By Elisheva Hirsch, Arts and Culture Editor
If you walk down Lexington Avenue between 34th and 33rd Street anytime from Monday to Thursday, you will see a two-way stream of college-aged women walking between Stern College’s two school buildings. You may notice how 245 Lexington has “Stern College for Women – Yeshiva University” engraved above its columns. Yet in my experience, there is not much about Stern that makes it a women’s college aside from the fact that only women are allowed to attend it: pictures of male students are plastered on our elevators, there was nary a mention of International Women’s Day or Month from anyone in the institution, and Women’s Studies is a mere minor that is only known by those who seek it out.
Yeshiva University has chosen to market itself as one united university composed of Yeshiva College and Stern College, as opposed to marketing Stern College as one of fewer than 50 women’s colleges in the United States. Ignoring Stern’s identity as a women’s college not only denies its students many of the unique opportunities and empowerment that a women’s college can bestow on its students but also hides the inequality that exists between the Beren and Wilf campuses.
The obvious reason that Stern and Yeshiva College are separated, therefore resulting in Stern technically being a women’s college, is religion. However, that does not negate any of the other benefits of a women’s-only education. According to a 2012 study from the Women’s College Coalition, graduates of established women’s colleges feel their schools better prepared them for their first jobs and are almost twice as likely to complete a graduate degree as public university alumni. Women’s college graduates also have stronger professional networks and more self-confidence, leadership, and critical thinking skills than co-ed public colleges and universities. It is important to bear in mind that these study participants attended colleges that proudly marketed themselves and acted as women’s colleges, a factor which likely played an important role in the positive impacts their colleges had on their lives.
Stern College, however, does not market itself or act like a women’s college. To my knowledge, their website does not illustrate any of the advantages of attending a women’s college, nor does Stern even have their own marketing video. Not once in any speech I have heard in my time at Stern do I remember being made to feel proud or empowered for attending a women’s-only higher-educational institution. I believe that creating an identity as a women’s college is an integral step to helping Stern students achieve the benefits that the Women’s College Coalition’s study delineates. YU’s failure to acknowledge Stern as a true women’s college denies its students the full range of advantages and benefits that attending one provides.
Developing Stern’s identity as a women’s college would also provide an opportunity to create new courses, events, programs, and locations that are unique to an Orthodox Jewish women’s college. Alumni panels could address halachic [Jewish law] and hashkafic [Jewish philosophy] issues that arise for Orthodox Jewish women in the workforce, providing guidance and support to current Stern students. Stern could build a dance studio with dance classes for credit, an endeavor that would enable students to uphold their halachic values while receiving professional dance training. In conjunction with the Judaics department, the biology department could create an interdisciplinary course or event that discusses the interplay between gynecology and hilchot niddah [laws pertaining to family purity]. There could be a women’s shiur [Jewish studies learning] track, with a beit midrash that comfortably fits all who wish to learn there, and with a separate shiur room to allow undergraduate students to learn distraction-free. And Women’s Studies could become a department that explores all sorts of issues and topics related to the field, including Judaism. The ideas and potential innovations are endless, but they can only flourish if we first let Stern’s unique identity as a Jewish women’s college shine.
I can imagine that the rebuttal to my argument would be that viewing Yeshiva University as one united university actually provides more opportunities to its female students, through co-ed clubs, events, and locations. I have two responses to this counter-argument: first, developing Stern as a women’s college and also being a part of the greater YU and the opportunities that it brings are not mutually exclusive. Much like Sy Syms has been able to effectively create its own identity as a business school within the greater YU framework, Stern can also enforce its identity as a women’s college while continuing to maintain its tight ties to YU. Second, many of the co-ed opportunities at school are not actually equal. Events or facilities (library, theater, cafeterias) on Wilf that are open to the entire student body require Stern students to travel over 45 minutes there and back, which is a hindrance that stops many women from participating in those activities or benefitting from those facilities. YU’s current identity as one united university often hides much of the inequity that exists between its two colleges. If Stern was viewed as a more independent women’s college, the inequity between the campuses would become apparent and would have to be addressed, perhaps beginning with procuring a donation earmarked for the Beren campus.
How do I recommend YU stop hiding and start highlighting Stern’s identity as a women’s college? It could start with swag and physical marketing, which are important factors in building school identity and pride. Help Stern students feel proud and empowered to be part of a historical network of brave and powerfully educated Jewish women, by creating a sweatshirt that says “Stern College for Women est. 1954” on it. Hang posters and cover our elevators with photos of notable Stern alumni and quotes about their Stern experience. Update the website and create a video that showcases the unique opportunities Stern provides to Jewish women. We need to stop thinking of YU as one university that just happens to have two single-gender campuses, and instead recognize and laud Stern College for the unique women’s college it is. Doing so will not only allow for equalization between the campuses, but will also empower Stern students and provide them with greater opportunities, advancing Yeshiva University’s identity as a whole. I am proud to attend a Jewish women’s college, and I want Stern to start acting like it’s proud to be one.