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Women’s Colleges: A Look Inside

“Where do you go to college?” Who knew that simple question could cause so much stress?

It’s not that I don’t know the answer; I’m not that spacey. But, without fail, I always get the same reaction when I tell people I attend Wellesley.

“The girl’s school?” they ask, stunned. That, or they tell me about their hipster nephew/grandson/male neighbor who also goes here, in which case I tell them that they’re thinking of Wesleyan, and the two are not the same.

But yes, I attend a girl’s school. Or, as some politically correct Wellesley students prefer, a women’s college. Whatever. A nunnery by any other name is just as celibate.

Just kidding. Anyone who reads Rolling Stone knows all about “The Highly-Charged Erotic Life of the Wellesley Girl.”

Details of our sex lives aside, there are many misconceptions about women’s colleges. One I often hear about Wellesley is that men are actually barred from campus…so not true. There are plenty of males on campus at any given time, including students’ boyfriends, professors, campus police, dining hall workers, sketchy MIT grad students, and misogynist Dartmouth “study abroad” students. Ok, so Wellesley isn’t exactly filled with Prince Charmings (and, really, what school is?), but we can occasionally get our fill of the Y chromosome without even stepping foot on the “fuck truck”, as students deem the bus that transports students between Wellesley, MIT, and Harvard.

So, now that I’ve cleared up the question of who comes here, let’s talk about who goes here. Women’s college students are often described in one of four ways: nerds, sluts, angry feminists, or lesbians.

The answer? All of the above, and none of the above. All four of those stereotypes exist here just as they all exist, at, oh I don’t know…a co-ed college. Some of them exist in higher numbers here than at other schools. But none of them can be pinned down as the “typical” women’s college or Wellesley student.

And get this: just as Wellesley students are not limited to being any of those four stereotypes, we’re also not limited to fitting just one either. Sure, at times, it’s hard to see, like when someone hides away in the social science building for ten hours to study for her econ midterm (oh, wait, is that me?) or when a first-year (there are no freshmen at a women’s college) gets ridiculously dolled up for her first frat party following her first week in an estrogen-only environment (oh, wait, is that me, circa fall 2007?), but we all have real depth beyond superficial labels (oh, wait, that’s me too!).

That’s because all four stereotypes are based on assumptions that are just wrong.  The nerd stereotype is based on the assumption that because we chose strong academics over men, we’re incapable of leaving the library. We’re smart, not invalids.

The slut stereotype assumes we’re desperate. But truly desperate women don’t go to women’s colleges. They’d be too frightened of male-free life to give it a try.

The lesbian and angry feminist stereotypes assume that because we attend a women’s college, we came to Wellesley because we don’t want or need men around. But most Wellesley students didn’t choose Wellesley because it’s a women’s college. For most of the college admissions process, I absolutely refused to consider applying to any women’s colleges. But then I was talked into going on a tour of Wellesley, and I liked the school so much, that suddenly the whole “no men” thing wasn’t as big of a deal. It wasn’t the make-or-break factor of my decision; it was merely a con on my Wellesley pro/con list.

So if it’s not the oft-evoked images of ceaseless lesbian orgies or bra-burning young Gloria Steinems, what is it that makes a women’s college different than a coed college? What does typify our experience? At the complete risk of over-generalizing, I came up with five defining characteristics:

1. At any given time, Love Actually is playing somewhere on campus.

I’ve watched this movie so many times at Wellesley that it’s no longer cute that an eight year-old boy evades airport security to run after the “love of his life,” or that Colin Firth’s character learns Portuguese to propose to a woman he’s never had an actual conversation with. It’s downright creepy, actually. Similarly, there are large crowds for shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl,” but I was one of only two students in my dorm watching game seven of the World Series. Though as a Yankees fan transplanted in Boston, that may have been in the interest of my own safety.

2. The dorms are cleaner.

Women can be pigs. But men, on average, are bigger pigs. Sorry, but it’s true. I’ve been inside enough coed dorms to know that the lovely smell of week-old pizza is just more common when men are around. And the stench of a coed bathroom is often enough to explain the vomit stains.

Because our dorms are cleaner, our dorms are also fancier. They trust us not to destroy things. Where some coed schools might have a tattered futon and a pool table, we have cushy armchairs and a fireplace. The furniture is fitting for a school that has weekly teas.

3. Weekends are often spent off-campus.

Because, honestly, no one likes Love Actually THAT much. And because regardless of sexual preferences, most of us want to meet men, even if just to have a more relaxed conversation than we usually can with our perpetually stressed-out fellow Wellesley students. Or if we just want some good eye-candy. It doesn’t really matter. To get either one, you need to leave. Yes, there’s my earlier list of all the men you regularly see on Wellesley’s campus. But re-read that list and you’ll get my point.

The result of all this time off-campus is a very fragmented social culture back on campus. Even though Wellesley is a small school, it’s not as if we all know who was totally trashed on Friday night or who hooked up with whom on Saturday because these instances could have taken place at just about any campus around Boston. And at last count, there were about a gazillion of those. Honestly, this is probably a good thing. Less drama. Yet along with the drama, a certain unity is lost. 

4. Any conversation can get linked back to feminist theories.

Although we’re not all angry feminists, for better or worse, it still happens. You might be hanging out with your friends, discussing how your calc class is killing you because you’re just bad at math. And then someone pipes up: “You’re not just bad at math. You’ve just been socially constructed to think that you should be bad a math because you’re a woman.” You roll your eyes, thinking back to how long you needed to study for your last midterm, only to realize afterwards that you should take the class pass/fail. You honestly don’t know an integral from a derivative, but you let it go.

However, she’s not done. “Did you play with Barbie dolls as a child?” she continues.  “You probably owned the one programmed to say ‘math is hard.’ Well, let me tell you something. Barbie dolls are not actual women.” Wonderful insight, you think. Until today, you still thought women’s feet were supposed to be molded into a shape that perfectly fits a high heel.

5. Feminism is not a joke.

And neither is anything that could result in someone getting offended. Clearly, I need to be reminded of this daily. But deep down, my tendency to mock certain aspects of my all-women’s college comes from my belief that women should be allowed to do everything that men do. And men get to mock my women’s college all the time. Uh-oh, my angry feminist is showing. Time to put on my highest heels, lowest cut top, and head over to MIT to balance it out. 

Elana Altman adores alliteration, and thus is majoring in economics and minoring in English at Wellesley College, where she is a senior. At Wellesley, she’s co-editor-in-chief of Legenda, the yearbook, and has occasionally contributed to the monthly magazine Counterpoint and the weekly newspaper The Wellesley News. She’s originally from Glen Rock, NJ, which is 30 minutes from NYC and 15 minutes from 5 different malls. Currently, Elana's in Harrisburg, PA, where she’s a features intern for the Patriot-News. She’s previously interned at The Record and TWIST magazine. After college, she is considering moving to Los Angeles to fulfill her lifelong dream of getting a tan, though she wouldn't mind a job either. Elana enjoys anything with coffee in it, cooking, a few good TV shows, and a few too many terrible ones.
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