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Women in History

cantaloupe's picture

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I came to Bryn Mawr because the college’s goal was to empower women.  Bryn Mawr educated exceptional women who had great careers and futures.   My parents were thrilled for me to go to such a prestigious school because they raised a child who had a promising life of academics.  My guidance counselor in high school told me again and again that I should attend the school that was “the right fit for me,” not what anyone else wanted me to attend.  Yet, when I told him that I was thinking of taking a year off between high school and college, he said that was a pretty terrible idea because I’d be “wasting my potential.”  No one supported my idea to take a gap year, my parents nor my friends.  Taking a gap year was a failure of all my hard work.  So, I came to Bryn Mawr, and while I don’t regret it, I sometimes wonder if my education is liberating me or confining me to its mold.

In high school I was the one questioning the system.  I was the one who showed up to school in a shirt saying “silenced by homophobia” on Day of Silence and brought a girl to prom.  I was the one who was proud to be a strong woman.  I didn’t like high school at all.  I didn’t like how everyone was the same.  Everyone dressed the same and thought the same.  Our education only fed us with more single-minded ideas.  I took AP European History my senior year where we learned all the great kings and queens.  We learned about Napoleon and the church.  Three hundred years of European public power was drilled into our brains, along with Joan of Arc.  It was nice of them to add a token woman who played against the system.  All through high school I twiddled my thumbs knowing one day I would get to college.

I wanted to take a year off between high school and college because I was exhausted and disillusioned by the college admittance process.  I knew I was a smart kid; I couldn’t understand why it was such a game to get into college.  People played up their extracurricular activities to look good on applications.  They wrote essays about subjects that didn’t really interest them to make them look like they served the common good.  The colleges took a high and mighty stance boasting their prestige until I got accepted into a few.  And then they begged me to come.  It seemed more like a business caring about money and power rather than an institution invested in my further education.

Alas, I came to Bryn Mawr.  I was very excited about my classes and their content until I realized nothing had really changed.  I was still in classrooms with teachers who expected me to think a certain way and write papers to reflect that thinking.  I was tested on a hundred and twenty architects and their work, I wrote a paper on rising above being an immigrant, and I read Aristotle and Plato and wrote papers restating what they wrote to show that I understood.  It had the illusion of a place that was rising above standard education, but from my classes, I wasn’t convinced it was rising above anything.  They were just classes and just teachers. 

The fact that we are a women’s college does make us different.  We idolize Katherine Hepburn because she went to our school.  If we try hard enough, maybe we could be a woman that the college brochures would boast about too.  If we try hard enough, maybe we could be an exceptional woman in society that Bryn Mawr strives to make us.  Otherwise, maybe we would go to grad school or go on to become doctors, and Bryn Mawr would be proud of us then too, but not as proud as if we made a breakthrough scientific discovery.  The truth is, some (or most) of us are going to graduate Bryn Mawr (or leave early) and just lead normal lives with a normal, boring job.  Bryn Mawr doesn’t really strive to create those women, but they are bound to be mingled between the lawyers, doctors and actresses.  It’s nice that Bryn Mawr says they create exceptional women because it makes us feel important to the future, but it also just causes us to be stressed and anxious because there is the chance we might not be extraordinary.

Like me, for instance.  I am a sophomore who is searching frantically for a passion.  Women around me are talking about their future plans to practice public health in Africa, build buildings in New York City, work for the government, and I’m just hoping I can find something that makes me happy.  Making it into Bryn Mawr’s admission brochure isn’t important to me, but I do want to find something that I can wake up every day and say, “yes, this makes me smile.”  Problem is that there are so many high expectations on me I can’t even breathe long enough to find pleasure in any of it.  I have to write a ten page paper describing how the setting of a movie reflects its urbanism and how that relates to the social and economic place or time instead of wondering if architecture is the right major for me.  And if I like architecture, I like math, I like astronomy, and I like philosophy in small doses, what major do I fit into then?  There isn’t a major for me, unless I create my own, which has its own set of complications.  Pressure is put on me more and more to figure out my major and I’m still wondering what it would be like to be a firefighter.

I just want to learn.  I don’t want the politics of college, I just enjoy sitting down with a book.  I don’t want to think I have to be a woman that makes a difference in society.  If I’m happy in life, but didn’t do anything exceedingly amazing for mankind, I don’t want to think that I probably should have done more in life.

Bryn Mawr also shelters me and protects me so that I think I will never face hardship in my life.  I live amongst women, so I never have to face opposition as a woman.  I also live amongst many gay women, so I rarely face homophobia.  There is enough of a gay community here to battle any kind of homophobia.  The problem is that that isn’t the real world.  When I get thrown into a job situation where my boss doesn’t think I am capable of a task because I am a woman and I am gay, I won’t really know how to fight back.  I love the comfort of the Bryn Mawr community, but I’m also nervous of life beyond it. 

