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RALEIGH, North Carolina — While running on campus recently, I noticed how the sun was bursting through the leaves of ancient oak trees and onto bright fields of grass.
I was suddenly amazed by the beauty of this quiet, natural respite in the middle of a growing city. In this moment, I realized a distinct contrast between my current inner confidence and the anxious uncertainty I felt as I arrived on campus.
After graduating from high school, when I told people I was attending a women’s college, I could count on hearing a common refrain: “You won’t have to worry about boys.” This remark could not have terrified me more than if they had said, “Get thee to a nunnery!”
After my first several days without seeing one male peer (even the former Girl Scout in me was overwhelmed), I became concerned that I would never have a male friend again, much less date one. However, after a few months involving frantic attempts to socialize with the male half of the species on other nearby college campuses, I stopped worrying about boys.
I stopped worrying because I had found a place that welcomed my voice. In my co-ed public high school, even though I consistently earned A grades, I rarely answered a question in class voluntarily.
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At Meredith College, women do not compete for the right to talk; room for our voices already exists, and all we must do is speak. It is time to consider how the rest of society can similarly elevate women’s voices, because the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have demonstrated that our society has refused for too long to listen to female voices. Women trying to speak out about devastating experiences of sexual harassment and assault have been routinely and systematically silenced.
I say “routinely and systematically” because this silencing often begins in seemingly insignificant areas of society. I experienced this firsthand during a class I took at a nearby co-ed university through a program that allows local students to enroll in courses at other area schools. It was disconcerting that three men in a class of 20 were allowed to commandeer the discussion.
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But I strove to use my voice frequently, and less fearfully, than I had in the past. Ultimately, I determined that not only inside but also outside of the all-women bubble with its empowering feminist atmosphere, my women’s college education worked: I could carry my strength with me.
The forging of female strength at women’s colleges is often ignored. Instead, people get hung up on socializing — college girls must meet college boys, but how could this possibly happen for women cloistered within the walls of an all-women’s college? We’re not stranded in a wasteland. We even have cellphones. But no one ever thinks that we can — and do — leave campus. We visit co-ed schools, local hangouts and places of worship.
Emphasizing the descriptor only women is problematic because of an undertone that implies an unfortunate lack of male presence, and concern over socializing trivializes our college experiences. In light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, we should be asking why society disparages the value of female empowerment and spaces that foster it.
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New college graduates are entering careers blighted by previously unrecognized or unspoken sexism and patriarchal power trips. After four years of not worrying about boys, I know my education has equipped me with the strength to follow recent feminist pioneers, but we should not wait until women are beginning their careers to encourage and listen to their voices.
The quiet and reserved voice I held freshman year would never have emerged without the countless small, meaningful lessons that engaged my voice at my all-women’s college. While men and women are equals and should be treated as such, women have a unique voice and presence in society that are specifically empowered on all-female campuses. That’s why there is hope. New voices of empowered women with the foundational experiences of women’s colleges are moving out into the world, where I know our voices will grow even stronger.
This story on higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.
Abigail Ojeda is a senior majoring in English at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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