In my classroom we often analyze language, and the ways such things as gender stereotypes – or the myth of male superiority – are enforced by words and phrases. For instance, the other day, a student said that her friend's father had referred to her as a coed. She felt uncomfortable because he said it in a mocking way, but she didn't know why it was an insult.
The word coed was coined when colleges first began admitting women. The norm was that college students were male. So the word college student meant a male, and so female students were coeds. The term is still used today, often as an insult, as a reminder that colleges were founded to educate men, and that women were admitted later and perhaps shouldn't really be there. Calling a woman a coed is one way to adhere to an outdated and sexist norm. A few of my students, young as they are, acted surprised that there was a time in history when women barred from most colleges. "Ask your grandparents," I told them. "It wasn't that long ago."
One of my male students volunteered that he had seen the word coed used in a porn magazine, which often features such things as "Coed of the Month." He said, "I guess I thought the word coed meant sexy college chick." It did not surprise me to hear that porn magazines present female college students as sex objects. It makes good patriarchal sense to suggest that the reason for colleges admitting women was merely to serve the sexual needs of the male students.
One of my colleagues told me a story recently about taking her daughter to the dentist over the summer. The dentist asked the daughter the usually kind of trivial making-conversation questions, and when she said that she was in college, a prestigious college that he had surely heard of, he asked, "Going for your MRS?"
Colleague's daughter looked at him blankly. She had no idea what he was talking about.
"I'm getting a degree in marine biology," she said.
Young women in college are still being subjected to this cultural assumption: a woman goes to a prestigious college in order to find a rich husband, and not because she is intelligent or eager to learn or planning a career.
I get angry just thinking about it.