Carving out all-female spaces for education, debate, and building relationships is more powerful than many of us realize.
One of the facts in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s biography that has always loomed large in my mind is her Wellesley College degree. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1990s, buses spewed Wellesley students into Harvard Square each weekend, all made up and dressed for romantic battle. They were our competition for men, and they tilted the male-female balance at the parties and clubs. My female friends and I considered the Wellesley girls our sworn enemies.
At the time, I couldn’t understand why any straight girl would choose to attend a women’s college. I was 18 and eager to be in as close proximity to as many boys as possible. Plus, the young feminist in me considered it a cop-out to retreat to female-only classes. At the time I thought, how could you prove you were as good as—or better than—the men if you weren’t going toe-to-toe with them academically?
Of course, when Hillary Rodham arrived at Wellesley in the fall of 1965, a women’s college education meant something entirely different. She was in the vanguard of young women attending college to launch a career, not just earn their “M.R.S.” degree. The Ivy League hadn’t yet begun to admit women, so she didn’t have the choice between Harvard or Wellesley. When I talk to my mother, who is of that same generation, she speaks of the women who attended Seven Sisters’ colleges as strong and independent, career-minded, and determined to change society—certainly not the idea I had in my head. Hillary’s class of ’69 consisted of a wave of newly-hatched Betty Friedan-era feminists.
In the years since I graduated, I’ve come to appreciate the nuance in these choices. My own career and life path has been far from the straight line that I envisioned when I entered Harvard. I now truly believe in the concept of “fit” over “rank” when it comes to schooling, having seen my brilliant stepdaughter blossom after she moved from a higher-ranked college with a distinctive identity to a slightly lower-ranked one with a more accepting culture. And, as the mother of daughters, I now see the merit in carving out all-female spaces for education, debate, and building relationships.
Now that I’m a little older, a little wiser, and a little more battle-tested professionally, I wonder whether there was something in a woman-only environment that forged women leaders like Hillary Clinton. Did they discover a lifelong sisterhood that could benefit them in ways beyond reminiscing at class reunions?
While women have drawn closer to men in access to education and jobs, we still face a stubborn gap in pay and advancement. We may graduate high school and college in larger numbers, but from the moment we receive our diplomas, the divide begins. We receive lower starting salaries, are promoted at slower rates, and drop behind—or out—of the workforce as we reach the age of family formation and childrearing.
Much of this is due to outright or implicit bias against women and misperceptions of our suitability for the highest ranks of business and professional life, as documented by scholars such as Joan Williams, director at the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of Law, and organizations including Catalyst and McKinsey. And the part of the pay gap that is a result of women opting for a less ambitious career path is likely fueled by workplaces that reward always-on employees. Those who take the “mommy track” might make far different choices living somewhere with policies and a business culture supportive of working parents, such as Sweden or Canada.
I have seen male classmates leverage their college friendships into career success, forming companies together and steering business opportunities to each other over the years. I’m not sure if that happens with their female counterparts, but such back-scratching certainly hasn’t been the case for me.
The question still remains in my mind: what if the significant difference between the Wellesley girls and Harvard girls of my day wasn’t in our SAT scores or GPAs? Could it have been this philosophical choice between trying to best the men at their own game, or building our own game board and writing our own rules?
Certainly, Hillary Clinton’s career path included Wellesley ties. Wellesley friend Nancy Pietrafesa worked for Bill Clinton when he was Arkansas governor. Hillary classmate Eleanor Dean Acheson, granddaughter of renowned Secretary of State Dean Acheson, became assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration’s Justice Department. And Jan Piercy, who led the charge for a student speaker at Wellesley’s 1969 commencement, was appointed to the World Bank by President Clinton and served seven years as U.S. executive director during his administration. Hillary’s fiery commencement speech, the first ever by a Wellesley student, won her national attention—a spot in Life Magazine’s feature on the class of 1969 and a speaking invitation to the League of Women Voters.
Looking at my contemporaries who went to Wellesley, it’s obvious that they’re universally well-educated, intelligent human beings, not at all deserving of the sneers my posse and I delivered when we bumped into a gaggle of Wellesley women at parties. And I bet they don’t have the same questions today that I have about whether I have a harder time accessing certain college connections and networks because I am a woman who had a co-ed college experience. They know their Wellesley experience was entirely devoted to their gender. While that’s not enough to make me regret attending Harvard, it certainly puts one solid mark in the “pro” column for any high school senior debating her college decision.
At some point, we each must prove our worth—to ourselves, our contemporaries, and the world. There’s something to be said for entering into such moments with the solid support of a true sisterhood. Maybe that’s exactly what’s needed for America to finally elect its first woman president.