For Alexander Edelman ’06, co-president of the senior class, whether or not the College should admit more men to balance the ratio is less important than attracting the students who are right for Sarah Lawrence, regardless of gender. “In a perfect world, things would be more diverse,” he says. “But if you have that kind of hesitation about the lack of men and the social life-if that’s the bigger concern-then maybe you’re missing the point of the education.”
Being a male student at Sarah Lawrence no doubt comes more naturally to Edelman than to some. He is the son of Sarah Lawrence graduates: his parents, Jon Edelman ’76 and Barbara Edelman ’77 met at the College. Alexander’s great uncle Arthur Edelman ’50, who attended in on the GI Bill, met his wife, Teddy ’50, there; their own son Sam ’73 is also a graduate.
Alexander says he did not have feelings either way about the ratio of men to women when he came-“it never influenced me”-though he quickly had many more women friends at Sarah Lawrence than he did in high school. He acknowledges subtle differences in the way men and women learn and interact in class, for example. “When a class is predominantly female, the male voice is stronger-it comes from a different place and is one of just a few. As a result it may receive more attention than it’s earned,” he says. But he questions whether the school would benefit from changing the ratio. “Most people here fit.”
Alexandra Conboy ’06, who shares the class presidency with Edelman, says she was caught off balance by the ratio of women to men. “I had to learn to socialize with lots of girls, and it wasn’t something I accustomed to.” However, she has benefited from that socializing, she says, and is “quite satisfied” with the social life.
Conboy spent her junior year at Georgetown University, but returned to Sarah Lawrence, disappointed with what she had experienced academically at Georgetown and with a greater appreciation for the social life at the smaller school. “The social scene there was coeducation to an extreme,” she says, “red-blooded guys and girls going to school together, short skirts and polo shirts, the whole thing. For a social life, you had two choices: you drank and drank and drank and drank, or you prayed. So it boggles my mind when people complain about the social life here.”
When asked if Sarah Lawrence should return to being a single-sex school, she doesn’t hesitate. “No-that would be a terrible idea. All-female colleges tend to be niche schools. Sarah Lawrence is already a niche school, and I don’t think it needs to prove itself even further.” The men in her classes offer a unique perspective that women don’t, for example, approaching material in different and new ways.
But, unlike some students who would like to see greater number parity between the sexes on campus, Conboy speaks emphatically about keeping the gender ratio the way it is, which she sees as reflective of what the College is. “If the nature of the school changes over time, fine.” But the administration shouldn’t try to change it arbitrarily by recruiting more men, she says. She believes that students would be suspicious of any attempts to “manipulate the natural order” by aggressively recruiting male students.
Some women in the late 1960s say they witnessed a disappointing difference between the single-sex campus to which they applied and the coed campus from which they graduated. “You could be in a class of 15 with one male, and the teacher asked a question,” one alumna told Sarah Lawrence in its survey on coeducation. “If the male even looked as if he might have a vague thought on the subject, his opinion was solicited before the women who were prepared with answers.” Some men recall they had an uphill battle fitting into the classroom, and often felt categorized by their gender.
Intellectually, there are no distinctions between the men and women at Sarah Lawrence, Ilja Wachs observes, though he notes some differences in the way they approach course material. “My men students are as good as any of my women students. And they are as good in terms of the qualities that people usually attribute to women: sensibility, intuition, warmth of feeling about literature, fineness of discrimination.
“I think we succeed in bringing here both men and women who are in some respects countercultural, with competition being one of the things they don’t take enormous pleasure in, and that they don’t define themselves through. If you need competition, then don’t come here. Every now and then a student comes who really needs to define himself or herself against others, and they find they want to leave,” he says. But others say that the College’s individualistic approach to education actually prepares students better for competition in the work world, especially in traditionally male work environments such as law, business and medicine. Robert Hoyt ’72, managing director of Crestview Capital Funds and a Sarah Lawrence trustee, says Sarah Lawrence alumnae/i thrive in their chosen careers because of the very system that fosters individuality and creativity-essential qualities in a world that is increasingly globalized and transitional.
“It’s not a coincidence that Sarah Lawrence graduates tend to be very successful in their chosen careers, or multiple careers,” Hoyt says. By taking an active role in choosing their areas of study, for example, and delving deeply into subject areas, students become skilled in being self-sufficient and self-motivated.
“You’re trained to take risks, and to become good at it. Sarah Lawrence is about teaching a set of skills that make one very nimble and self-driven,” Hoyt says. The entrepreneurial nature of the educational approach encourages students to “develop a differentiating level of expertise in whatever they do,” he says. “It’s a culture of excellence.”
SLC alumnae/i have their strong opinions-and in fact, the very term “alumnae/i,” a nightmare to type and barely possible to voice-is a reminder of how hard Sarah Lawrence resisted the push to change, their female identity remaining side-by-side with the newer male influence: no single suffix could represent both sexes as at other schools.
“I’m glad that [Sarah Lawrence] started as a women-only college now accepting men, as opposed to the more mainstream approach of eventually letting women [into a male cultural bastion],” an alumna wrote in her response to the recent survey. “It’s a nice change of pace for the women to open their arms to men. But, I’m glad that feminism is reaching yet another phase: a form of humanism where everyone has the right to get a solid, rich and inclusive education.”