September 30, 2006

Don't ever call my daughter a coed

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 Calling a woman a coed is one way to adhere to an outdated and sexist norm.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.

52 comments:

Shelly said...

Re: your last line: No kidding!

Marie said...

Time for your colleague to find a new dentist, eh? I'm appalled. And my blood is boiling. I guess I'm right there with your last line.

joanna said...

I can't believe (but I can, really) that this kind of nonsense still happens. Your colleague's daughter deserves a lot of credit for speaking up and not caving in with a deferential giggle. Your colleague deserves a lot of credit for raising her.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Sadly, I just had a woman student tell me yesterday about her conversation with a friend of hers who's engaged. Engaged Friend was saying how much fun she was finding senior year, how it wasn't nearly as bad as people had made her think. My student said, Really? Because I haven't slept in 3 days. EF leans over to her and says, Oh, honey, just get married, and then you don't have to worry about all this work!

Bleah.

As my student said, you'd think our institution is too much work/money to go there just for the MRS. (But of course, you have to find the right caliber of man!)

joanna said...

And, New Kid, why is there still the idea that getting married solves all problems? I mean, what happens after the divorce to the young mother who quit college to have a family, and now has a family and a low-paying job? I'm not suggesting that being a stay at home mom is wrong, but I think that the mom should be able to support her family just in case.
More importantly, though, I think that young women should take the time in college to be fully and only for themselves, to explore ideas,travel, and grow and learn who they are before they get into a position where they must negotiate their life choices.
Once again I'm aghast to hear these stories. On the other hand, we who are feminists and teachers are around in greater number to provide examples of women who have careers and families (or not)--and who show that it's okay to be who you want to be.

Dr. Virago said...

Would you believe that on Los Angeles local news "coed" is the term of choice in stories about female undergraduates?! I couldn't believe it -- the only time I'd previously encountered the word was in my father's speech, and I let it slide with him because he's a WWII vet. But in contemporary newscasts?! And usually the story was about a "missing coed" or "coed victim of harrassment/rape/fill in the blank," so clearly the usage wasn't innocent but along the lines of the pornography usage (or, on the flip side, horror film usage). "Missing student" isn't terrible enough -- they had to make absolutely sure that the audience realized that it was *women* at risk, the subtext being, of course, "college is dangerous for women."

Arrrrrrrggggggghhhhhhh.

I'm glad you posted on this.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I visited home during my undergrad years, all the people in my church (including my best friend at the time) would always ask me if there was "anyone special" in my life and never once asked me what I was learning. It was infuriating and probably one of the biggest reasons I don't really communicate with any of them anymore.

Strangely enough, now that I'm at seminary, the question is still out there among the student body. So, did you come for your MRS? Seriously, would someone really pay for graduate school in order to find a mate?

YourFireAnt said...

Hey, Jo(e)! Very good post. I like to see this topic aired periodically, because we forget and inadvertantly use such terms as: lady lawyer, poetess, heroine, female doctor, actress, waitress, sculptress, male secretary, and male nurse.

Down with gender specificity for professions.

Anonymous said...

I know better, but I'd like to think this sort of thnking is rare. It really pisses me off.

undine said...

I remember my mother telling me about the MRS degree thing from her college days back in the stone age. I never heard it. Does this mean that it's actually making a comeback? That's even worse.

Anonymous said...

I think this kind of sexist language is making a comeback. I know women in their twenties and thirties who refer to themselves as housewives. After my generation worked so hard to get rid of the idea that women's identities should not be tied to the role of serving their husbands. Internalized sexism. Ugh.

And male ministers are always just ministers while female ministers always have to have some qualifying word in there.

Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

Where I was an undergrad, "coeds" were male students. Of course, that was at a women's college, and the males were there in one or another of the exchange programs, cross-registration arrangements, or consortia.

It's true that some of the townies or the male (and female) students at nearby universities with which we had cross-registration arrangements were dismissive of us (cause really, how hard could it be with no men with which to compete?), but kicking their asses in grad school shut down at least some of that dismissiveness.

