When people hear that I went to Bryn Mawr College, the first thing they ask (If they've heard of the school, that is, and, yes - I judge a little if they haven't.) is why on earth I chose to attend a school full of women and only women. (Well, actually, they usually call it a "girls' school," but that's a whole other post right there.) The truth is that when I decided on Bryn Mawr, I did it because it was the best fit out of all the schools that had accepted me. It was a gorgeous campus full of wonderful professors, it was academically competitive, it was close to a city, but wasn't right downtown, and I loved the size of the place - small. I don't know if I would have chosen Bryn Mawr if it had been isolated and not integrated with a whole bunch of co-ed institutions, but I was in no way deterred by the idea of a women's college - nor was it my motivating factor.
Looking back on it, though, I think that choosing a women's college was one of the best things I've ever done. And I think they're some of the most important institutions we have.
It really hit home for me last spring, when I went back to campus for my 10-year reunion. Reunion weekend is traditionally held a couple of weeks after graduation, so the alumnae have the place to themselves. We stay in the dorms, eat in the dining halls and generally take over like we never left. And - unlike the high school reunion I went to a couple of weeks ago - people mostly don't bring their spouses or kids, unless the spouse is there to handle a kid or two and/or the kids are still breastfeeding. (That, right there? That desire to connect with the women you spent four years with instead of show off who you've married since? Perfect example of why Bryn Mawr is awesome. Let's call it Exhibit A.)
The result is a sort of heady freedom, the likes of which I hadn't felt since graduation. Aside from a quick trip off-campus for a fan (it was ridiculously hot) and provisions (read: booze), I barely left all weekend - but I hardly felt trapped. Quite the opposite. After dinner the first night, my class headed back to our assigned dorm, where we congregated in the living room and on the front steps, drinking, talking and reminiscing. At some point, someone spilled some red wine on my white jeans. I went upstairs to throw on my pajamas instead, and when I came down, everyone had disappeared.
I was barefoot, wearing only a nightgown, and had only my dorm key (actually a fancy electronic fob) and phone with me, but I set off in search of my classmates anyway. I strolled across the green, savoring the feeling of the grass beneath my feet and the view of actual stars overhead. I had one ear tuned to the night's sounds, listening for the raucous laughter that would eventually lead me to my friends. But - for the first time in years - I felt completely safe. Yes, I was tipsy, and yes, it was dark out, and yes, I was alone - but, unlike every time I walk home late at night in New York, I didn't feel the need to be on guard at all. I felt completely and utterly protected.
Protected not just from physical harm, but also from the need to be dressed up, or to present myself with any kind of artifice, or to censor my thoughts or feelings. Because, you see, an institution devoted to women gives you a little taste of what it might be like to actually be on equal footing in the real world. Suddenly, you're the center of attention, and not for the usual, creepy, physical reasons. Yes, you have the freedom to not wear makeup and so on, but you have more than that: an entire institution devoted entirely to you. This, kids, is what it must feel like to be the privileged gender, to be the default. And, let me tell you: it doesn't suck. (Also, they give us lanterns. I know!)
It was a feeling I didn't notice until after I left. I know, I know: between this whole "you don't know how good you have it" thing and my wonder at the newfangled keys, you must be thinking, "Curmudgeon!" But I think that's actually part of what makes it so powerful: you can learn to take that feeling for granted. It can be had, and it can become your normal. That's...amazing.
Until I can have that feeling of safety - both physical and intellectual - in the real world, places like Bryn Mawr will not stop being incredibly important. Until I feel in every arena the way I felt at Bryn Mawr, women need the option of that experience. Because now that I've had it, I won't settle until it's universal.