Barnard College flap: Competition among women shouldn't be over men

Columbia University women are outraged that Obama will deliver the commencement address at Barnard College, the neighboring women's school. Some accuse Barnard women of wanting to bed and wed 'their' Columbia men. Why do women still define themselves in terms of men?

John Minchillo/AP
The Columbia University Library in New York City: President Obama, a graduate of Columbia, will give the commencement address at neighboring Barnard College, a women's school. He wants to show voters that Democrats don't bash women, writes Jonathan Zimmerman. Ironically, the president made his announcement at a time when women at Columbia are hurling insults at Barnard females for 'stealing' their men.

In March of 1968, The New York Times ran a story about a student at Barnard – the women’s college next to Columbia – who was living off-campus with her boyfriend. The news sparked a firestorm of bad publicity for Barnard, which one angry letter-writer called “Prostitute U.” 

Today, though, the people calling Barnard students prostitutes – and worse – aren’t outraged alumna or other old-timers. Instead, they’re students at Columbia, right across the street. And they’re women.

You can find them on Columbia’s student blogs, which have lit up with vitriol since the March 3 announcement that President Obama will speak at Barnard’s commencement ceremonies in May. Part of the anger was directed at Mr. Obama, who graduated from Columbia but has never given an address there. But the major target was Barnard itself. Its students are promiscuous gold-diggers, posters wrote, stealing Columbia men from – yes – Columbia women.

And that speaks to an unexpected – and deeply upsetting – consequence of the biggest story in American education: At every level, women are outpacing men. They get better grades in high school, so they’re over-represented in colleges. At last count, 57 percent of American undergraduates were female. But that also puts them in a bitter competition with each other, for an ever-shrinking pool of college men.

“Unlike Barnyard financial leeches, I have NO intention of pursuing an Mrs. Degree,” reads a typical comment on a Columbia blog. “I came here to make myself successful, not try to plead at the knees of a Columbia boy to marry her.”

Or: “Barnard is full of academically inferior students that are able to use OUR campus, take OUR classes, and are stereotypically easy to get in bed.”

And then there are even nastier posts, of the four-letter-word variety. One recurring term was recently made infamous by talk-show host Rush Limbaugh in his rant against a law student who testified before Congress on behalf of federal rules requiring insurance plans to cover contraception. Ironically, Obama appears to have chosen Barnard in order to remind voters that Democrats don’t bash women. But at Columbia, a longtime liberal bastion, it seems they do.

Columbia was the last elite American college to admit female undergraduates. Women could attend the graduate schools as well as Barnard, founded in 1889 and named, ironically, after a Columbia president who had fought to admit undergraduate women on the same basis as men.

From the very beginning, Barnard attracted superb students. Indeed, professors found they were often more engaged in their academic endeavors than their counterparts across the street. “The Barnard students are interested in the subject, intelligent, and take hold of it in a satisfactory way,” wrote prominent anthropologist Franz Boas, who taught at both institutions in the early 1900s, “while the quality of the Columbia students is on the whole not as good as I should like to see it.”

Boas’s prize Barnard student was Margaret Mead, who would go on to pursue a PhD in anthropology under him at Columbia; by the 1960s, she would become one of America’s leading social commentators. In other disciplines, too, pioneering female scholars came disproportionately from Barnard. Between 1920 and 1974, as Barnard historian Rosalind Rosenberg has shown, only Hunter College and the University of California-Berkeley – both much larger institutions than Barnard – sent more women on to get their PhDs.

And the Barnard faculty also did some of the first sustained research about women. A decade before Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” the best-selling 1963 account of middle-class women’s discontent, sociologist Mirra Komarovsky exposed a similar dynamic in surveys of Barnard students and alumnae. College should prepare women for “occupations which give full play to their abilities,” Komarovsky wrote, instead of simply readying them for marriage.

By the 1970s, meanwhile, Columbia had fallen on tough times. Top applicants were scared off by crime and blight in New York, which almost went bankrupt during these years. Most of all, young men didn’t want to go to an all-male college.

After unsuccessful attempts to merge with Barnard, which wanted to retain its separate identity, Columbia decided to admit women in 1983. Unlike other Ivy League institutions, which had often enlarged their student bodies when they became coeducational, Columbia kept its size roughly the same. Almost overnight, then, it became twice as selective.

And its star has kept rising ever since. In 1980, a year after I came to Columbia as a freshman and the year before Barack Obama transferred in, the college admitted nearly half of its applicants. This past year, it admitted just 6 percent.

Would either of us have gotten in today? I wonder. Obama and I had one class together, when we were seniors. I remember him as quiet and friendly and smart. But he might not have been able to get into the new Columbia, which now has its pick of the male and female roost.

Thankfully the new Columbia picked my own daughter, who is completing her freshman year there. To her, the Columbia-Barnard tensions come down to simple math. If you add up the women at both schools, the campuses probably have a greater percentage of females than most any other American coeducational institution of higher learning. And, my daughter says, they’re all trying to meet the same small coterie of guys.

That adds a certain irony – and poignancy – to the blog comments about desperate, sexually aggressive Barnard women posted by their counterparts at Columbia. Methinks they doth protest too much. As the blogs reveal, Columbia women – not just Barnard ones – are pretty darned worried about whether they’ll find the right guy.

That makes me worried, too, and also very sad. Forty years after the feminist revolution, could it really be true that young women are defining their lives and selves in terms of relationships with men? And on Morningside Heights, no less, where the likes of Margaret Mead and Mirra Komarovsky urged women to look for more?

To be fair, young adults have always searched for romantic attachment – and, often, for a life partner. There’s nothing new, or wrong, about that.

But there is something wrong if this quest starts to trump all of the others. Despite their academic achievements – or, in some cases, because of them – too many bright and talented young women still think they need male companions to make them whole. And they don’t.

So as our next generation of college women enter an increasingly complicated world, let’s hope that they also develop the confidence to navigate it on their own. That means building on what you have, instead of knocking each other down. And we’ll all be stronger in the end. 

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, received his BA from Columbia in 1983. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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