I Will Not Be Afraid of Women
By Joanna Pinto-Coelho ’09
I made the biggest decision of my life when I was seventeen.
I was so anxious I gave myself migraines the two weeks before I heard that I got into Bryn Mawr, a small women’s college outside of Philadelphia, and a decidedly odd place for a girl with mostly boys for friends to apply early decision. My first call was to my grandmother, who worked her own way through Simmons and then MIT. The boys remained steadfastly concerned that I’d shrivel up and die there in a vat of poisonous all-consuming estrogen. My father was worried it would be too cloistered, that I would be too sheltered, that it wouldn’t prepare me for the unjust horrorscape that is the real world.
Many women have tried, over the last few years, to explain the relevance of a women’s college education. I don’t know why it’s so hard to put into words, but it is. Any justification seems to diminish its power somehow, to trivialize it, to treat it as something that has to be defended.
But I kind of hated freshman year.
I buried myself in my schoolwork to avoid dealing with the chafing social dislocation that accompanied leaving my friends and family and hometown. As any good daughter of an immigrant would do, I went to class, read everything assigned to me, and turned work in early. I was in bed by nine, and getting me to go to Haverford, Swarthmore, or Philadelphia for parties or concerts or anything was a Sisyphean task. College was for learning, for getting a good job or getting into a good graduate school, not for “having fun.”
A dead white guy might tell you that no man is an island, but that first year, I, a half-Brazilian, quarter-Irish, quarter-Jewish girl from the DC suburbs who was used to being within a hundred feet of a hundred men, women, and children from a hundred other countries at all times, was definitely an island in what felt like a sea of white girls.
But here is where the magic of a women’s college begins. Where it lives, and where it can’t end, because women’s colleges are institutions that constantly reproduce themselves while they’re also simultaneously changing (sorry, sociologist here).
The real magic of a women’s college is the women.
One in particular rescued me from my nerd island and pulled me into campus organizing. As the rising president of the campus affinity group for Latina women, she invited me to participate and support her. I told her I didn’t think I would — I was only half Latina, after all, and besides, I didn’t speak Spanish (since Brazilians speak Portuguese), so I didn’t think I would fit in. She said my feelings were stupid and wrong, that she didn’t care about them, and that I was joining anyway.
She’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.
But that friend didn’t just drag me by the hair into the work that I plan to do for the rest of my life, or eat hot dogs and Cheez-Its with me in our “thesis den” in the dead of night as we struggled through the spring semester of our senior year. She also sat with me after a particular awful breakup, and let fly these incredible gems of wisdom that you could never imagine would emerge from the mouth of a sassy little 21-year-old who was writing her senior anthropology thesis on telenovelas.
During that same breakup, another one of my best friends would come to my room every day, without fail, and make sure I ate, even though I would really have preferred not to. She’d get me talking, and get me laughing, and make sure I would get in the shower, before she even thought about leaving. She always worked at least three jobs at any given time, in addition to playing tennis and being the most amazing ally to women of color on campus. She was a professional hip-hop dancer and opera singer.
For all the amazing faculty, staff, and administration members I’ve grown close to, the challenging classes I greedily absorbed like a bone-dry sponge, and the gothic architecture that a wild-eyed Harry Potter fan could never get enough of, it was always the other students — my friends — who made Bryn Mawr home.
In my five-year plan, I would go to college for four years and then move on to graduate school. It never even occurred to me, meticulous life planner and possessor of a very overactive imagination, that I would continue to be involved in any way, shape, or form with my college. I don’t think any seventeen-year-old plans for that, but still, no twenty-nine-year-olds I know are involved with their alma maters the way my Bryn Mawr friends are.
To that point, some of my closest friendships have developed after commencement. The tiny Guatemalan classmate of mine, and teacher of other people’s seventh-graders, with whom I lived for three years after graduation, knows me far better than I know myself. Then there’s her best friend, one year below us, who is now a highly respected reproductive rights activist in addition to the only person besides my own genetic sister with whom I can be so immature I have to pull over on the side of the road because we’re laughing so hard we might yak.