I’m not convinced Bryn Mawr is librating me as a woman, I’m afraid it’s confining me as a “Mawrter.”  Sooner or later we all seem to be preaching the same message and believing the same ideas.  Classes don’t represent women from all over the world with different beliefs and views, they represent Mawrters.  While I enjoy being at Bryn Mawr, I am aware that we are not learning that we are just women within a world and a society, we are taught that we must fight to be exceptional women.



Anne Dalke's picture

On just wanting to learn....


you are bringing Peggy McIntosh's message straight home to Bryn Mawr: her saying that "putting women's bodies into high places does little for people, and nothing for women in the aggregate" certainly constitutes a direct challenge to our "challenging women" ethos, to our mission of providing "a rigorous education," a "pursuit of knowledge as preparation for life and work" (why preparation? why not get to work right now....?) Just as profound, though, is your critique that Bryn Mawr is not living up to its claim to teach "critical, creative and independent habits of thought and expression," that we are rather all learning to think alike.

And/but/so...there seems to be a real tension here. On the one hand, there's your impatience w/ being taught to think alike (carried over from high school): "I didn’t like how everyone was the same....I wasn’t convinced it was rising above anything....we all seem to be preaching the same message and believing the same ideas." And on the other hand, there's your feeling of being "stressed and anxious because there is the chance we might not be extraordinary....I don’t want to think I have to be a woman that makes a difference in society."  You seem to be dissatisfied with the options offered @ both ends of the spectrum: exceptionalism AND ordinariness. You say that you "just want to learn"--but I want to understand a little more what that means/invovles. Are you asking just to be left alone to be yourself? Not to be required to grow, or change, or challenge, or stretch yourself to be different than what you are? Where, then, is the learning?

Your doubt that Bryn Mawr is not "liberating you as a woman," but rather "confining you as a 'Mawrter,'" is shared by twig, who also thinks that a BMC education, "though meant to be liberating...actually ends up rather limiting." 

Oh! And did you see what Joan Roughgarden (taking a page from Leslie Feinberg) had to say about your h.s. token "woman," Joan of Arc? Check out pp. 365-6 of Evolution's Rainbow, where you'll glimpse more of a token than you ever suspected: " a male-identified trans person killed specifically for his expresison of gender identity"....

cantaloupe's picture

a confession

Anne -

There is a real tension between my ideals.  My education is a very complicated subject for me (so I used this paper as a release of all my frustration).  There is a part of me that hates organized education in general.  To sit in a classroom to learn seems intuitively wrong to me - I feel like learning by living is more appealing.  I didn't even realize the contradiction I made by not liking being ordinary or extraordinary, but I looking back, I did indeed say that.  Oddly enough, it isn't the first time I have made this contradiction and been called out on it.  I considered going to a community college for a while, and emailed my former high school English teacher about it.  The email probably sounded a lot like this paper in that I talked about how much I disliked high school because the students didn't care and didn't try.  They didn't challenge me or challenge themselves.  My teacher said to me that community college would be a similar education to high school (which, I hoped, wasn't true because I always had faith that people who went to college, any kind of college, wanted to be there).  Basically my ideals of education are really muddled.  

I think what I mean by just wanting to learn is to not be at a college.  I don't want to stop being challenged, but I want to be challenged in a different way.  I want to learn from people and books.  This summer I worked here for dining services, and it was a really great summer.  I worked as a cook's helper, so I became friends with the cook.  She challenged me in a different way that a class at Bryn Mawr can.  I know Bryn Mawr is diverse, but we can never have diversity that really demonstrates all aspects of the real world.  The cook I became friends with came from a completely different place than I did.  And I really liked talking to her.  When I wasn't working, I basically lived at the public library here in Bryn Mawr.  I literally would choose an aisle of books and spend the afternoon reading from that section.  Between spending my time talking to all the full time dining services staff and reading books from every subject, I was so happy.  I don't know if what I'm saying is making sense (probably because I'm not sure what I'm saying).  And maybe that kind of learning would eventually stop challenging me and stop being my ideal.  But when I say "just learn" that's what I'm thinking.

In my philosophy of religion class we just read Tolstoy's A Confession and it's made me think more about what I value and do not value in education.  The whole book is about faith and finding God, but I find some of the things he says about working class people interesting. if you want to check it out  - particularly chapters ten and eleven.  (Reading such a text in a classroom setting is, again, contradictory)


Anne Dalke's picture

on doing what is wanted of us....

So I read Chapters 10 and 11 in Tolstoy's Confession, and what leapt out @ me was this passage:

The life of the world endures by someone's must first perform it by doing what is wanted of us. But if I will not do what is wanted of me, I shall never understand what is wanted of me, and still less what is wanted of us all and of the whole world.

Are you saying that you need to take some time off from college, to work w/ people like the cook who taught you so much this summer, to read serendip-ishly on your own, and thereby decide where and how you are going to get the education you really need? (My youngest daughter has withdrawn from college for that reason: she's decided that gardeners and herbalists--not environmental studies programs--have the hands-on, practical knowledge she is really looking for...)