Victoria Noble: The benefits of all-female housing

Monday, October 26, 2015 - 7:49pm

This past weekend, the Martha Cook Building, one of the University’s three remaining all-female dorms, celebrated its 100th anniversary. Both current and former residents attended the event, and University President Mark Schlissel gave a keynote speech that lauded the building’s “unique learning environment, where everyone feels equally included.”

The educational experience for women at the University has certainly evolved in the 100 years since Martha Cook opened. Though it’s not obvious that all-women housing fills the same niche in the campus community that it once did, female dorms continue to provide a supportive community for residents.

When the University began admitting female students in 1870, the co-education of women and men was exceedingly controversial. Though ultimately successful and enduring, co-education challenged not only classroom dynamics, but also every aspect of the educational structure. Housing female students became a special concern.

Prior to construction of the first all-women residence halls, female students typically lived in boarding houses independent from the University, or on occasion, in the homes of University faculty members. The first all-women residence halls — the Martha Cook Building and Helen Newberry Residence — represented the first major efforts by the University to house female students. A 1924 survey of all female alumni evidences that the buildings benefited residents by providing a sense of solidarity and belonging on campus.

But since the 1970s, women across the United States have been attending college at higher rates than their male counterparts, and men outnumbered women by only 1 percent in the University’s entering undergraduate class in 2015. Accommodating female students on campus is no longer a special concern for those charged with planning and providing student housing — it’s literally half of the students they’re dealing with.

Today, most on-campus housing is co-ed, and fewer than 400 women live in one of the three all-female residence halls. That trend doesn’t seem likely to reverse anytime soon, as co-ed housing has become increasingly common on campuses nationwide.

Based on recent trends in student housing, it may seem that all-female residence halls might be little more than relics of the past, and lack significant roles to play on campus. But, even today, many residents find that their time in all-female housing adds significant value to their University experience — at least I did.

I lived in the Martha Cook Building during my freshman and sophomore years. On the surface, I’m not the first person anyone would expect to live there. Across campus, the building’s culture seems to be typified as old-fashioned, ultra-conservative and unsocial. But far from being backward or overly traditional, the building’s culture emphasizes personal and academic achievement, and fosters a community of students dedicated to helping each other succeed.

In my experience, all-female housing fosters an educational environment unparalleled anywhere on campus. I have never lived in a more studious, focused environment. Residents were more than willing to help each other understand class materials, and because many women choose to live in the building multiple years, older students were often around to help freshmen adjust to classes and campus life. The atmosphere was in equal parts supportive and serious.

Ostensibly, there’s no reason why co-ed on-campus housing couldn’t be restructured to provide similar academic support. Even so, all-women housing is unique in its ability to support female students. Fostering a community of women dedicated to helping each other achieve personal and academic goals is in itself beneficial. Though women and men attend the University in almost equal numbers, women still face obstacles on campus that their male counterparts don’t. For the women who choose to live there, all-female housing can provide a support system that can help residents overcome common barriers.

In that respect, the Martha Cook Building still serves the same function that it did 100 years ago. Far from being outmoded and outdated, all-women housing provides tangible benefits for its residents by fostering a supportive campus community.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.