no more barbies

I’ve had a few life-changing experiences in the past couple of weeks. Mostly I’m finally taking my studies seriously, which have led me to some interesting readings. In my Science Fiction class for example, we have been reading several of Ursula K. Le Guin’s works which have had a significant impact on me. She examines many gender issues in her books such as an androgynous human species in “The Left hand of Darkness” and a world where women hold power and men are essentially used as sex toys in her short story “The Matter of Seggri”. Both stories caused me to examine my own situation as a young woman at the eve of the 21st century.

I should pretext this by explaining that I go to a women’s school, Smith College. I have mixed feelings about this decision in my life. I’m generally happy with it, however it has brought me face to face with many complex gender issues. For example, Smith is famed for being a bastion of very liberal, strong, and feminist women. The lesbian/bi/trans community is quite large and many proudly exemplify Smith’s butch stereotype. Yet, as far as being a haven for strong independent intelligent women, I have not found this to be the case, unfortunately. On the whole, I would term the campus apathetic and anti-intellectual. Before I came here I expected to be having stimulating conversations with my house- and classmates late into the night. The reality is students are either locked in their rooms furiously studying to meet Smith’s rigid academic standards or mentally preparing themselves for the weekend parties, which are known for the large amounts of cheap beer consumed, the frat boys, and the easy girls, as well as girls bumping and grinding with each other, or both.

Many people have asked me why I chose a women’s school in the first place. When I was in school I was fascinated by the sciences and I had my heart set on being an astro-physicist. My grades were very good, but not 4.0, which I would have needed to have any hope for the ivies. I knew I wanted to go to a good liberal arts school that could also give me a good financial aid package. After having my ego severely bruised by a rejection from Stanford, my college councilor suggested I apply to one of the seven sisters, which were known for their high academic standards, excellent science programs, and large endowments. So I applied to Smith, Wellesley, and Mt. Holyoke. I was very impressed by Smith’s sense of community, the gorgeous campus, tradition of amazing graduates, and its reputation as an excellent liberal arts school. I was under the impression that at a place like this I could blossom, gain confidence, and hopefully be challenged enough to discover my potential. What I found was a strong community, although it does seem somewhat forced, a gorgeous campus, myself declaring an English major as well as studying international relations, having essentially no confidence my first 2.5 years here, and an amazing liberal arts school that offers so many opportunities and such a rigorous curriculum that one feels smothered. I didn’t take a math class my first year, because I was afraid that after a year hiatus I would be struggling. Now that I’m taking discrete in my 6th semester here, my friends all claim I’m nuts to be taking math and balk when I tell them that its fun. J. Crew quarterly sends its catalogues to all the students on campus, and I constantly watch my friends run to the gym in order to emulate the figures of the women they see on the glossy pages. At parties it’s all glitz and glitter, anorexic bodies, and drunkenness bordering on alcohol poisoning. Granted, I live in the “party area” of campus, but there are only 3000 of us and approximately 40% of the students live in this section.

So, why all the background info? Well, many question the need for women’s schools nowadays, claiming that equality has been achieved. After all, Smith was created in the late 1800’s because at that time women couldn’t get into most colleges, most notably Harvard and Yale where their minds could have mixed with the supposedly best and brightest male minds. It was founded with the idea to provide women with the same quality education. I think the level of excellence continues, but as for shaping girls into strong women who will become leaders, as many of ivies claim to do with their students, I do have quite a few friends who I know are going to rock the world and are wonderfully strong and independent, but I also have many friends who have very little self confidence and do not trust themselves to walk up to a guy, or a woman, at a party. More importantly, they don’t trust or believe in their intelligence, and that I think is the greatest shame of all. There are so many intelligent women around me here, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve tried to convince a friend of how much she’s achieved. A lot of us here because we know a Smith diploma will open many doors for us – a large comfort in a world where the glass ceiling still exists in many places. But, despite that, my classmates and I exist in a bubble. The college watches out for every aspect in our lives, that for many living in the “real world” is quite a shock. Our cushy houses (dorms) and many support services do not prepare us for what awaits us once we leave the college gates. I think many get so caught up in their work that they don’t even recognize what’s around them. I don’t see women who are curious and want to explore the opportunities in front of them, rather, so many are concerned about getting good grades so that they can get into a good grad school or secure a good job. I watched too many friends attempt or consider suicide to not let this concern me.

Have we reached a world of equality? I don’t believe so. If Smith women have trouble respecting their minds and their bodies, what about the many women who don’t live in an environment where it is at least attempted to dispel the myth that most women should look like Barbie. A trip to Germany where I was ridiculed for studying International Relations because I was told I wouldn’t be able to survive in the world of int’l politics taught me how far we still have to go when a woman politician is still considered an enigma. So despite my ranting on Smith I still think I made the right choice and I believe I’m getting the best education I can get in the US, however, I yearn for a world where women’s schools will no longer be needed.

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