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I Didn't Go to a Girls' School

We are all familiar with that conversational moment when a lull hits and someone tries to jump in with a pleasantry to keep things moving.

Recently, I took an intern at our progressive think tank out to a farewell lunch, and when the awkward lull arrived, the intern spontaneously asked, "So, why did you go to a girls' school?" I have the feeling he wishes he had just kept his mouth shut and let the moment pass.

In turn, I responded, "Actually, I went to a women's college and I specifically chose to be in an environment where it was the norm to have women in every leadership position, where I wasn't constantly fighting against gender-stereotypes. Where people never dismissively said, 'You're pretty good for a girl,' after each of my accomplishments and where I would have women professors and pioneer alumnae as my role models and mentors."

"Oh yeah," he offered, "some butch lesbian with a metal studded belt once told me that I offended her when I call Wellesley, Smith, Bryn Mawr, etc. girls' schools as opposed to women's colleges - but I really don't see the need for the distinction." He added, almost as an afterthought, "She was obnoxious and totally intense."

I was surprised that this young, well-educated progressive was unable to see the importance of the subtle, but significant linguistic disparity. And that as a self-proclaimed progressive, he did not see that downgrading 'women' to 'girls' and degrading 'college' (a higher level learning institution) to a mere 'school' was not only factually incorrect, it could easily be taken as a deliberate slight.

Anyone who has seen even a handful of teen movies knows what kind of images may have been dancing around in his head: girls prancing around with pigtails and pink bathrobes. Playthings having pillow fights in their skimpy underwear, feathers floating everywhere. Giggling girls lost in mindless gossip waiting for their nail polish to dry and the phone to ring with a call from that good-looking sophomore at the next college over.

My intern continued, "Don't get me wrong - I strongly believe in equity between women and men. For instance, I think it's unjustifiable that women are paid less than men for the same job positions. We just need to deal with inequality through changes in the law, not through words."

Sticks and stones, right? Not exactly. Language has meaning, it shapes our view of the world. Aren't progressives always talking about how the Bush administration craftily selects each word to describe each of its policies so as to distract people from the problems they are meant to address? (Um, "death tax" and "shock and awe" immediately come to mind.)

The term implicitly takes the students down a peg, as my uncle, Joseph O'Rourke, a professor at Smith College, put it. It infantilizes mature women, downgrades serious scholars at prestigious learning institutions and ultimately keeps women in a subservient role in society.

This linguistic demotion seems particularly strange given all that graduates of women's colleges have achieved. Twenty percent of women members of Congress attended women's colleges. Graduates of women's colleges are more than twice as likely as graduates of coeducational colleges to receive doctorates or enter medical school. In a recent Business Week list of 50 women who are rising stars in corporate America, 30 percent received their bachelor's degree from a women's college. (To keep this all in perspective, women's college graduates account for less than 4 percent of college-educated women.)

Perhaps the high caliber of graduates of women's colleges, is, in fact, part of the issue, says Sabrina Balgamwalla, a friend and Bryn Mawr alum. "I find the term [girls' school] dismissive, even if unintentionally so. Sometimes I wonder if the lesser term is used to cheapen these institutions to make them seem benign and unthreatening, as a surprising number of people are intimidated by intelligent, confident women."

I turned back to my intern, responding, "How would you like it if I called you 'boy'?"

"My girlfriend calls me 'boy,'" was his response - one that I had not expected.

For me, this was a tricky one. It echoed back to a time when it was socially acceptable to call a grown African-American man "boy" and unleashed the matter of racial slurs. Obviously, I felt uncomfortable equating racial slurs with downgrading women's colleges to girls' schools. But, was that because our society is so overly sensitized to issues of race and desensitized to gender issues, too often saying that we're being "hysterical" for noticing?

He again argued back that semantics were not going to solve the dilemma of gender inequality and that the important changes had to ultimately take place in the courts.

"But I don't want someone who calls me a girl fighting for my rights in court. If people, even progressives like yourself, are so resistant to simply calling grown women 'women' as opposed to 'girls,' there has really not been an acknowledgement that women must be taken seriously. And plus, what is lawmaking other than the codification of our everyday language?"

Then I said something a little cruel to him, I admit it - but it was my last resort. "If you still cannot acknowledge the difference between these two terms, I do not consider you a real progressive." Oh yes, and then I added that if he ever ran for office, despite how intelligent and committed he was on other issues, I would definitely hesitate before casting a vote for him.

My final word of advice to him? "Whatever you do, don't ever say "girls' school" on the podium."

That changed the atmosphere completely. Suddenly, women's colleges became an important issue. Miraculously, it became his priority to understand where I was coming from. We ended in a détente.

The regular use of the term "girls' school" exposes the very sexism that made women's colleges necessary in the first place. So, the best way for all of us to confront this prejudice is to start with something we all have power over - our word choice. challenge all progressives: if you walk the progressive walk, please, talk the talk.

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