Re-examining dorm norms motivates new perspective

This past week, I was talking with someone who was curious about the housing situation at Vassar; this was an older person who wanted to know about Vassar in general. When I mentioned that the dorms were co-ed, she seemed surprised, and then asked if they were co-ed by floor—male floors interspersed with female floors. I told her no. So her next question was if the floors were sectioned off with male sections and female sections. Again, I answered no. She seemed surprised, not necessarily unpleasantly, but there was hesitation.

It got me thinking how our perceptions of acceptability change over time. When I first heard about Vassar, which seems like so long ago, I knew almost nothing about it. It was just another small, liberal arts school in the Northeast. To be fair, this was at a time when I only had a vague notion of what college implied (ah, the innocent days of freshman year in high school!) and most of what I knew came from extremely idealistic movies. Basically, I knew nothing about anything about college. So when my sister got accepted here, I learned a little bit more about Vassar through her.

It seemed like an open and liberal place. On the other hand, she was placed in Strong, the only single-sex dorm on campus. So again, my perspective of what co-ed life would be like was limited. Then I finally got around to visiting colleges. Most of the schools I visited prided themselves on separating, in some way, men and women. Sometimes that meant male and female dorms, or separate floors (as the person I’d talked to suggested), and sometimes suites of rooms assigned to a gender. Back then, this seemed like a good idea. Who knew what sort of shenanigans people might get into if men and women lived near each other! And, without exception, none had gender-neutral bathrooms.

Then I got accepted here. And I found out that not only did I live next to guys, but I would be sharing a bathroom with them. The horror! But slowly my perceptions changed. After that first awkward first week when you’re paranoid a guy will walk in the bathroom, things got better. I got less self-conscious about doing normal bodily functions, and it was perfectly fine  walking into a bathroom and seeing people of multiple genders there.

My grandparents came to visit; they remembered when my sister had moved in, and it had been an all-female dorm. They expected the same for me. “So do men live in a different dorm?” No.. “They live on different floors though, right?” It was the same questions. It was a standard belief that men and women shouldn’t live near each other. What is it about unmarried people of a certain age that it’s assumed men and women shouldn’t live together? (I mean people of all gender, trans*, cis, etc.)

In other areas, we have left behind antiquated notions of chastity, innocence and segregation. Yet it seems that this notion is harder to dispel. I understand why, to some extent, we think the way we do about separation of gender. There is, after all, a biological difference between men and women. But why should that matter? They’re just organs. Human society is based around ideas of propriety, and those ideas are hard to change when they’ve been around for centuries. Some things are slow to change.

Civil rights in all areas of life have been challenged for the last century or so and many important, necessary changes have occurred. But history cannot be completely reversed in so short a time. People cling to history and they like to see where they have been. The past is used as a guide for the future, and proving that ideas of the past are wrong or outdated is glacially slow. To be frank, history can never be completely rewritten or forgotten; it will always linger. And that isn’t a bad thing, but it does slow down change.

Nonetheless, in some way our perceptions can change. My perspective has changed just since my time at Vassar. I think when I talked to that woman, her perceptions changed too, even if only a little. Change isn’t a sweeping tide; it’s a river which slowly erodes away the landscape it flows through. One step is co-ed dorms and bathrooms; another might be staying up late talking about gender norms. It’s the big things that make headlines, but the little things that make a long-term difference.


—Lily Elbaum ‘16 is a prospective independent major.

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