The sexism is pretty played out, isn't it?

Ianqui said...

Like Dr. Virago, I was going to say that the NYC area news also often uses coed to refer to a female college student who's had something bad happen to her. It's pretty unbelievable.

KathyR said...

Yeah, this used to bug me back in my college days, too. I mean, if I'm a coed, is my brother an "ed?"

Anonymous said...

I am deadly serious when I say that at least 25% of the women at my undergrad school WERE going for their MRS degree.

Heh.

negativecapability said...

What Jane Dark said. Only I think a little more than that.

I don't know where I got this, but I've always assumed having to take care of myself financially. I have always wanted to get married and really want to have children, but I just never pictured some guy swooping down and taking care of it all. It was disconcerting when I looked around the women at my college and realized how many of them had that idea, either consciously or unconsciously.

Terminaldegree said...

I hate the language of "coeds," "MRS degrees," "ring by spring," or, worst of all, "PHT" (Putting Hubby Through).

Thanks for reminding us that this language hasn't died out yet. *sigh* We need to keep fighting it.

Kyla said...

I had no idea that is what coed meant, or that it was coined to refer to women specifically. Thanks for the lesson. :)

Bardiac said...

Sometimes it feels like we're doing better fighting sexism and have made progress. But other days, I despair. Lately more of the latter than the former, alas.

I would give a LOT if my female students would learn to use the word "woman" to refer to themselves and other adults. They have no problem with the word "man," though. So frustrating!

ppolarbear said...

I got a scholarship from a local group when I went off to seminary. So I had to go to a lunch to accept it. And after they talked about me, and I accpeted the award, I sat down and the wife of the president of this group said to me, "if you get lucky and meet a man, you won't have to do all that stuff, won't you? And you'd make a lovely Sunday School director, too."

I was utterly blown away.

Second random related thought: I once read a story in a newspaper about a "coed" who went to Smith. Go figure.

Sue said...

I'm speechless. I cannot believe this kind of sexist nonsense still goes on in academia.

Aaarggghh!!!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

Me too. WE are talking today about the importantance of language and anyone who says it's "just words" is crazy!! Thisis all too true and was much worse when I was in college, I think.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Responding back to joanna: I know! What, marriage is somehow the magic solution? Even if that student stays married for the rest of her life, being married is different from being single, but she's still going to be the same person.

I don't know if the MRS degree thing is making a comeback here or not - we're very old school around here, old southern traditional school, so I'm not sure it ever went away...

Shelly said...

I don't know where I got this, but I've always assumed having to take care of myself financially

Responding to Neg Cap: I feel the same way but I know where I got it and it's because my parents divorced and my mother was uneducated, and she impressed upon me the importance of being independent and not relying upon anyone else to help me out financially.

Jenevieve said...

When I decided to get married before my senior year of undergrad, I got a lot of flack from people about "ring by spring", "MRS degree", and how I could stop double majoring while just coasting through the rest of school.

Most of those people were stunned when Matt informed them that, upon graduating, I was going to go to vet school while he supported me. Or when he said that, if we had kids, he would almost surely be a stay-at-home dad while I worked. These things just don't happen at a Christian college! Gasp!

Even here, as a huge and cosmopolitan university, we lived in married student housing, and every one of our neighbors is in a situation where the husband/ male partner is going to school and the wife/ female partner is being their support. They all look slightly askance at us.

parodie said...

I have very varied reactions to these realities. For me, going to college was more or less a given. My grandmother went to college! It would have been harder for me to avoid it than to go.

But: I met my husband in undergrad, got married not long after graduating. Was that why I attended university? No! But it was the outcome.

More disturbingly, the cegep I attended is attached to a high school that is boys-only until the final year, which is mixed. I have had people in the administration explain to me that the girls are brought in the final year of high school to "round out the boys' education." (This is recent! Quasi-current!!)

If I had heard this before attending the school I would have gone somewhere else, despite the two schools (cegep & high school) being fairly seperate.

zelda1 said...

