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Reviewed by:
  • Contradictions in Women's Education: Traditionalism, Careerism, and Community at a Single-Sex College
  • Lisa E. Wolf-Wendel (bio)
B. J. Bank (with H. Yelon). (2003). Contradictions in Women's Education: Traditionalism, Careerism, and Community at a Single-Sex College. New York: Teachers College Press. 197 pages. ISBN: 0-8077-4363-1. $60.00 hardcover, $27.95 paperback.

Contradictions in Women's Education is a very comprehensive, longitudinal case study of a nonelite women's college in the Midwest called Central Women's College (CWC). The book follows students from the CWC class of 1995 to see how they and the campus responded to three important contradictions in higher education: gender traditionalism versus gender emancipation; careerism (utilitarianism) versus a liberal arts orientation; and community versus individualism (autonomy). Further, the author explores the ways that CWC simultaneously encourages its students to be successful and fails to take them seriously as women. The book offers no simple answers, but raises some fascinating questions.

The study upon which the book is based follows women students who entered CWC in 1991 until their graduation in 1995. The author utilizes several methodologies to paint a clear portrait of CWC. Specifically, the study relies heavily upon the results of a series of surveys. The first survey was of students at all levels enrolled at CWC in spring 1991 (baseline data on CWC's campus climate); survey two was of newly admitted students in summer 1991 (to determine their initial values, beliefs, and goals); survey three was of those same students in spring 1992 (to learn about their on-campus experiences and to reexamine their values, beliefs, and goals); and survey four included those same students (both those [End Page 161] who stayed at CWC and those who transferred to another institution) in spring 1994 (to again determine their experiences, values, beliefs, and goals). The response rate for each of the surveys was phenomenal—ranging from 77% to over 95%. To complement the survey data, the researcher also interviewed a large sample of matriculated students from the class of 1995. Interviews were conducted in the spring of 1992 and again in the spring of 1995. Additionally, interviews were conducted in the spring of 1994 with those students who had since left CWC. The researchers also surveyed the faculty who were at the institution between 1991 and 1995 to determine their perspectives about the institution. Finally, the author complements these results with analyses of institutional documents, including view books, admissions material, and course catalogs.

To set the context for the case, it is helpful to understand that aside from its status as a women's college, CWC can be characterized as a typical nonselective, small, residential college. Astin and Lee (1972) would characterize CWC as an invisible college, as it attracts a mainly regional student clientele, has limited financial resources, and has very limited national exposure. The students in the class of 1995 at CWC were mainly traditional of age, came from Christian backgrounds, grew up in the surrounding region, and had an average high school grade point of 2.9. Interestingly, the CWC students believed that the institution was highly selective and CWC did nothing to disabuse them of this belief. CWC's retention rate is not impressive, as 95 out of the 185 who enrolled as freshman in 1991 left the college before graduating. The author explores the experiences and beliefs of those who graduated from CWC as well as those who left the institution.

Contradictions in Women's Education makes several important contributions to our knowledge of higher education. For example, the book provides some insight into the college choice process for those who opt to enroll in a nonselective, private college, illustrating once again that the college choice process for traditional-age students is far from rational. The book adds to our understanding of how college affects students over time, demonstrating, for example, that in contrast to prior research, students at CWC did not become more politically liberal over time. Further, the study provides [End Page 162] important information on why students chose to leave CWC and therefore contributes to our understanding of retention. Banks concludes that few students left for academic...


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