needs to be brought to the issue until that playing field is truly level.”