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
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
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.