American women won the opportunity to be educated nearly a hundred years before they won the right to vote, not coincidentally. In the beginning women were educated for the sake of family and society: the new republic needed educated mothers to produce reasonable, responsible male citizens. But although the first all-female academies, founded in the early 1800s, reflected a commitment to traditional gender roles, which reserved the public sphere for men, they reinforced a nascent view of women as potentially reasonable human beings -- endowed with the attributes of citizenship.
Education also contributed to women's restlessness and impatience with domesticity. It may or may not have produced better mothers, but it did seem to produce fewer mothers. Young female secondary-school graduates of the mid-1800s tended to marry later than their uneducated peers or not at all. "Our failures only marry," the president of Bryn Mawr, M. Carey Thomas, famously remarked in the early 1900s.
The first generations of educated women were products of single-sex secondary and undergraduate schools, with few exceptions (Oberlin became the country's first coed college, in 1837). The Seven Sisters opened their doors in the last decades of the nineteenth century and evolved into a female Ivy League, educating the daughters of elites and providing social and professional mobility to some members of the middle class. Such schools were essential to the nineteenth-century women's movement. They not only inspired activism in women and prepared them to work outside the home but also created wage-earning work, as schoolteaching became one of few respectable professional options for unmarried females.
Still, single-sex education was not exactly a choice; it was a cultural mandate at a time when sexual segregation was considered only natural. Early feminists hoped eventually to integrate men's schools as well as voting booths, and equal educational opportunities proved much easier to obtain than equal electoral rights. By the turn of the century more girls than boys were graduating from high school and coeducation was becoming the norm. In 1910, out of the nation's 1,083 colleges 27 percent were exclusively for men, 15 percent exclusively for women, and the remaining 58 percent coed.
Today females outnumber males among college graduates, and a mere 1.3 percent of all women awarded B.A. degrees graduate from single-sex colleges. Now that the Ivy League is coed, academically elite women's colleges -- Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke -- are apt to lose the best-credentialed students to schools like Harvard, Brown, and Yale. In the 1970s, after men's colleges and universities began accepting women, the SAT scores of Smith College applicants declined; they stabilized and rose slightly during the 1980s.
The image of women's colleges has improved in the past five years, thanks partly to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wellesley class of 1969. Applications to women's schools have steadily increased -- but so has the number of college applicants overall. It's highly unlikely that with competition from the Ivy League and in the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution, women's colleges will ever recover the popularity and prestige they once enjoyed. Only about three percent of female high school seniors even consider attending any of the nation's eighty-two women's colleges. But if single-sex college education seems to generate relatively low demand among young women, support for it is on the increase among their elders.
Having gained entry to virtually all the nation's public and private universities (and military academies), many women are questioning the benefits of coeducation at every level, but especially in secondary schools. According to popular feminist wisdom, coed schools are detrimental to the self-esteem of girls; they discourage rather than inspire girls' achievement, particularly in math and science. Many parents of girls seem to share these beliefs -- or they want their daughters protected from the attentions and temptations of boys. (For gay and bisexual girls, however, single-sex schools can be fraught with sexual tension.) All-girls elementary and secondary schools are in the midst of a "renaissance," according to Whitney Ransome, the director of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools. Since the early 1990s applications have increased by 21 percent and four new all-girls secondary schools have been established.
Pursuant to federal law, single-sex education is primarily a private prerogative; public schools are generally barred from discriminating on the basis of sex or race. But separatism has been enjoying a resurgence among some feminists and advocates of racial justice, who are challenging restrictions on segregated public classrooms. The belief that segregation necessarily sends a message of inferiority, which underlay the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, has been upended. Now segregated schools are heralded for raising self-esteem in disadvantaged groups.
Of course, integrationists still have the law on their side. In 1991 three public schools proposed for African-American males in Detroit were quickly and successfully challenged in a federal district court by the parents of girls in the city's public schools, along with a coalition of feminist and civil-rights groups. In that suit, Garrett v. Board of Education, the court held that the all-boys schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment and federal equal-education laws. Supporters of these schools characterized them as a response to a crisis facing young African-American males, who as a group suffered inordinately high dropout, unemployment, and homicide rates. But, as the court observed, there was no evidence that the presence of girls in class increased the risks faced by boys or interfered with efforts to help them: "Although co-educational programs have failed, there is no showing that it is the co-educational factor that results in failure." Besides, girls were in crisis as well. Sex was "inappropriately" invoked as a "proxy for `at risk' students."
Undeterred by this decision, advocates for single-sex education recently established a public all-girls school in New York City. Named The Young Women's Leadership School, and known informally as the East Harlem Girls' School, it opened in September of 1996 with one seventh-grade class of fifty girls, and was immediately challenged by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, and the New York Civil Rights Coalition.
Last September the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights issued an informal preliminary finding that the school appeared to violate federal law. Two remedies were suggested: sexually integrate the school or establish a separate but equal school for boys. (The State of California has recently initiated a pilot program encouraging the establishment of single-sex academies for middle and high school students.) But New York City's school chancellor, Rudy Crew, has said that he will neither admit boys to the East Harlem Girls' School nor establish a brother school, and civil-rights activists would fight attempts to establish a separate but equal boys' academy anyway. Compromise appears unlikely. The battle rages between those who pursue equality through integration and those who pursue it through separate institutions for the presumptively disadvantaged.
Supporters of the East Harlem school have cast the debate as a class struggle. The school serves Latinas from lower-income families, and Latina activists have denounced its opponents, NOW in particular, as upper-middle-class meddlers out of touch with the needs of less-affluent minorities. The image of NOW as a group of elite feminists does not reflect reality (Anne Conners, the former president of the New York chapter, observed that the average income of members was $20,000), but wealth is relative. As outsiders to the East Harlem community, NOW activists may be "meddling" -- but so were northerners who fought for an end to Jim Crow laws in the South. A commitment to civil rights assumes a responsibility to meddle.
Of course, whether the establishment of public all-girls schools retards or advances civil rights and social equality is a central question in this case. Supporters of The Young Women's Leadership School assert that it provides low-income families with the option of single-sex education that has always existed for the upper classes. Rich parents send their daughters to all-female schools; why shouldn't the daughters of the poor enjoy similar advantages?
That's an appeal bound to elicit sympathy, especially from guilty liberals, but it begs the question of whether the daughters of the rich benefit from single-sex education. Perhaps they benefit merely from being rich and attending elite private schools with favorable student-teacher ratios and superior facilities and curricula. Perhaps many would fare better at elite coed schools. In any case, the tendency of some affluent parents to choose single-sex schools is not evidence that single-sex education provides advantages for girls. The traditions of the rich, such as coming-out parties, are not necessarily progressive.
In fact, challengers of the East Harlem school charge that its establishment is part of a campaign by conservative elites to dismantle the public school system through privatization. The school was conceived and partly funded by Ann Rubenstein Tisch and her husband, Andrew Tisch, the chairman of the Loews Corporation management committee. It represents the initiative and ideals of upper-class meddlers, whose motives the middle-class meddlers suspect.
Does The Young Women's Leadership School represent a small step toward the goal of equality or a step away from it? The more that girls' schools are celebrated for nurturing achievement and self-esteem, the more futile efforts to improve public coeducation may seem. And feminist supporters of girls' schools are often opposed to boys' schools, so the prospect of success presents them with a quandary: which girls will be sacrificed to coed schools in the hope of socializing the boys?