How Going to a Women’s College Made Me a Better Feminist

I didn’t want to go to a women’s college when I was first applying to college. 

At this point in high school, I had already declared myself a feminist, retweeting #GirlPower tweets and hoping to buy one of those “The Future Is Female” t-shirts. When my mom first brought up the idea of applying to Barnard College, I’d convinced myself that my reasons against applying were valid: A women’s college wouldn’t give me enough diversity of opinions. It would be isolating and insular. Attending a school without men would leave me unprepared for the harsh reality of the “real world.”

This idea was steadfast until I went on a campus tour the summer after my junior year of high school to spark my true interest. I had just finished a separate tour of Columbia University, which lies just across the street, earlier that morning. I had thought there was no way Barnard, which took up a measly three city blocks total and had less than half the students could live up to the shiny Ivy League grandeur that Columbia’s looming buildings and manicured lawns projected.

But standing in the lobby of Barnard Hall, the school’s main building, as a girl confidently explained the diversity of the student body and the empowerment she felt being surrounded by other “badass Barnard” students, I couldn’t help but look through the window at that tiny campus and imagine it as home. There was something different in the air at Barnard that I hadn’t found anywhere else yet, a sense of family among the students that I wanted to be a part of.

It was spontaneous—Barnard ended up being one of the best schools I got into, and ultimately, the pull of NYC was too great to ignore. During my time here, I’ve found that senior-year me couldn’t have been more wrong about the women’s college experience. Fast-forward to two years later, and I’m a bold, brilliant, Barnard sophomore (that’s what the slogan says, anyway!).

 

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I should start by saying that students refer to Barnard as “historically a women’s college.” However, Barnard, like many other women’s colleges, has controversial admissions policies regarding trans and non-binary students. Many consider us a school for gender minorities despite this fact. This was one of the first things I learned stepping onto campus: I’m at a women’s college, but what does “woman” really mean? And who does that affect?

These are the kinds of questions Barnard students are exposed to daily, inside and outside the classroom. Our required first-year writing and seminar classes incorporate gender studies. I interact with students of different gender identities every day, whereas, in high school, I had met maybe one or two people who weren’t cisgender (i.e. identifying with the gender assigned at birth).

I also get to connect with women of color who have different intersections of identity than I do, and work through different struggles because of it. And I learn to listen to them, to their stories and opinions. There is no shortage of diversity at Barnard, even without the men I thought I’d need to hear from.

The women’s college experience is all about criticism becoming action. The very inception of Barnard in 1889 was a response to Columbia, which only admitted men until the 1980s. And even then, Barnard students aren’t entirely proud of our history: I’ve heard countless people point out that Barnard was originally conceived primarily to create socialites that would go on to marry Columbia men. Our tagline was (and in some places, still is) “Bold, Beautiful, Barnard,” until students decided it should be changed to “Brilliant” to remove the pressure of attractiveness from women. I hadn’t thought much about beauty standards before Barnard—I wore makeup every day in high school without a second thought, thinking it was just something I was supposed to do. Now, there’s no shame in wearing and liking makeup, but I almost never do; I have freed myself of feeling like wearing makeup is an obligation, understanding there are other parts of me that are more important.

Even when a Barnard graduate created the emblematic, feminist “pussyhat" and the Women’s March, she fielded criticism from the trans community (including trans students at Barnard) about the hat’s exclusionary nature and connections to white feminism, or feminism that doesn’t account for, and even erases, the racial, class, religious and other forms of oppression some women also face. I attended the second annual Women’s March in the city last January. I saw tons of pussyhats on the heads of women old and young, but I didn’t don one myself. I even wrote an article for my Her Campus chapter about how the movement could do better, something my Girl Power high school self could never have conceived.

Although the other schools I got into are no doubt great places, I don’t believe I would’ve seen the same level of dedication to gender equality as I see at Barnard. At my current school, I have become aware of the oppression I face as a woman, especially in today’s world. However, I have also become acutely aware of my privileges—something that the white feminism I’d known growing up didn’t adequately prepare me for.

Before coming here, I’d thought a witty t-shirt and a few hashtags were enough to cement myself as a true feminist. I fell into the trap of making assumptions instead of asking questions, of painting broad strokes where nuance existed. I am learning to be a better ally, a better listener. And being a part of this Barnard family is to be part of a welcoming, unapologetic community. Attending Barnard has helped open my eyes and shaped the way I see the society I participate in.

As for the part of me that naively wanted to be around boys, I realized that I wasn’t completely shut off from them—I just didn’t need them present in my learning spaces. There is something exciting, and precious, in existing in an intellectual space that was designed for me, not one designed for someone else that shifted to accommodate me later. Once I get out into the “real world,” I’m not going to flounder when I am working side-by-side with men. I will know, because of Barnard and the people there who have shaped me, what I am capable of and what I am worth.