I remember back in the day, years ago, when I went to college the first time. My pastor announced, that Sunday, the students who were going off to college, and I, as it were, was the only female. I was, after all, only going to nursing school, but it was still a big deal. He announced that Jimmy was going for a degree in mathmatics, Bob was going for a degree in engineering, and Zelda1, not the name he used, was going for a MRS. I had no clue what a MRS was and I corrected him and said, no, it's nursing, I'm going to be a nurse. Now, it saddens me that people still view women as going to school only to find a husband. What really angers me that some young women are actually doing it, going there cruising for a husband and they put on that stupid girl act and wear less clothes and I want to shake them and say, "Stop. Get an education." But, they wouldn't listen.
A great post you did here, as usual.

Sara said...

Honestly, it is not at all surprising that there are older professors and dentists and such out there who need to retire since they obviously are no longer capable of rational thought. Good ole boys--I've encountered them at every step. Time to go. It does disgust me that the media would perpetuate this outrage.

But, it is most shocking to me that young women are still themselves seduced by this MRS crap. How in the world is marrying going to solve anything? Aren't most households these days supported by more than one income? My boyfriend and I both have master's degrees, and I cannot envision one of us not having to work, at least part-time. It is not a choice. Most of my neighbors seem to have two workers in each home, and many of them appear to be married. I guess I just don't see the big payoff of marriage.

Teri said...

I'm angry enough to spit nails. GAH!

The best revenge is success. Here's to raising strong, independent daughters and sons who respect them!

Anastasia said...

i had a middle aged male prof tell me last year that my speech patterns made me sound unintelligent because I sounded like a "coed."

I was completely disgusted, not only on my own behalf but on behalf of every young woman who has ever sat in this man's class.

Lilian said...

Well, I knew about women not being able to go to college, after all, I lived for years just a few miles from the oldest women's college in the country. I didn't know about this word "coed" though -- how AWFUL!! This things make me extremely angry as well.

Yankee, Transferred said...

Older Daughter had someone tell her she shouldn't go to the womens' college she's attending because "SHE'D NEVER MEET A MAN THERE!!!"
What the fuck?????????

Kristen said...

I'm disgusted and disappointed, and yet not surprised, that the dentist said this to your friend's daughter. On the one hand, I have some expectation that the majority of the population has moved beyond this crap. On the other hand, I know that's not true at all. Yeah, it makes me angry, too.

Psycho Kitty said...

Huh.
Now, I am known to be somewhat oblivious, but...at our school, I always heard "coed" to be generally taken to mean "men and women together" but not in direct reference to the woman part of that equation. In fact, the only time I ever even heard the term was as in "coed dorms" or "coed sports". And we all knew that meant that both men and women lived in those dorms or that both men and women played on the same team, but the men were as much the "coeds" as the women were.
I wonder if I'm the only one who thought that?

Anonymous said...

Psycho Kitty, I don't think you're alone. Most of my experience with the term is similar to yours...

Girl said...

What makes me even angrier is that I know someone who went to college to get her MRS...not to mention all the girls who pose for Coed stuff in the first place.

Where is their confidence? What are they thinking?

Joy ~ aka Wild Child said...

The students in Jo(e)'s class point to an important point. They didn't know (nor did I) what the word coed meant. But the term is out there and used. So, the term AND meaning continue to be perpetrated.

Even with the use of the term to mean both men and women, it's still disparaging ...in the least because the original meaning is still used.

History Geek said...

The first week of classes a girl in front of me was telling her friend her plans of getting her MRS degree. She said she already had a few guys on her mind.

I wanted to bludgeon her with my Riverside Chaucer.

Jody said...

Ask our grandparents? Most of the Ivies and their wannabes didn't allow women to enroll full-time via regular admissions until the late 1960s or early 1970s. That's my parent's generation.

There are prominent colleges in Oxford and Cambridge (universities made up of individual colleges in terms of their admissions, although it's a shifting system) that didn't admit women until the 1980s.

Silver Creek Mom said...

I didn't know that coed was an insult. Although Like most people I've never thought about it. I realize that Women had to fight to get admitted just like now the males are taken over the females in what is considered a MALE occupation. Although it is slowly getting better.

