Christina Hoff Sommers, who has written about the controversy for The Atlantic, is puzzled by the zeal with which single-sex education’s detractors such as Hyde pursue the issue. She says that “even if there were decisive evidence that gender-specific education improved student performance, both the ACLU and the Science authors would still be opposed.” For them, according to Hoff Sommers, this is a moral crusade, akin to the civil rights movement. Although they insist on the connection between race and sex, Hoff Sommers writes, “Race and sex are different, as the Supreme Court has emphasized and as most everyone recognizes. Mandatory racial separatism demeans human beings and forecloses life prospects.” But single-sex education, she contends, opens up prospects: It is “freely chosen, and has helped millions of pupils flourish intellectually and socially. It’s preposterous to think of Wellesley College, the Girl Scouts, or the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy as oppressive institutions comparable to segregated schools in the Jim Crow South.”
Burch Ford, who has served as an administrator, counselor, or teacher at a number of independent schools, most recently serving as the head of Miss Porter’s School, spoke to me about her experience at this famed girls’ school, the same one that Pippa Biddle attended. She was most surprised by the high energy level she encountered when she first came to the school, her first experience at a girls’ school. She speculated that the energy level was there because the students weren’t having their energy diverted by having to be presentable/available for the other sex. “The currency of adolescence is being cool,” says Ford, “and that sort of restraint requires a phenomenal amount of energy.” It’s about wearing the right things, saying the right things, laughing the right way at the right jokes. She has observed that when adolescents are doing that, it “absolutely dominates their daily experience” and siphons energy off of other pursuits.
“Equal exposure doesn’t mean equal experience,” says Ford emphatically. The media and wider culture puts so much pressure on both boys and girls that she sees the education that girls get in single-gender environments as a way not to perpetuate stereotypes, but as a way to equalize the playing field for them. “The function of a girl’s school is not protection, it’s freedom.” She sees girls whose energy is going into their own development and not being drained off daily by the social pressures they’d encounter in a coeducational school.
Stereotypes work both ways. Culture reinforces stereotypes and can winnow children towards certain restrictions of behavior (think a young girl who absorbs early on the idea that she must always be interested in playing with dolls, or a boy who feels uncertain and worried about his budding interest in princesses). But the wider culture is endemic with gender stereotypes that single-sex schools aim to free children of, at least during their school hours and formative years. As Hoff Sommers writes, “As to the claim that gender-specific schools increase stereotyping and sexism, there is ample evidence to the contrary. After all, in such schools, girls cannot leave it to boys to dissect the frog, and boys cannot leave it to girls to edit the school newspaper.” Biddle agrees. At her school, all subjects were “girl subjects.” When she went to college, she recalls, “I was baffled by how few girls were willing to speak in class, and how those who did often apologized for their thoughts/opinions and/or used passive language. Speaking up at Porter's wasn't just encouraged, it was mandatory.”