I attended a women's college by accident. I wanted to go to a small liberal arts school far enough away from my native Pittsburgh to spread my wings, but close enough that I could afford to drive home on holidays. The school to which I applied first decision rejected me, and Bryn Mawr seemed the next best option (sorry alma mater, I promise I love you more now.)
As it turns out, that unintentional decision changed my life.
When I was a very small child, I never shut the hell up. My parents would ask me a simple question like "what did you do today?" and I would talk for 10 minutes straight about whatever inane project I'd gotten embroiled in.
Then I started elementary school. At home, with family and friends, I continued to be an incessant know-it-all. But when my mom introduced herself to my third grade teacher as Ellen's mother, my teacher replied "Oh, the silent one!" Mom laughed because she thought this must be a joke. Then she asked if there was another Ellen in my grade.
In my head, I had elaborate conversations. I knew the answers to the questions being asked. I'd write them out, just in case someone called on me and I panicked. But I never volunteered them. I never raised my hand. I only spoke when spoken to -- when ordered to speak. To me, it seemed better to be silent, unheard, unseen, than to risk saying something dumb.
At the time, I didn't know why I was scared. The boys in class answered incorrectly all the time, and simply laughed it off. But getting a question wrong reduced me to a red-faced, self-deprecating mess. Even when I answered correctly, I often didn't speak loudly enough, or I spoke too fast, and the teacher would ask me to repeat myself over and over until the red-faced-ness and self-deprecation started anyway. This continued all through middle and high school. And it wasn't just me.
Sure, I saw outgoing girls in my classes. I was friends with a lot of them. They spoke up and answered questions, though usually not as often or as vehemently as the guys. But whenever I remember specific discussions, memorable debates, times when the students argued with the teacher or demanded clarification, it was my male classmates doing the talking.
Then I got to Bryn Mawr. For the first time, women greatly outnumbered men in my classrooms. I never took a class without at least one man in it (neighboring schools could take classes on our campus), but the ratio was at least two-to-one.
Also for the first time, I noticed women speaking up all around me. Not just one or two per classroom, but almost every girl in the room. They fought with the professor. They got into heated debates with each other. They fact-checked, they cross-examined, they were intimidating as hell. These girls didn't just raise their hands -- they leapt into the fray in full battle-armor. In fact, most of my classes dispensed with hand-raising altogether, because no one bothered.
Part of it was college. We were older, less afraid. But part of it, I am sure, was being in the majority for once. We were in a specific space set aside for us. Guys were allowed in, but this was our turf, and they knew it.
At first, I continued to watch from the sidelines. My freshman year seminar professor told me that I needed to participate or I'd risk 30 percent of my grade. I did extra credit work, and continued to sit silently in my corner.
But I was watching. I was learning. Subconsciously, I started to realize: I can do that too.
I don't know when the switch began. I don't remember the first time I spoke up. I don't remember losing my fear or finding my voice. But my senior year in a Lenape language class (one where I often interrupted to point out exciting linguistic patterns), the professor turned to me and said, "I should start calling you Tiyas -- blue jay -- because you never shut up."
That day, I realized I had done it. I had become my chatty insufferable know-it-all self in the classroom, not just at home. I had found my voice -- and more importantly, I'd learned to use it in public.
Not every woman needs to temporarily remove themselves from a male-dominated world to do this. The rest of my outspoken, intelligent female high school friends went to regular colleges, then on to successful careers where they're perfectly fine speaking up and arguing with the guys. Without Bryn Mawr, though, I personally would still be silent. On job interviews, at networking events, in meetings at work. In places with much more than a grade at stake.
I look forward to the day when we won't need safe spaces like my college anymore. When women will feel comfortable in their lives from day one, when little girls won't fall silent in grade school. We're getting there (I think, I hope, I believe), but we aren't there yet. There are problems with these institutions, don't get me wrong (refusals to admit trans students come to mind, among other things). Yet when people ask if we still need women's colleges, I say yes, we do. I am proof.