On Sexism and the Gottesman Library

By: Molly Meisels  |  November 21, 2019

By Molly Meisels, Editor in Chief

“She’s here to get her MRS degree.”

This statement, flaunted by men and women alike at Yeshiva University, is targeted at female students who are believed to be attending Stern College for Women solely for the marriage prospects. This gendered stereotype of women’s roles at YU transcend mere commentary. Many individuals are under the impression that Yeshiva College students are here for a robust religious environment, coupled with rigorous secular academics, while Stern College students are waiting their turn for an eligible bachelor. This stereotypical imagery is mostly benign, yet at times, it maliciously impacts the academic experiences of female students. This view is most evident through opinions expressed regarding Beren students using the Mendel Gottesman Library on the Wilf Campus for their study and social purposes. 

Entering the Gottesman Library as a Beren student is a statement, even when we don’t want it to be. It is common practice for Beren students to desire study-time in the Gottesman Library, which is their library even if it isn’t on their campus. The library has been recently renovated, with five floors, colorful carpets, high ceilings, sweeping windows, thousands of books, and about a dozen study rooms. YU itself called the Gottesman renovations encouraging for a student-focused academic study experience with the new design “creat[ing] an appealing visual flow and comfortable environment.”

In contrast, the Hedi Steinberg Library on the Beren Campus has two and a half fractured floors, hardly any windows, low ceilings, less books than the Wilf Campus, less than half a dozen study rooms, and limited study space. “There’s nowhere to study in Stern that isn’t your dorm room,” said one Beren student to the YU Observer. The culture of the libraries diverge too. At Wilf, there is a space for every form of learning – collaboration, silent study time, and chavrutas. At Beren, there is mostly silence. 

Due to the gendered inequities of YU’s undergraduate facilities, many Beren students wish to take advantage of the Gottesman Library both as a space for healthy co-ed interaction, and a study-space conducive to learning. Some Wilf students tell the YU Observer that healthy co-ed interaction is something they desire too, especially at a university which promotes co-ed interaction, but does not provide ample opportunity for it to occur. 

25% of Beren students who responded to a YU Observer survey about their library usage say that the academically-conducive Wilf study space urges them toward the facility and provides for better concentration. One asserts, “It’s [a] more conducive place to study… The Wilf library is properly lit compared to Stern’s dark library, open with a lot of space to work and [without] locking you into quiet studying.” Other students call the uptown library “the heart of the university.”

While some Beren students could not imagine travelling uptown to use the Wilf library when there is a library at Beren (important to note that there are a considerable amount of Stern College students living in Washington Heights), 31% of Beren students who responded to the library survey expressed that they wish they could study in the Gottesman Library, but are afraid to. They do not want to be viewed as desperate for male attention or be subject to unwelcome comments and stares. “I’ve received a ton of stares in unwelcome places. One guy actually asked me why I came to the library which made me feel very self-conscious and stigmatized,” says a Beren student who has since stopped using the Gottesman Library. 

Many Beren students will limit how often they go. “I don’t go often because I feel like when I go, people think I’m there to pick up guys. I’m not – I JUST WANT TO STUDY,” a frustrated female student tells the YU Observer. Many do not go at all, out of fear of fitting the “MRS degree” stereotype or the discomfort associated with constant flirtation. “It [going to the library] is looked upon as being weird and desperate for boys,” says one student. Another verbalizes, “I am a bit deterred from going because of all of the stories surrounding how women are viewed there.” 

 How do Wilf students feel about this? Are the fears of judgment and flirtation merely figments of the Beren imagination? 33% of Wilf students are happy to share Gottesman with their fellow female students, with many of those 33% understanding that the Beren library facilities are objectively inferior to Wilf’s. A handful of the 33% see the presence of Stern students as community-creating, and they appreciate the unified atmosphere that results from their presence on campus. 

However, the remaining 67% of male respondents believe that female students study in Gottesman to meet men, consider them distractions to their learning and religious growth, and/or view them as their personal sexual entertainment.

Male respondents within that 67% do not believe that women who use the Gottesman Library are studying. One says, “It is very annoying. They take up space made for the uptown campus and make the library into a social scene which makes people feel uncomfortable.” This sentiment is shared by half a dozen others, who see the women as taking up space in a library that the men see as rightfully theirs. “Didn’t think most knew how to read,” shares another respondent. Other Wilf students consider female students distractions to their learning, specifically in relation to their mode of dress – “It should be completely banned, or at least restricted in terms of dress codes for the women studying there,” says a concerned student. 

 The most disturbing responses came from 16% of the Wilf student population, who see women studying in their library as treats for themselves. Comments like, “The less they’re wearing the better,” “I get to see hot t*ts and a** keep em coming,” and “Only the skinny ones,” were shared by men when asked about Beren students studying in Gottesman.

These comments are in line with the objecthood placed on Stern College women by many Yeshiva College men. Both the comments about female students being “too immodest” and those about us as sexual playthings, treat Beren students like the root of male desire. Even though we are in a college environment, our academic experiences are not taken into account as much as it is for our male counterparts. For most male students, Stern College women are either detrimental to, or extensions of, their college experiences. Women in the Gottesman Library are fruit ripe for the picking, disruptive to their academic environment, or somehow ruining their library experience. Beren students are the “other,” only existing in relation to Wilf students, and we must play by their rules. The majority opinion on Wilf is not concerned with how important study spaces are for Beren students and how we must feel being stereotyped each time we sit down at an uptown table to do our work. 

By putting labels on Beren students who use the Gottesman Library when their own does not provide them with sufficient resources and study-space, you treat them as objects. You tell these women that their academic experiences are not valid, that they do not deserve a beautiful study space, that their actions are all exclusively done for men. Instead of joining women in combating the gender inequalities pervasive at YU, you perpetrate them. This turns Stern College into non-YU territory. It turns Stern College students from passionate Jewish women craving a religious institutional environment and wishing to make a difference in the world, to submissive girls paying $60,000 a year to find a mate.  

 Photo: Gottesman Library, Second Floor