The debate over single-sex education is complicated, and replete with the usual ironies: The Young Women's Leadership School can count among its defenders feminists who opposed single-sex admissions policies at the state-run Virginia Military Institute and anti-feminists who supported the exclusion of women from VMI and the Citadel. Feminist supporters of the East Harlem school distinguish its establishment as affirmative action, intended to remedy the discrimination that girls are said to encounter in coed classrooms -- and in having been excluded from schools like VMI. Thus conservative advocates of the East Harlem school, who generally oppose affirmative action, find themselves defending one putative form of it. Conservatives who are generally unsympathetic to arguments about self-esteem, dismissing them as an expression of liberal "victimism," find themselves extolling the virtues of a nurturing, supportive environment that builds girls' confidence and capacity to lead. In their defense of girls' schools, however, they rely primarily on a traditional belief that maintaining separate schools for males and females is only natural, considering presumed differences in their developmental needs and learning styles.
It is this belief in cognitive and characterological sex-based differences that unites conservative and liberal advocates of single-sex education -- at least when the exclusion of males is at issue. Feminism is inconsistent on the subject of sex-based differences. Some of the same women who praise The Young Women's Leadership School for attending to the special needs of girls lambasted VMI for arguing that the special needs and sensibilities of young women made them unlikely to succeed in the harsh, highly competitive environment of a military academy. Feminists who complain about the male ethic that pervades law-school classrooms and male learning styles that are inimical to women suddenly, when the integration of VMI was at issue, started talking about the capacity of women to compete with men as equals in presumptively masculine environments.
In defense of male exclusivity, witnesses for VMI spouted popular feminist truths: women are less aggressive and more emotional, more cooperative and less competitive, than men. To substantiate these assertions and justify separation of the sexes, the state relied on Carol Gilligan's work on female moral development, which, of course, is regularly cited by feminists to support the exclusion of males from institutions like The Young Women's Leadership School.
In addition to assumptions about female learning and relational styles, proponents of all-girls schools rely on social science to support the claim that segregation by sex fosters achievement in girls. "Studies show ..." is the usual lead-in to any defense of single-sex education. In fact studies do not show that girls fare better in single-sex schools. "There does not seem to be research support for this perspective," the sociologist Cynthia Epstein politely observes. Epstein, the author of Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender, and the Social Order (1988), adds that there is no consensus among psychologists as to the existence of psychological or cognitive differences between the sexes, and that the evidence for the need for single-sex education and the justice of single-sex schools is highly equivocal.
Many social science studies [of sex-based differences] do not support the idea that deep-rooted male and female natures require separate education, or that segregated education can provide members of each sex with the same opportunities and development of skills.
What, then, is the basis for the claim that "studies show" the advantages of all-female schools? Perhaps the most frequently cited studies were conducted by M. Elizabeth Tidball, who reviewed the educational backgrounds of female achievers. In her first, widely cited study, published in 1973, Tidball examined a random sample of women included in Who's Who and found that disproportionate numbers were graduates of women's colleges. In subsequent studies Tidball found that women's colleges produced more than their share of graduates who went on to medical school or received doctorates in the natural or life sciences.