Another important and much overlooked anniversary occurs this year. It is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”. If you haven’t yet read it, do so at once. And be prepared to have your blood pressure skyrocket.
Written as a diatribe against the dumbing-down of the American girl in the 50s and 60s, it is also a surprisingly contemporary account of mass media’s attitudes and advertising campaigns against women. This hasn’t changed in the 50 years since the publication of the book.
Ms Friedan mentioned the death of single-sex women’s colleges starting back in the 50s, as media targetted women as unfit for higher education (sounds like back in the late 1800s, when it was a bitter fight to compel Oxford to grant degrees to women), and the financial advisors of those colleges claimed that they should open their doors to men to increase revenue.
The alumnae of my own college fought that fight bitterly. Half a dozen times in the sixties and seventies, the Board of Trustees resolved to go co-ed. The Alumnae Association informed them that charitable giving would be cut off if that happened. We informed the Board over and over again that even though we were a women’s college, in every single instance when a male was present in the class (either a sleep-over guest attending with a girlfriend or an exchange student from across town) the professor (male, female or undetermined, it didn’t matter) taught to the male student, ignoring the 30 or so paying female students in the classroom. It didn’t matter what the subject, and it wasn’t an isolated instance. There were no exceptions, and we told the Board that this would seriously affect the college’s mission: for WOMEN of promise.
Then in 1986 (a year that will live in infamy) the Board unilaterly decided to start admitting men. We alumnae only found out about this after the fact – when an enterprising reporter leaked the news. Alumnae giving promptly dropped by 75%.
The last straw was in 1991, when the Board commissioned a very, very expensive survey to discover the effects of coeducation. They (wonder of wonders) discovered that all (every one) of the female students interviewed stated that professors in their classes paid much more attention to male students than female students. And they spent seven figures on a study to confirm what we had been telling them for decades.
Recently, studies also show that this particular college is not attracting the quality of student that it used to. And why should it? When it was a single-sex school, it attracted the brains who needed a chance to develop in this kind of atmosphere. The environment encouraged women to think for themselves, to blossom. It was academically fierce and highly competitive. When men were admitted, the college lost the cachet it once had and became simply a small liberal arts college.
And we are surprised why?