Last week the oldest Catholic liberal arts college for women in the United States announced it would admit men into its campus-based undergraduate programs for the first time since the institution was founded 175 years ago. As an alumna, I have lived the value and reaped the benefits of all-women’s liberal arts education at a Catholic institution. But throughout the past year, my work of recruiting young women to attend the College revealed in new ways the dissonance between Catholic higher education and women in this time and place. As is the case in most sacred struggles I have more questions than answers, but I will speak to what I have felt and observed.
In the 21st century it has become increasingly difficult for institutions and individuals to identity as both Catholic and pro-woman. As a constituent at a women’s institution, I celebrate the empowerment of women in leadership roles within their careers and families. But as a constituent of a Roman Catholic institution, I am aware of the Church’s patriarchal governance and inconsistent appropriation of power to lay and religious women. As a constituent of a women’s institution, I see women’s diverse expressions of sexuality and gender. But as a constituent of a Catholic institution, I am immersed in binary, sexist language and assumptions at every formal liturgy.
The list could go on.
I wonder how much longer we could have walked this tightrope while keeping our institutional and individual integrity intact. Perhaps the resolution of these dissonances felt by many Catholic women depends in part on a new paradigm of Catholic education.
Not only does the Church need dialogue around issues of gender, so does society at large. In everyday conversations I hear people refer to the College sometimes as “single-sex” and sometimes as “single-gender”. “So, which are we?” I asked myself. If we are single-gender, do we invite all whose gender identity or expression is more feminine than masculine? Who makes that distinction? Do we invite all who claim the pronoun “she”, regardless of anatomy or history?
If we are we single-sex, do we invite all whose anatomical make-up is within a standard deviation of “typical” for a person with two X chromosomes? Do we invite all with female genitalia, regardless of their desire (or lack thereof) to contribute to a community of empowered sisterhood? Do we welcome all persons with vaginas, regardless of whether or not they find meaning in that part of their identity?
As a person who believes sexuality and gender exist on enigmatic spectrums, how do I respond with integrity to those whose gender expression/identity or anatomy is excluded from my beloved community, yet who seek its unique educational experience just as I did?
The sobering truth is that fewer than 2% of female high school students in America seek a women’s educational institution. Exhibiting at college fairs across the Midwest, I have watched young women roll their eyes, gasp in disbelief, and actually run away from my table when they learn their classmates would all be women.
I wonder when young women began fearing spaces reserved for them and their experiences.
Most students who decide to attend the College come in spite of the all-women attribute, but begin to fiercely love the sisterhood upon their arrival. I have heard many current students cite things as simple as the decreased pressure to wear make-up to class as one of the most valuable parts of their all-women’s experience.
I wonder when the perceived value of a women’s institution became associated with the lack of men to judge appearance rather than the abundance of women to nurture growth.
Why is it that women’s self-esteem plummets at many co-educational institutions, but this trend is not present at women’s institutions? Are women’s institutions in this country really that impactful, or are our co-educational institutions just exceptionally harmful? Perhaps both. So, if women’s institutions cannot remain in existence due to their perceived irrelevance by the contemporary 17-year-old female, how can we best serve her in a different way? Can we fix our co-educational institutions and make them less destructive to young women’s self-esteem? Can we create new and better co-educational systems? I believe we can.
Liberal arts co-education infused with feminist empowerment principles is possible and necessary if we hope to create more equity in our society, homes, and religious circles. Perhaps the empowerment of women can be achieved more completely in the uncertain era that awaits this country, and perhaps the expanded mission of my beloved alma mater in rural America can contribute to that progress.
Incoming students, current students, and College alumnae are still saddened and angered by the upcoming transformation in our community. Our perceptions of what it means to be Catholic, to be single-gender/single-sex, and to be an American institution of higher education must yield to the birth of a changed season. I am not saddened or angered by this decision to exist. While I mourn the loss of the end of an era and cherish my memories at the oldest Catholic liberal arts college for women in the country, I feel held by the goddess of light and dark as I celebrate the uncertainty of new beginnings.
Cathleen Flynn is a graduate student and admission counselor at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Terre Haute, IN. She is a board-certified music therapist with a passion for conversations about feminism, spirituality, and social justice.