There are only two people on earth I’d move to New York City for: alumnae of the class of 2001, who are incisively brilliant, hilarious, and inseparable. The same goes for Los Angeles: I’m terrified of earthquakes and being that far away from my family, but my soul sister lives there, working at a university, doing research, and acting really silly, exactly like I would if I were a left coast academic. But it’s hard to leave DC when I’m friends with its queen, an alumna 43 years my senior of bone-dry wit and sparkling southern charm who makes the best cosmos ever in the history of the world.
If this is reading like a syrupy love letter to every Bryn Mawr woman ever, it is. But I’ve only written about eight here when there are hundreds of stories about brilliant, hilarious, caring, hardworking women percolating in my head. I talk to at least one of them at least once a day, and my life is all the richer for it.
But as a sociologist, I know that people aren’t the social soul of institutions, rituals are. And Lord alive, do we have rituals. Being the anarchist pagan lunatics that we are, we celebrate May Day every year. We dress all in white, eat strawberries and cream for breakfast, and spend all day in the sun dancing, drinking, and eating. You might be familiar with the idea of the May Pole, and how there’s a fancy kind of dance that happens around the poles to weave colored ribbons for an ambiguous purpose. But at Bryn Mawr we have a parallel and much more important ritual: the May Hole. Not to be caught worshipping the phallic, Mawrtyrs join hands around a giant purple parachute. Several unfortunate individuals are tasked with weaving toilet paper around our intertwined hands, after which we chant about breaking the bonds of patriarchy. Then we all burst from our metaphorical chains and reach for the parachute handles. At the center of that parachute are hundreds of rose petals that fly into the sky, raining down on students and alumnae in white dresses and flower crowns, some of whom have ducked under the undulating parachute to dance and sing along to Dar Williams’ “As Cool As I Am.” It plays on repeat for at least a half an hour.
I’ve been writing songs since I was fourteen, and novels since I was twelve. I’ve only been writing academic articles since I was twenty-two. In a society that worships credentialization and the subject matter authority of experts, I still think you find the best truth in fiction manuscripts and liner notes. Dar’s lyrics, as prescient the ten thousandth time I heard them as they were the first, have been burned into my brain. One line in particular, that everyone screams together during the refrain, hands in the air, grasping for falling rose petals, gets me every time: I will not be afraid of women, I will not be afraid of women.
Being friends with only boys as I grew up was a protection mechanism. It saved me from the nefarious influence of queen bees and mean girls. I grew up happy, confident, and with a very well-rounded vocabulary of profanity. I played sports, I got my clothes dirty, and I never agonized about what anyone else thought about me.
But there is a pretty good chance that the girl I used to be — the saxophone-playing, fiction-writing, soccer-playing spazz — was afraid of women. Maybe a little bit afraid of myself, and all the unplumbed depths and unexplored corners that time with my real peers might excavate and illuminate. But my intuition, my gut instinct, got the better of my coping mechanisms during late 2004 as I put my palms to warm fieldstone, devoured everything I could get my hands on about Bryn Mawr, and acted the superlative class clown in the very first admitted students online chat. Something bubbled up and took the helm to make sure that this would be my ending.
I cannot picture what life would be like had I gone somewhere else. Even when I thought I was going to die of lantern-lighting, Greek-singing, cape-wearing overload during my first year, I didn’t know where else I would go. I have no idea who that mystery place would have made me. But I know that I wouldn’t trade this ending for anything. This is who I am, and it’s who I should be. There are very few things I can feel certain about in life, but I am very sure about that. I can’t rewrite this ending. I won’t. I never would.
At 29, I have come to terms with the fact that I may have made the biggest decision of my life when I was seventeen. Crazier still, I may never make a better decision. And I’m fine with that.