Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Barbara Applebaum


coeducation, feminism, gender identities and norms, heteronormativity, intersectionality, women's colleges

Subject Categories

Education | Women's Studies


This dissertation is a qualitative study of early 21st century American female college students' experiences of their gender, sexuality, and racial identities, and of institutional politics as their single-sex college transitioned to co-education. It is an ethnography that utilizes feminist theorizing to understand tensions between feminists of different generations or waves; the complexities of identities and institutions in which gender, sexuality, and race intersect (bell hooks and Kimberle Crenshaw); and the workings of dominant gender and sexual norms (Judith Butler). As the College prepared to `go coed,' the prospect of introducing male bodies into this environment generated rich discourses about sexual differences, and the operations of individual and institutional power.

Data for this dissertation were gathered through individual interviews with five senior administrators and twenty-two students, a group interview with four students following one semester of coeducation, and participant observations over the course of four years. Historical and contemporary texts were analyzed for evidence of competing feminist discourses. Each chapter of this dissertation discusses my findings of feminist generational tensions between students and administrators; of Womyns College as both a nurturing place and a site for practicing resistance to gender, sexual, and racial norms; and of the difficulties of challenging societal and institutional impositions of femininity and heteronormativity.

This work contributes to the fields of education and women's studies by providing a thick description of everyday life at a women's college, and of a significant institutional transition - from a women's to a coeducational college - in American higher education. It describes some young women's negotiations of the constraints of femininity and heterosexuality, and exposes how hegemonic notions about sex and gender work. It makes an argument for separatist spaces within historically masculinist and white institutions: intentionally created and institutionally sustained "homeplaces" (hooks) where radical subjectivities can be cultivated by members of non-dominant groups.


Open Access