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Dear Sisterhood

rmeyer's picture

Dearest Sisterhood,

As I have already mentioned in an earlier conversation…

“I am a freshwoman from South Portland, Maine, and to be quite frank I have never even considered myself a feminist, nor have I even given the issue much thought. I consider myself to be a rather naïve and non-political person. Yet, here I am at a women’s college, in a course titled Introduction to Critical Feminist Studies. Hmm. If you are half as confused as I am, you’d maybe understand just how out of place I might feel here. Most days, I find myself wondering why I am here…and why I am in this class. But, as my Zen calendar said the very first day I arrived here at Bryn Mawr, ‘In your heart, you already know.’”

I guess I am not entirely sure how or why I came to choose Bryn Mawr. It sort of just happened…similar to me taking this course. I knew from the responses of people who knew of Bryn Mawr or any other sister college that going to a women’s college is a bit of a big deal. Why? For one, there aren’t many of them. Less than ten, I think. Also, it’s not your average American college. It’s a place where the words “sisterhood” and “empowerment” are mentioned on a regular basis, and where there is a certain kind of feminist sentiment throughout campus, one different from co-ed campuses. I like to think of Bryn Mawr as one big sorority. One big community of sisterhood.

But does it make sense? To my friend Katherine, sisterhood was the only thing that made sense to her in high school after falling into an amazing group of girls. To others, it’s a place to thrive and be more focused than ever. Sure, Bryn Mawr might have made perfect sense in 1885 (or sometime around then) when it was first founded--it was a time before the suffrage movement was even brought into light and a time when women certainly didn’t have any sense of equality…but it is the 21st century…a time when women have ever right to attend any school that any man might attend….a time when women are now running for presidency…a time when equality is on the forefront.

Here at Bryn Mawr, classes aren’t open to just women. Being apart of a tri-co consortium, many students from Haverford and Swarthmore colleges flock to our classrooms and dining halls. What does this do to the sisterhood? What does it mean to have male professors? I have a male professor teaching a course titled “Females at Risk.” Now, if isn’t confusing to you…(can males be feminists?)

In recently going through my e-mails, I came across a discussion group at the Batten House that was about something along the lines of: “Do I have to consider myself a feminist in order to attend a women’s college?” Well, do I? What is the mission of Bryn Mawr? I suppose in trying to answer some of these questions, I will have to do a bit of research. I would really like to explore not only Bryn Mawr’s history and mission, but also our fellow sister schools’ histories and missions. Perhaps this may shed some light on why women’s colleges were founded in the first place…and furthermore help understand why and most importantly how they still exist.

Some books that have been recommended are "Our Failures Only Marry: Bryn Mawr College and the Failure of Feminism,” in “Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness” , which will give a good ’Bryn Mawr’ background. Also, I would like to read Helen Horowitz’s "A Certain Style of Quaker Lady Dress" and "Behold They Are Women!" in Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s. Again, I plan on focusing not only on the history of Bryn Mawr, but I would like to extend my focus to the seven sisters, including tid-bits of each of the seven sister colleges’ histories and present day status. Along with these readings, I would like to bring a bit of personal testimonies to the table--one including Katherine, who I mentioned earlier…and a bit of my own feelings and experiences…and also hear from others around campus…perhaps professors (male and female) and a variety of different types of students from any major and year--not specific to Bryn Mawr students…I do know a few people who go to other women’s colleges…and it’d be interesting to get a feel of their experiences…and whether or not they have a similar consortium option or not…and compare/contrast environments.

Another thing that I would like to consider is the idea of females transitioning to males while attending a women’s college. There are currently two people in our Feminist Studies course who identify as males and continue to be enrolled at Bryn Mawr…living in dorms…and the whole bit. What does this do to the sisterhood and why do they choose to stay at Bryn Mawr? If possible, I would love to sit down and perhaps discuss their thoughts on these questions. Why are they allowed to stay? I do know that Mt. Holyoke has some pretty strict rules as to who can attend in terms of gender stuff. I would like to explore that along with the interviews.

In any case--lots of research and reading must be done. I was thinking that interviews with the alums who are participating on the forum would be helpful to get some insight on what women’s colleges were like during their time--also, another point that has come to mind is…

What is the difference between a women’s college and a co-ed college? It might be interesting to check out the U.S. Department of Education to get some statistics on graduation rates and the whole bit for women who attended co-ed colleges or universities versus women who attended single-sex colleges. Maybe Nadia Lerner‘s " Women's Schools: Where the Brains Are, The Boys Aren't” might also have some interesting data or information.

Also, I am wondering if there ever has been a male president or dean at a women’s college. How does that affect the sisterhood and the mission of the school? I suppose that I was surprised when the first week or so of shopping for classes…all of my professors were male. Of course that isn‘t the case now…but I do have two male professors, which is surprising to me for some reason.

Well, I guess that is all I have for now. In the meantime, I shall be (re)searching for the sisterhood.


A fellow sister






Anne Dalke's picture


You might start in on this project by learning more about the concept of sisterhood; does it assume likeness and agreement (as your proposal seems to presume)? Most folks I know with sisters--including myself!--have more stories to tell about discord and dislike, jealousy and argumentation, than they do about accord. 

To interrogate the concept, you might start with an on-line essay called Ties that Unbind, which will give you links (for example) to Audre Lorde's writing about “sister outsider,” and bell hooks about “false sisterhood.” Is sisterhood possible, given diverse cultural experiences? Does it take political solidarity for granted, rather than as a goal to be worked towards?

I think your idea of doing a short history of the development of women's colleges is a good one; and Horowitz's Alma Mater can be a rich resource for you beyond its chapters on Bryn Mawr, since it is an account of all of the 7 sister colleges. You might actually think of this project as updating the concept of "sisterhood": what was the guiding idea in 1885, and how does it operate now? Interviewing alums and current transmen might help you considerably with this project; talking with the folks active in the Social Justice Initiative might also help to reveal some of the complexities of the current Bryn Mawr.

Finally, I'd recommend that you make this an open question, rather than one that you've already decided in favor of your current understanding of sisterhood. "Fellow" sister, for instance, is an interesting construction, using, as it does, a masculine adjective to modify a feminine noun (!)