I will inform my daughter who will be going to college soon NOT to take that term lightly.

Steamed.

purple_kangaroo said...

One of the two colleges I attended had a nickname of "Area Bridal College". I never found that particularly funny. At the same time, though, I think it's true that both men and women do often meet their spouses at school. Singling out women for that implication is just ridiculous.

Mrs. Coulter said...

I recently had a conversation with a gentleman of a different generation who is a member of my husband's extended family, during which for some reason my Fancy Pants University degree was mentioned (probably because we met in college and thus both have FPU degrees). "Oh so you got your MRS degree there?" he asked me. I was so angry and shocked that anyone would even ask that. "No." I said flatly and changed the subject. I don't think he meant it as an insult--very different generation--but it still made me angry.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Well, abotu a third of my students are here to get their MRS degrees. And a bunch of my seniors are already married.

Rachel said...

Psycho Kitty and Kate-- when the word is pronounced "Co-ED," it is an adjective meaning both sexes, like your example of a coed dorm. It's when the emphasis is on the first syllable, "CO-ed," that it is a patronizing way to refer to a female student.

Anonymous said...

My *DAD* used to use that word in reference to me while I was in college...this was the mid-90s. The first time he did it I was confused, because I'd never heard it used that way before. (Clearly, I don't read enough porn). He explained the origin of the term, which almost made it worse than I thought it was. I argued with him repeatedly about how it's out-dated and sexist, and he refused to understand how this could be. "Everyone says it". Since then, I've been on a crusade to stop people - news broadcasts, magazines, other websites - from using "co-ed" to refer to college women. They've all heard from me on this issue. It's ludicrous and insulting, and I'm glad to know there are other people out there who feel the same way.

LOLA said...

It's not "pc" it's recognizing women as fully human and capable of going to college for learning and to get a degree not just to get married. If you make up a nasty derogatory word about a group of people and they don't know what it means but all of your friends do- then it is still a nasty derogatory word. Ignorance of the meaning or origin of a word does not make it any less hurtful.
Co-ed is disgusting-I am joining the campaign.
If it began current usage in the 50's and 60's it should be retired with the old fogeys who coined it.
Laura

Stanley said...

Whenever I hear "coed," the phrase that usually comes to my mind is a line from those Girls Gone Wild commercials. You know, the ones featuring "hundreds of sexy coeds!" drunkenly lifting up their shirts for the camera. I had no idea where that term came from, but I really appreciate the female presence on campuses. You know, as sex objects.

Love,
Stan

Cindy said...

I found this blog post because I googled "can we get rid of the word coed" after hearing yet another news report about a 'missing coed' and thinking, "what decade are we in, why are people still talking like this?" Can we please make this as un-PC as it needs to be? It's refreshing to hear the voices of sanity here. We need more of them in the newsrooms of America.

moi aussi said...

Great post. I also came here VIA Google after seeing the term used. It is a ridiculously old term and like other derogatory old terms, should not be used.

I have never heard of the MRS degree. Hey I went to college to get an education and I was raised to take care of myself. If my parents spent money for me to go to college and all I did afterwards was get married, they would have been very angry and disappointed.

Anonymous said...

Yes. Time for a new dentist!!!

Anonymous said...

Wow. I was a woman seminary student over 25 years ago. I never experienced either of the things you describe. I would have found a different church.

Anonymous said...

When my friend was raped and murdered in Ithaca NY in 1977, the local newspaper headline ran "Coed Missing". Cornell University denied that she had been abducted on campus (how did they even know? no one knew, but I am certain that she was). Cornell never assisted in any search, and the Ithaca police completely ignored the case and even threw her eyeglasses that were turned in by someone who said they looked like those in her picture into the "lost and found". After all, she was a "coed". You can say that times have changed, but I will never forgive Cornell or the City of Ithaca. Her body was found on Thanksgiving nearly a year later by a hunter. Cornell still does not list her in the "complete listing of all of those who ever attended Cornell. She was Deborah Linton, a genius.