- Contradictions in Women's Education: Traditionalism, Careerism, and Community at a Single-Sex College, and: Reclaiming Class: Women, Poverty, and the Promise of Higher Education in America
Over the past several decades, scholars have examined various aspects of women's experiences in higher education. However, as these two books convincingly assert, scholars and practitioners must not rely solely on existing understandings in their educational decision making. This is true for at least the following reasons. First, the larger societal context in which colleges and universities are situated is constantly changing. For example, as the editors of Reclaiming Class point out, recent government policy changes related to welfare have drastically affected the ability of women in the poverty class to participate in post-secondary education. Second, changes within institutions also require the expansion of one's vision in order to construct an educationally useful response. For example, in Contradictions in Women's Education, the authors point out that institutional administrators' rhetoric about an institutional change created confusion about the mission of a women's college. Finally, as these books illustrate, scholars have clearly not investigated all aspects of college women's experiences. It is in this regard that these books make their greatest contribution.
In Contradictions in Women's Education, Barbara Bank and Harriet Yelon argue that most research on women's experiences in higher education focuses either on elite liberal arts colleges or on research institutions. As such, our knowledge about women's experiences at non-elite institutions is limited. Using mixed methods to study Central Women's College, a pseudonym for a small, non-elite institution in the central United States, Bank and Yelon seek to understand how college women experienced and interpreted traditional gender roles, career ambitions, and college life. Their detailed and descriptive findings are complemented by interpretations that are compelling and well articulated. Additionally, their text is both rooted in existing literature and explicitly identifies how their study enriches that same literature, specifically by providing research suggesting that students' behaviors at non-elite women's colleges should not be assumed to mirror behaviors of students at other institutions. Contradictions in Women's Education illustrates how particular [End Page 223] administrative decisions, pedagogies, or living arrangements can be simultaneously empowering and alienating for different segments of the college student population. It further points out how those decisions, as well as institutional administrators' rhetoric, can be interpreted in multiple ways by those whose lives will perhaps be most substantially affected by those decisions. In this way, they offer a useful illustration of the tensions between rhetoric and the multiple realities that are experienced by women students (and, indeed, all participants) on a college campus.
This text would have been further enriched by clarification of what the authors meant by collegiate culture. As made clear in both these texts, culture is multi-faceted and experienced differently by individuals based on their own life situations. As such, my understandings of the text would have been aided by a clarification of the authors' definition and usage of this concept. Additional methodological data—such as the relationship of the researchers to participants and any contradictions found between the qualitative and quantitative data—would have further enhanced my understanding of this important topic. Finally, while a discussion of heterosexism is included late in the text, it appears well after the analyses related to family and relations with men and other women. An earlier incorporation of insights presented in that section would have been useful.
In Reclaiming Class, Vivyan C. Adair and Sandra L. Dahlberg also point out an area of oversight in research about women's experiences in higher education. Specifically, although roughly 30 percent of women attending college are independent, scholarly attention has focused primarily on...