A Decision To Exist: One Feminist’s Musings on the Transformation of a Catholic Women’s College by Cathleen Flynn

Cathleen FlynnLast 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.

10 thoughts on “A Decision To Exist: One Feminist’s Musings on the Transformation of a Catholic Women’s College by Cathleen Flynn”

  1. I can see why the situation at your college is highly fraught with both positive and negative possibilities. Positive: when men started becoming nurses and elementary school teachers, the pay went up a bit. Negative: there’s an atmosphere and a cohesiveness in an all-woman society (of whatever size) that seems to disappear or be corrupted when men are admitted. When I was active in Dianic Wicca, rituals and initiation were open only to “woman-born women.” Within the past few years, transgender people and even men have sought entrance. Dianic Wicca’s not what it used to be. The energy is different. Sometimes we don’t want “different.” I hope you’ll report back in a year or so and tell us what’s happened at your college. Positive and negative differences.


    1. Yes, Barbara, there are many layers of possibility…I think we’ll experience some of the negative and some of the positive differences, and my hope is the positive will be greater than the negative as the transformation continues. As you said, though, the energy will permanently shift, and there is some sadness with that.


  2. As a graduate of an all-women’s college (that is also trying to deal with the issues you raise in the beginning of your post, minus the Catholicism), I can attest to the empowerment that occurs when women go to school together. I learned a lot, because Smith is a great college. But even more importantly, I didn’t have to attend classes with a group of students who were assumed by our professors to be smarter and more important than me — men. My intelligence and worth was acknowledged without reservation. The outcome of this empowerment can be seen in the number of Smith women who have taken on positions of importance in: feminism — think Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem; politics — think Molly Ivens, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, Tammy Baldwin (first out lesbian U.S. senator from Wisconsin); literature — think Sylvia Plath, Jane Yolen, Madeleine L’Engle, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh; academia — think Catherine MacKinnon and Diana Eck; film and TV — think Shelley Hack; and don’t forget Julia Child! (Yum, yum!)


    1. Nancy, I’m so glad you had a meaningful all-women’s college experience. This “acknowledgement without reservation” had a huge impact on me as well.


  3. Hi Cathleen–

    Yesterday in the NYT there was an op. ed. piece that speaks directly to the issues of gender that the first part of your post addresses. I think it’s a great piece. You can find it at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/opinion/sunday/what-makes-a-woman.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1.

    Also today I discovered what Smith College (my alma mater) has decided to do regarding its own admission policies. I was very happy to hear that it includes “self-identified transgender women. The board’s decision affirms Smith’s unwavering mission and identity as a women’s college, our commitment to representing the diversity of women’s lived experiences, and the college’s exceptional role in the advancement of women worldwide.” In other words, they will accept applications from all self-identified women, whether women-born women or transgender women. The statement continues, “In keeping with our tradition and identity as a college of and for women, Smith will continue to use gendered language, including female pronouns, in institutional communications.”

    Smith’s mission remains the same: “The mission of Smith College is to educate women of promise for lives of distinction. In the years since Smith’s founding, concepts of female identity have evolved. Smith alumnae have been leaders in the movement to afford women greater freedoms of aspiration and self-expression. At the same time, educational settings in which women are central remain powerfully transformative.

    “As we reflect on how Smith lives its values — a commitment to access and diversity, to respecting the dignity of every individual, and to educating women for leadership across all realms of society — we will be called, in changing times, to consider anew how we will choose to be a women’s college.”

    Thanks for reminding me of why women’s colleges are necessary to the advancement of women.


    1. Thanks for sharing this piece, Nancy! Smith is certainly ahead of the curve concerning admission policies and the re-imagination of what their mission means in this time and place.


  4. I have just come back from 2 weeks of women only educational travel on the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Women only spaces can be creative. It is not only about being in a situation where men are not there to “take over.” It is also about what (some) women will do in the presence of men–cater to them, while suppressing their own truths and not listening to the truths of other women. Sisterhood does not always “come naturally.” For 20 of us the past 2 weeks,sisterhood indeed was powerful! So sad about your college.


    1. Yes, for me sisterhood was a learned way of being. Spaces for women are powerful and creative, and still a necessity! I’m thrilled to hear the 20 of you who pilgrimed to Crete had a meaningful journey together.


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