When Mabel Nelson Thurston, GW’s first female undergraduate, enrolled for a degree in the former Columbian University in 1889, she was not permitted to attend classes. Her education came from private meetings with professors, preventing her from being a “distraction” to the men in class.
More than 100 years later, women make up more than half of GW’s student population, and women can attend any class. But despite the lecture hall doors being opened to women, some members of the GW community say there are other doors that women are still pounding on. In some cases, women are waiting for those inside to undo the deadbolt while they devise a plan to find another way in.
Grae Baxter, executive dean of the Mount Vernon campus, said she believes GW’s campus is a relatively empowering atmosphere for women, but she believes there are still hurdles that women have to overcome.
“This is a fabulous time to be a woman, relatively speaking,” she said. “But we are not all the way there yet.”
Kelly Jenkins-Pultz, a 1991 graduate of the women’s studies graduate program, said one of the main obstacles women face, particularly in the academic environment, is shattering the stereotypical role of women.
“On a watered-down level, the mentality still exists among some people that men are better at some things and women are better at dealing with children,” Jenkins-Pultz said.
She said when she was a student she noticed that male students were “very quick to make snide comments” when a female student voiced her opinion in class. As a result, she became less likely to speak up in class because she said she didn’t want to be the target of ridicule.
“Women want to be taken seriously and men are first thinking, `Oh, she’s really cute,'” Jenkins-Pultz said. “That’s not to say that women don’t look at men and say that too, but it’s not the first thing that comes to their mind.”
Jenkins-Pultz said this kind of mentality has decreased on college campuses today. From her talks with young women, she believes that women still have to fight to be heard – specifically in male-dominated fields, such as engineering or computer science.
Kristen Wigglesworth, a sophomore in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said while the number of women in her school is sparse, she has never felt that she, nor other female students, have experienced any discrimination.
“All the engineering students are in it together – we’re all in the same boat,” Wigglesworth said.
Baxter and Wigglesworth said they believe the under-representation in certain fields is partially caused by an educational system that does not cater to women, who, by nature, learn differently than men.
Judy Nadler, who graduated from GW in 1974, said when she came to GW she noticed not many women were stepping forward to leadership roles on campus. Nadler, who is now mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., said when she was a student “the air (on campus) still had a bit of Vietnam protest.” She said she believes many people were consumed with the war and everyday college life, which may have prevented some women from assuming leadership roles.
Nadler said the overall campus environment, which had not yet been saturated by the wave of feminism from the women’s movement, was not always conducive to women feeling they could assume leadership roles.
“There were relatively few women on the faculty and they were usually in dance, music or English,” she said. “There were bare bones women’s sports – there just wasn’t an emphasis or interest in supporting women’s other roles.”
Nadler said she feels the current University environment is radically different because society looks at women in a different light.
“The culture has awakened to the fact that women are intelligent, capable and want and deserve the same opportunities men have,” Nadler said. “The University is much more reflective of the stronger role women play in society now – there has been a greater awakening on campus too.”
Bulbul Gupta, a senior in the Columbian School of Arts and Sciences, said during her four years at GW she has never felt she was treated differently in the classroom because she is a woman.
“I’ve always felt pretty free to speak up in class, and I think there’s equal support in advising,” she said.
Gupta said she noticed that in her own professional experience strong women are not welcomed always in the work environment the same way they are welcomed into academia. She said discrimination still runs rampant in some offices, where women often are in support roles and men are in leadership positions.
“In some work environments, it still seems to be the old-boys’ network,” she said. “And while women and minorities are rising up in the hierarchy, it makes some men want to hold out even more or lash out at women and minorities.”
As women open the door to leadership positions, it brings a new set of problems that women must grapple with on a daily basis – balancing femininity with assertiveness, Baxter said.
“It’s very hard to be assertive and assert power and still be perceived as feminine,” Baxter said. “The same trait that is admired in a man is frowned upon in a woman, but there is a way to be aggressive and not give up who you are.
“There will still be men who are threatened by women who speak their mind and are assertive, and we need to help these men to feel secure,” she said.
Many of the women said while females are moving much closer to a state of equality, society can not abandon the cause.
“We cannot forget that it is the recent past that women have had to sue for equal rights in the workplace, for pay,” Nadler said. “It’s a constant struggle and women have to be responsible to themselves to make sure that they are strong, willing to speak up and be mentors to the women who follow.”
Moving closer to equality includes working on a daily basis to improve oneself and succeed in different endeavors, Baxter said. Through this, women will be able to gain more credibility.
Jane Lingo, who graduated from GW in 1946 and has worked for the University since 1956, said she has done just that.
“I never looked for difference because I always believed that people who perform well will be recognized,” said Lingo, assistant director of University Relations. “There will always be some kind of prejudice around, but if you just proceed through life as a person, you never know how much you can do.”