Honoring Cynthia Cockburn and single sex education

“Out of, like, 35 students in the class, there’s maybe 4 or 5 other girls.” I’m listening to one of my advisees, who’s telling me about her struggle in an Economics course this semester. She’s worried about her grade and the upcoming midterm. She doesn’t perceive the instructor to be approachable. I suggest that she form a study group with a few other female classmates. “I don’t know, I have one friend in there, but I think she’s getting a C or D, too. Boys are just better at econ.” I can hardly believe what I’m hearing.

Later that day, I heard the horrible news that Sweet Briar College in rural Virginia had announced that it would close this summer, after graduating classes of women since 1906. I graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, located near Sweet Briar. My alma mater also struggled financially, but it took a different route and went coed in 2007. When I first heard the news about Sweet Briar, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I thought “Good thing my alma mater went coed because otherwise they could be where Sweet Briar is now.” But then a more painful thought occurred to me, as I remembered the heartbreak, shock, and anger sparked by R-MWC’s coed announcement: “Why do fewer women seem to value a woman’s college today? Is there something causing this?”

Now, more than ever before, women need a place to grow and thrive apart from the weight of gender expectations and male-female power relations. Evidence abounds. The number of women earning computer science degrees has dropped from 32.5% in 1980-1 to 14.5% in 2012-13.  Google’s female engineers total up to an embarrassing  17%, and sexual harassment claims by women at the company are ignored and even turned against the victim.

As one of only two woman’s colleges in the country to offer an accredited, fully in-house engineering program, the sting of Sweet Briar’s news is even sharper.

(Smith College is now the only one left.)

But why, then, are fewer women enrolling in woman’s colleges? As indicated by data published in Inside Higher Ed, Sweet Briar’s undergraduate enrollment has been declining steadily between 2009 and 2014. I’m happy that the Saving Sweet Briar pledge campaign and petition exist, but I’m ultimately troubled because a lack of money is only a part of Sweet Briar’s decision.

Sweet Briar needs money, but it really needs bigger first-year classes.

The school needs more women who want to go to a woman’s college. That’s what R-MWC needed. Despite recruitment efforts and donations, it just wasn’t enough. Not enough women wanted to go there. Not enough women saw the value of a single sex education.

That’s what hurts the most. (S/O Rascal Flatts.) Ask any woman’s college graduate and she will tell you about what it means to develop autonomy in a structure where women are in the majority. Each woman has her own story and her own experience, but the fact remains that I never had to deal with what my advisee is facing, sitting in a classroom filled with men, seeing them thrive at a subject that seems to come naturally to them.

In a Buzzfeed article about SBC’s announcement, one graduate reflected about what a woman’s education had done for her, saying that “The bubble [of Sweet Briar] forever changed me from a scared screwed up girl to a confident and capable woman.” That’s the same bubble that I needed when I was 18. It’s the bubble that many women need.

And it’s not a bubble of naive protection, a campus version of the Truman Show, where women spend four years oblivious to the “real world.”

I think that’s often the perception of a woman’s college. It’s not a “real” college experience. It’s an escapist, estrogen-charged playhouse shelter lined with pink fluff. The truth is that until the world has more women leaders, especially women of color and women who have encountered (and overcome) class-based struggle and discrimination, then this bubble allows women to get practice in roles they might not have outside of the bubble. It lets them begin to think “OK, it’s normal for me to be fearless and unapologetic. It’s normal for me to speak first and to lead.” The bubble lets women get comfortable, as Cynthia Cockburn puts it, “in positions that can influence the relations of work and the mode of control.” The bubble “tips the balance” in favor of women so they can begin to “visualize women-led situations” (Cockburn).

Image credit:

Image credit: WELDD

I learned about Cynthia Cockburn as I was researching this post. I heard her name before, but never knew how much her thoughts matter for single sex education. After reading more about her life and work, she deserves to be honored on International Women’s Day. Cockburn is a feminist public intellectual, researcher, photographer, activist, and teacher. Her bio is here, but she really should have a Wikipedia page! For over 40 years, she has worked to expose and improve the experiences of women who live in war zones, amidst sexual violence and everyday fear. She has also published widely on the gender gap in technology fields: “Her distinctive contribution to the debate around gender and technology [is that she] went beyond concerns for ‘equal opportunities’ — greater representation of women in the traditionally male professions of science and engineering — to ask two further questions: is technology itself shaped by gender, and is gender shaped by technology?” (Mackenzie and Wajcman 25). Her “collective feminism” which “measures success not by how high a woman can climb, but by the condition in which most women remain” matters greatly to me. I think this feminism can help us all work together to ensure that women will always have a “bubble” in which they can learn and support each other. I close with her words, from 1983:

“In my view, by far the most effective principle evolved to date is separate, woman-only organisation. It enables us to learn (teach each other) without being put down. Provide schoolgirls with separate facilities and the boys won’t be able to grab the computer and bully the girls off the console. Provide young women with all-women courses so that they can gain the experience to make an informed choice about an engineering career. Everywhere we have tried it, […] autonomy works wonders for our feelings and our strength.”


Cockburn, Cynthia. “Caught in the Wheels: The High Cost of Being a Female Cog in the Male Machinery of Engineering.” Marxism Today Nov. 1983: 16-21. Web. 8 Mar. 2015.

MacKenzie, Donald, and Judy Wajcman, eds. The Social Shaping of Technology. 2nd edition. Glasgow: Open University, 1999. Print.