The idea of admitting women to Amherst once faced bitter opposition from alumni, sharply divided the Board of Trustees and caused heated debates among the faculty and the student body. The matter was settled 40 years ago when Amherst opened its doors to women. So now that we’re all here, is coeducation really superior to other alternatives?
Prior to integration, Amherst was almost exclusively male with the exception of several women admitted as part of an exchange program in 1969. It is therefore not surprising that many at Amherst asked how women, as a group, would change Amherst.
Students feared that admitting women without decreasing the number of men would increase class sizes and lower the quality of education. Alumni feared that admitting women would increase competition and diminish the chance that their sons might one day follow in their footsteps. These logistical fears were reasonable apprehensions toward the radical changes to come. There were also less reasonable expectations. The first women admitted to Amherst were viewed as the moral salvation of the school. In his welcome to the very first female exchange students in 1969, Robert A. Ward, dean of Students, told the women that that they were “expected to tame our local savages by the very delicacy of [their] presence.” Prior to arrival of first-year girls in 1976, Ward’s successor David Drinkwater remarked that “women may help soften the macho image of the college.” These views glorify women for their purity in a way that is simultaneously degrading. Not only are women unreasonably expected to be “pure,” they are expected to be different from the men. Female purity was evoked to make women the moral scouring pads of the college.
It is abundantly clear that coeducation cannot be viewed as the additive benefits of sexes. The benefit of co-educational learning environments is that they offer a diversity of opinion and perspective — any further statements inevitably lend themselves to stereotype and overgeneralization. To attempt the sexual calculus is to reduce men to barbarians and to characterize women as dainty, soothing, simple complements to evoke their “better natures.” These generalizations also lead to the capacity to castigate men and women who have preferences for single-sex education as lacking in some normal tendency. In this day and age, it is more common to ponder what purpose all-girl or all-boy schools serve. They both seem old-fashioned, as neither is distracted by horrifying hormones. Yet our perception of women’s schools in particular has, in very general and stereotypical views, shifted from that of prissy emblems of moral purity, as desired by the Amherst alumni of the ‘70s, to thirsty and trashy.
After at least 15 years of attending coed schools, many students here lack the perspective to assess what co-education offers academically, socially and institutionally. Our interactions with other schools in the consortium can indirectly cause reflection surrounding these issues. We may feel hypocritical in being offended and even a bit amused by ridiculous overheard comments such as, “Girls at Amherst aren’t as fun because they’re too smart,” while resenting most Mount Holyoke, Smith or UMass girls for showing up at parties. By fixating on petty details, or what can also be viewed as socially conditioned competition, we neglect to ask what necessitates women’s colleges in a time when coeducation is the norm. In a society shaped and dominated by the male perspective, providing a space where women’s voices are central is a clear motivation for the upholding of women’s colleges.
For this reason, many believe that women’s colleges function differently in terms of an academic and social vibe. Ashley Bohan ’16, who is currently doing domestic abroad at Wellesley, said, “Having spent over four years now in all-women’s education, I find the whole sisterhood thing a little cheesy, but I think its effects are real. Your classmates aren’t just your classmates, they’re your family. And I think that tends to make the campus feel like a loving, supportive place that really allows you to be your best and most authentic self.”
Bringing her perspective from domestic abroad, Bohan sees Amherst as less of one large community than Wellesley. The “all-encompassing sense of belonging that seems to transcend any sort of social divide” that Bohan noticed at Wellesley seems an unexpected, nearly utopian phenomenon. Perhaps a campus-wide community at Amherst exists as more of a phrase than a reality. As Bohan acknowledges, thinking about a campus in terms of one big happy family sounds cloying and a bit fake. Our differences should not be ignored, and friend groups form somewhat naturally. Typically, brotherhood and sisterhood on teams or clubs here override siblinghood. In any form, they are niches, isolated families that you must seek out yourself. Those who attend women’s colleges have a shared experience in a core part of identity as simply being women. Choosing to go to a college that institutionally acknowledges this bond must make students think about what other ties link them together, resulting in a more collaborative environment. Bohan said, “I’m not sure what else could bring us all together in the same way.”
Though coeducation integrates different perspectives, it does not make gender peripheral in the functioning of a community. It is difficult for those who are in the coeducational system to imagine the appeal of a same gender school, but their differences should not be weighed against one another in terms of which is better or worse. Nevertheless, it is worth looking at alternative systems of education to not only try to improve our communities but also to understand what they can convey about gender, education and their relationship in our culture.