The Trouble With Single-Sex Schools

All-female schools are "models of equivocation," the author, a Smith graduate, writes. They "reinforce regressive notions of sex difference" while at the same time helping women into the professions

A review of the usual studies of female development and education is most likely to result in uncertainty. The overall effects of coeducation are open to question, but evidence that single-sex secondary schools are especially beneficial for girls is scarce. One of the leading researchers in this area, Valerie Lee, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, found that students in Catholic girls' schools enjoyed advantages over female students in Catholic coeducational schools. Her subsequent study of independent schools, however, "produced equivocal results." She found "no consistent pattern of results favoring either single sex or coeducational schools, either for girls or boys."

Lee's work also challenged the assumption that girls' schools are considerably less sexist than coed schools. Her findings suggest that they may simply exhibit different styles of sexism. Comparing a sample of coeducational, all-boys, and all-girls independent schools, Lee found that "the frequency of [sexist] incidents was similar in the three types of schools, [but] the forms of sexism were different." Sexism was most severe in boys' schools; in coed schools it was most blatant and frequent in chemistry classes; girls' schools did pay the most attention to equality between the sexes, but they also "perpetuated a pernicious form of sexism: academic dependence and nonrigorous instruction." In all-girls chemistry classes, for example, "undue attention was paid to neatness and cleanliness as well as to drawing parallels between domesticity and chemistry activities." It's not surprising to learn, after reviewing this study, that at The Young Women's Leadership School many walls are painted pink.

The sexism in girls' and women's schools is insidious. Whether manifested in feminine decor or in an approach to teaching that assumes a female penchant for cooperative, or "connected," learning, stereotypical notions of femininity often infect institutions for women and girls. Many of them encourage female academic achievement, but they discourage academic competition with males. They encourage heterosexual women and girls to separate their social and intellectual lives, reinforcing the dissonance bred into many achievement-oriented females.

That, at least, is what I learned about single-sex education as a student at Smith College, where I realized that the restraints of femininity are often self-imposed. In 1971, during my senior year, the college conducted a survey on coeducation, which a majority of students opposed. Many reported that they preferred not competing with men intellectually. As conversations made clear, they were concerned not about discrimination but about appearing unfeminine. Many students stressed that they liked being at a women's school because they didn't have to worry about their appearance in class.

Social convention can be blamed for their inclination to dress and act differently around men, I suppose. But adhering to convention is as much a choice as is challenging it. Single-sex education allowed female students to exercise the choice of being smart on weekdays and pretty on weekends. The prospect of being intellectually assertive and sexually appealing simultaneously, every day of the week, was barely considered or, perhaps, even desired.

To me, student opposition to coeducation at Smith underscored the need for it. The survey of student attitudes crystallized the danger that a single-sex school would pander to women's fears of masculinizing themselves. It was at least arguable that women's colleges were accepting the limits of femininity rather than challenging them.

Social mores on campus reflected this embrace of traditional gender roles, since males and females existed for each other as dates, objects of desire, not classmates. In protecting young women from the attractions and distractions of men, single-sex schools can unwittingly contribute to their sexual objectification. There interactions between the sexes are primarily romantic, not collegial -- and collegiality is crucial to social equality. Laws against sexual harassment may not be nearly as effective in preventing it as the daily experiences of men working with competent, intelligent female colleagues.

This is not to suggest that many women don't benefit from attending single-sex schools; other graduates of women's colleges will offer testimony very different from my own. But it is important to acknowledge what sexual separatism can cost.

Since their inception in the nineteenth century, all-girls schools have fostered femininity along with feminism. They are models of equivocation, reinforcing regressive notions of sex difference at the same time that they educate women and help to facilitate their entry into the professions. In the beginning these contradictions were unavoidable: coeducation was not an option, and female chauvinism was essential to building the women's movement. Today the case for single-sex education is much less clear. The Young Women's Leadership School is intended to prepare girls for college and careers, and is apt to succeed, given that it is a new, well-equipped, well-funded school that currently serves about 150 students; it is also a school with something to prove. But there is little if any evidence that a small coed school of equal quality would not succeed as well.

It's tempting to conclude with a recognition that some students prosper in single-sex schools and some benefit more from coeducation. Why not allow for the establishment of sexually segregated public schools in order to provide educational choice? That's a little like asking why the Supreme Court denied people the choice of racially segregated schools, which many parents and students preferred. The Constitution and various civil-rights statutes prohibit the state from choosing to discriminate on the basis of race or sex. (In some cases the law prohibits acts of private discrimination as well.) Federal law does provide narrow exceptions for the maintenance of historically female and black colleges and single-sex secondary schools. But as the federal district court in Garrett v. Board of Education pointed out, "No case has ever upheld the existence of a sex-segregated public school that has the effect of favoring one sex over another."

Why should boys in East Harlem be deprived of the opportunity to enroll in what The New York Times described as a "haven" from "bad schools, tough streets, and bleak prospects"? It's hard to make a case for the establishment of The Young Women's Leadership School as a form of affirmative action when poor girls from minority communities are no more at risk than poor boys. It was equally hard for the Board of Education in Detroit to justify establishing schools for African-American boys when girls were at risk too. Affirmative action is supposed to compensate members of historically disadvantaged groups for the unfair advantages enjoyed by others. The version of affirmative action offered by supporters of The Young Women's Leadership School promises to pit one disadvantaged group against another.

Should we resolve the competition by establishing a comparable public school for boys in East Harlem? Only if we're willing to abandon efforts to ensure that coed schools are free of gender bias. And only if there is compelling evidence that girls and boys are most likely to prosper in segregated schools. So far, proponents of single-sex education have primarily relied on conventional assumptions about male and female skills, learning styles, and sensibilities (which dominated the defense in the VMI case) -- along with unsubstantiated assertions about the evils of sexual integration. That is not enough to justify the revision of civil-rights laws against sex discrimination.

Forty years ago the Supreme Court struck down racial segregation, relying in part on empirical evidence that racially separate schools were inherently unequal. We ought not to embrace a standard of separate but equal schools for males and females without equivalent empirical evidence that they are needed and likely to make progress toward equality. A hundred and fifty years ago the drive to establish separate but equal schools for men and women was necessitated by the separation of the sexes in social and political life. A hundred and fifty years ago, when women were excluded from men's academies, women's academies did indeed represent affirmative action. Today a return to separate single-sex schools may hasten the revival of separate gender roles. Only as the sexes have become less separate have women become more free.

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Wendy Kaminer is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. Her most recent book is It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture.

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