Reclaiming Our Identity as an All Women's College

By Yaelle Lasson
On May 20, 2012


The YU Maccabeats were performing uptown in the Lamport Auditorium while, at the Schottenstein Cultural Center, in Midtown Stern women were staging their final performance of "So You Think Stern Can Dance." The dilemma: in which audience will I choose to sit?

The dilemma reflects upon a larger tension within the Stern student body.  On the one hand, we are proud to attend Yeshiva University, the "flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy" (so often touted); yet, as students of a uniquely all-women's college, we feel compelled to focus on our own Midtown campus.  Split into two campuses, it can be envisioned like a family tree: our parent - Yeshiva University, and the two offspring branches, Yeshiva College the brother school and Stern College for Women the sister school.  However, oftentimes a tinge of "sibling rivalry" often surfaces when the inequalities between the two campuses become uncomfortably apparent. YC has a bigger Beit Medrash. A pool. A gym. A Superbowl party. More faculty. More courses. More majors.  A significant part of most Town Hall meetings at Stern are spent voicing requests for equal facilities and services. 

Sternies often forget: we are Stern College for Women. But, do we see this as an automatic advantage, or do we view it as a disadvantage, the explanation for our seeming inequality?  Do Stern students feel any pride in being an all women's college?  Do we utilize the power, potential, and possibilities uniquely offered by an all women's institution?

Chani Herzig, SCW '14, who shaped a major in Women's Health, a combination of pre-nursing and women's studies courses, asserts, "I feel tremendous Stern pride. In an all women's environment, we are allowed to thrive and explore what it means to be a Jewish woman. The Women's Studies society really provides the forum to explore these ideas." 

The Women's Studies society and the academic minor celebrate what is specifically unique about the Stern community. The minor was instituted in 2003 and focuses on relevant issues to college women in multiple fields of study. The coursework is interdisciplinary, requiring a range of classes studying women's roles in literature, health, politics, psychology and more. By participating in the minor, students learn how gender roles impact social norms and everyday expectations of women.

Professor Dr. Nora Nachumi, faculty advisor of the Women Studies minor, spoke about the minor and Women Studies's society in a recent interview with The Observer. "The students involved are especially committed," said Nachumi. "These women have chosen to study about women, with women, reflecting one of the core values of this institution. The women who get involved demonstrate concern about their education as Modern Orthodox Jews and more specifically, as women. It's not an identity that should be taken for granted." 

Exploring this identity is a vital part of a Stern student's extracurricular activities.  The Women's Leadership Fellowship is a prime example. Hearing from active female leaders within the Jewish community making a difference in a greater capacity, students learn first hand how and what it means to be a forerunner in a community. 

 "An aspect that Stern should be proud of is fostering leaders who have combined Judaism and their secular education to become successful in both spheres," acknowledges Sonia Felder, SCW '14, a fellow in the Women's Jewish Leadership program. "The fellowship has taught me that you can have career goals and aspirations, and yet be able to balance those and Judaism at the same time. They haven't shied away from their role as a leader based on gender."  

Women's studies minors have demonstrated significant success within their professional fields. Tirtza Spiegel, SCW '11, a first year student at Albert Einstein School of Medicine is hoping to pursue a career in Women's Health. When a student in Stern, she majored in Biology and minored in Women's Studies, feeling the combination of the two disciplines "heightened my awareness of the disparities of women's healthcare, both biologically and medically," said Spiegel, "I realized that there were not enough advocates for specifically Women's Health within the Stern community. The match of my major and minor allowed me to fuse my passions into my future career, as well as bringing awareness of these issues to the Stern community." 

"The point of the Woman Studies Minor is not to foster stereotypes about feminism, but rather to produce dynamic community members and professionals armed with knowledge of women's history," said Nachumi. "The all-women's environment precipitates this goal."

The Women's Studies Society has been active on campus and hopes to partner with other clubs to create more 'women-centric' events.  Just this past semester, the Society hosted four events and intends to increase their efforts by adding more board members and engaging more students. Sarah Lazoros SCW '13, one of the first Women's Studies majors at Stern, and the President of the Women's Studies Society, said, "It's important for the Women's Society to be well known across campus, because everything that the women's society is built on, Stern is built on."

