Old School

02.24.142:27 PM ET

Wellesley ‘Sleepwalker’ Uproar: Have Women’s Colleges Outlived Their Purpose?

A statue of a man sleepwalking in his underwear on Wellesley’s campus prompted a protest demanding its removal. Is it a sign of feminist activism or the last gasp of a dying institution?

Twenty years ago, when my Smith acceptance packet arrived in the mail, my father announced: Now that girls like you can go to top schools, women’s colleges no longer serve their purpose. As a tenured academic (and one-half of the couple footing my tuition), his words held particular sway. But it was my mother who really sealed the deal.

In September 1969, she arrived in downtown New Haven as one of 358 transfer students—the first women to attend Yale College. And as I remember her explaining it, sending her daughter to an all women’s college wouldn’t be just chafing against the progress she and her classmates had made. Going to Smith would be like re-encasing myself in a bubble she had helped pop. You will be a leader wherever you go, she assured me. You can hold your own in any classroom with any man, just as you will in the real world when you graduate. All things equal, my mother believed young women should always attend a co-educational institution over a single-sex one. And off to Johns Hopkins I went, without ever questioning my parents’ perspective.

Fast forward to February 2014. The Davis Museum at Wellesley College  exhibits a collection by New York-based contemporary sculptor Tony Matelli—and installs one piece, “The Sleepwalker,” outdoors.

It’s a statue of a bald, lifelike male in a pair of loose tighty-whities, stumbling through the snow. The “man” seems pretty pathetic or at least, highly vulnerable. But not according to a group of Wellesley women who are demanding that the Sleepwalker be removed and placed inside the museum, so students don’t have to confront “him” on as they go about their daily lives. According to the Change.org petition started by Wellesley junior Zoe Magid and signed so far by nearly a thousand people, the Sleepwalker “has become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of our campus community.”

In general, there doesn’t appear to be a groundswell of sympathy for viewing the art as a sexual assault trigger. Writing for Time, Charlotte Alter argues that if the Sleepwalker is indeed a sexual assault “trigger,” so is “every Jockey ad” and “most men at the beach.” In the Wall Street Journal, Lenore Skenazy, public speaker and author of Free Range Kids takes the Wellesley women to task for espousing feminist rhetoric but wanting to be treated like “sheltered, little girls.”

But the Sleepwalker is no longer about contemporary art or “rape culture” or even the psychological effect of “trauma triggers.” It’s a referendum on the same question my father posed 20 years ago: Have women’s colleges outlived their purpose? Have they become so insular that they are no longer grooming pioneers like Madeline Albright and Diane Sawyer (both Wellesley grads)—instead churning out didactic, hyper-sensitized women who may speak in feminist jargon but don’t walk the feminist walk? After all, a woman will encounter many a male underwear ad on her morning commute in New York City. Life is full of obstacles and “triggers” for her to navigate. So is a school with real live men a better way to prepare for the real world?

The short answer: not so fast.

Research shows students at women’s colleges may be having a better overall experience than their counterparts at co-ed schools. A 2007 study in the Journal of College Student Development found that women in 26 single-sex institutions reported greater gains in college than women at the other 264 colleges they surveyed. According to the research, “women’s college respondents reported making more progress in every measure tested,” including “understanding themselves and others,” “general education,” “ability to analyze quantitative problems,” and “desire to contribute to the welfare of the community.” Chelsea Johnson, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Southern California, who studies students at women’s colleges, puts these gains in context. “In a society where women’s voices are routinely silenced,” she says, “it is exciting that these students feel safe and brave enough speak their sentiments both for and against the sculpture.”

When living in a world where college guys occasionally launch bottle rockets from their behinds, it’s certainly easier to imagine women finding their voice in a sincere and hospitable environment. And unlike many college kids, the Wellesley signers are taking themselves and their education seriously—if over-correcting as college students are wont to do.

In fact, while Lenore Skenazy takes issue with the Sleepwalker petition, she clarified that the incident doesn’t mean women’s colleges have outlived their purpose. Some students, she says, think of college as “an isolation tank” where no one “need ever encounter a troubling idea or person they don’t agree with,” the opposite of a liberal education. Unfortunately, though, she believes that’s part of a larger cultural problem—not a women’s college problem.

“As long as women are paid less for the same work and until we have better paid parental leave policies, we still need women’s spaces,” says one professor at Wellesley, who further cautions that books like Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women make it seem like we no longer have to worry about women making it. “If women are gaining in service sectors,” she explains, “they’re not winning out in jobs when they compete for positions as college presidents, or as the ones who sit on boards of directors, or who represents this country in our legislature.”

Yet 20 years after I declined Smith, women’s colleges still need an image consultant. Amy Herzog is an independent college counselor and co-owner at North Shore College Consulting, who works with some of Chicago’s best and brightest applicants. “Women’s colleges are often overlooked gems,” Herzog says. There’s a belief that a majority of the students at all women’s colleges are nuns, lesbians, or die-hard feminists. Co-owner Debbie Kanter finds that it’s sometimes harder to get parents to be open-minded about a women’s college than the student.

Leslie Miller-Bernard, co-author of Challenged by Co-Education: Women’s Colleges Since 1960, points out that most women’s colleges in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have struggled to survive and either closed or merged with other colleges. Out of 300 in the 1960’s, only about 50 single-sex schools remain, she says. Those located in cities have usually instituted graduate or part-time study programs open to men “to raise needed funds.” Even people who advocate for women’s colleges are put in a delicate position. On her blog Advantages to a Women’s College, Diane Propsner praises STEM programs at single-sex schools, but also includes an interview with a male university advisor who calls women’s colleges a “guy magnet.”

While women’s colleges have tangible benefits, there is a trade-off: a cocoon effect versus the opportunity to get as “real” within a college bubble. Take the Yale women who four years ago protested “no means yes,” and went up against fellow classmates and aggressors. Fortunately, now the Wellesley petitioners have only an inanimate man to contend with. And there’s no denying a difference. Either way, though, from my post-college vantage point, all of these women look more than ready to lead in the 21st century.