Debora L. SparOver the past three years, I have come to realize that I hear the same two questions a lot: What is the relationship between Barnard and Columbia? And, Why does anyone still need a women’s college?

I have gotten quite good at answering the first query (separate institution; wonderful partnership), but the latter remains a tougher conversation. As a recent article by Tamar Lewin ’71 in The New York Times describes, single-sex education is under attack across the country, with critics suggesting that it offers no real benefits over standard coeducation. According to a report entitled “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” for example, “sex-segregated education is deeply misguided and often justified by weak, cherry-picked or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence.” Similar criticisms are lobbed more informally across Web sites and popular blogs, stressing that, with women now accounting for more than 50 percent of the student population in colleges, universities, and graduate schools, the rationale for women’s colleges has completely disappeared. Or as one opponent recently argued online, single-sex schools are breeding grounds for “habits and mindsets that will actually render graduates MORE of a target and LESS capable of coping in the mainstream world.”

Repeatedly, and consistently, I disagree. Yes, women out-perform men in high school and outnumber them in college. Yes, women are welcome in athletic programs and dining clubs and across the Ivy League. Yet the proverbially tilted playing field for women has still not fully righted itself and young women—amazingly, astonishingly, perhaps—often experience college very differently from their male friends and counterparts. Yale was forced to confront these differences very publicly last year when the Department of Education investigated the university for a possible breach of Title IX (failure to eliminate a hostile sexual environment on campus). Duke has dealt with accusations of sexual harassment and a distinctly “macho” culture. And Princeton, to its great credit, recently released a candid and hard-hitting analysis of women’s leadership, or lack thereof, on its campus.

Princeton began admitting women in 1969, following several years of acrimonious debate among its then-all-male students and alumni. “I simply cannot conceive,” one graduate grumbled at the time, “anything like our warm friendships and manly dedication in an atmosphere thoroughly polluted by females.” Yet in the early years of coeducation, the university’s recent report notes, female students fared quite well. Women held a total of 18 major campus positions during the course of the 1980s and 22 in the 1990s; in 1975, both the valedictorian and salutatorian at Commencement were female. Over time, however, women have quietly, stunningly, begun to slip from leadership positions across campus. Only 12 women held prominent campus positions during the 2000s and only six won the Pyne Prize, the University’s highest award for general distinction. Men, by contrast, held 58 leadership positions during the 2000s and won 12 Pyne Prizes. As the report thus notes, “We had assumed … that after the pioneering years of undergraduate education at Princeton, women would have moved steadily into more and more prominence in campus leadership … [Instead] there has been a pronounced drop-off in the representation of women in these prominent posts since around 2000.” Current female students seem relatively unconcerned about their status, with several suggesting to the authors of the report that they were happy to work behind the scenes of the campus hierarchy, or to throw their energies into other, more fulfilling pursuits. Yet there was also a poignancy in some female students’remarks, and a dismaying awareness of the extent to which their gender—and sexual attractiveness—shaped their behavior on campus. And thus the report is prompted to wonder: “Can a male student who sees a first-year woman as a potential sexual conquest on Thursday night regard her as his intellectual equal in precept on Friday morning? How do the experiences of Thursday night affect that first-year woman’s idea of herself and her sense of how she is evaluated by her peers?”

I give great kudos to Princeton president Shirley Tilghman, who commissioned the study, and to Nannerl Keohane (former president of Wellesley and Duke) who chaired its steering committee. I salute their courage in tackling the thorny and unpleasant question of why, four decades after coeducation, young women at some of the world’s best universities are still having educational experiences that are subtly different from those of their male colleagues and still facing options that are shaped and squeezed by their gender. Princeton, as the report concludes, “needs to address residual stereotypes” and “recognize and celebrate the many ways in which both women and men are providing leadership.” So should Yale and Duke and every other college in the country.

But in the meantime—and perhaps for a long time—the country and the world still vitally need places like Barnard and the Sisters. Places where, for four precious years of their lives, young women inhabit a world where girls truly rule; where women lead by definition and habit, and where female role models abound. For four years, women at a single-sex college can enjoy being smart without worrying whether that means they’re not sexy. They can speak their minds without wondering if they’re meant to represent the “woman’s point of view.” They can talk about fashion rather than football without having their intelligence questioned. And then, four years later, they can leave stronger, more confident, and bound to a sisterhood that will support them forever.

Thankfully, colleges like Barnard are no longer the necessity they once were. Bright girls can go to the Ivy League, to the military academies, and to whatever careers and futures they choose to pursue.
But they can also choose an option that is increasingly rare and precious—four years of study and self-discovery, and a brief window of time when, for once, gender truly doesn’t matter.