However, the negative stereotypes associated with all-women's college cannot be ignored. Many times the stereotypes that pervade the choice to go to Stern make students self-conscious of their decision. Statements like, "She just wants her M.R.S. degree" or, "the easy option for Orthodox women" undermine the deliberate decision to choose Stern because it is, along with many other unique attributes, an all-women's college.

Rachel Benaim, SCW '13, a student leader involved on campus, is quite aware of negative "Stern Girl" stereotype. She, however, is unwilling to buy into the negativity. "Why let public perception affect the role you take on in order to better the school?" said Benaim, "As a whole, Stern students do utilize the power, potential, and possibilities offered uniquely by an all women's institution.  So many people are involved. Just look at the recent student council elections - so many students chose to run. For people who cry 'apathy,' it's worth first looking at the facts."

SCW is not the only all women's institution within a larger university. Located 80 blocks away, Barnard College is an all-woman's college, offering a Women's Studies Department and major, emphasizing female empowerment. At the same time, Barnard's special partnership with Columbia University allows its women access to Ivy League courses and resources. Rivka Holzer, BC '15, said, "I chose to attend Barnard because I liked the fact that it was all women, while remaining part of Columbia.  You get the best of both worlds."

Emily Feldman, BC '15, agrees with Holzer, but points out that since Barnard and Columbia students can cross-register for courses, "A Barnard student can take pride in her women's college while still feel academically connected to the greater university community." In this aspect, Stern differs from Barnard. Stern women are only able to take classes at Yeshiva College in very special circumstances; even then, it is not encouraged.

With a shared mission statement with other undergraduate and graduate programs, students are proud to belong to Yeshiva. Some find it difficult to then establish our own identity; our own campus, clubs, and courses that earmark us as separate. These very exclusive aspects of our women's college provide us with so much opportunity for school pride.

Nevertheless, attendance and enthusiasm towards Stern-centric events is oftentimes disappointing. With constant shuttling to events uptown, there is often a disappointing turnout with so many pleading 'already went to the Heights' syndrome.

 The turnout at the Stern College Dramatic Society's recent performance of The Mad Woman of Chaillot typified this problem. Hannah Dreyfus, SCW '14, an actress in both of this year's productions, commented that, "I was rather surprised at how few women showed up to support SCDS. As an all women's cast and crew, we need the support of a women's audience. If we don't support our own, the future of the Dramatics Society will be put in jeopardy, especially in light of the harsh economic climate and budget cuts. Such an important and unique outlet for women, it would be deeply unfortunate to let slip." 

Though many of the large campus clubs and societies have a young man and woman as co-presidents, there are a fair amount of student clubs and organizations that consist of an all-women board, including the Beit Medrash Committee and other smaller clubs. All of these have potential to be empowering, yet at times are simply undernourished aspects of our institution. Specifically, the athletics and performing arts societies could use significantly more "womanpower" to continue and thrive. 

Margot Reinstein, SCW '13, incoming TAC President for 2012-13 and member of the B'Notes, Stern's a capella group, hopes to raise awareness about all the exciting events going on at Stern. "I hope to give the B'Notes a bigger budget so they can continue to empower women in Stern and across the world (like the Maccabeats!). In general, there are so many opportunities here that people don't know about; there is so much here to do that sometimes people are overwhelmed, but instead they should be excited. Once you get involved in Stern, you begin to love it."

When the lines are blurred between SCW and YC, one might question, "Well, what school do I go to anyway?" While it is impossible to suggest that SCW should be independent from Yeshiva University, it is crucial to view our school as different and unique entity. Greater efforts to attend our SCDS performances, give the B'Notes the recognition they deserve, and rally together for our sports teams will increase our campus pride and strengthen the connections with the women of Stern have with one another. 


Next time, forgo a shuttle ride up to the heights to attend an event on the Stern Campus. After all, the slogan is ours as well: "Nowhere but here." 

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