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

Identity crisis

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?

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.

What do these studies tell us about the relationship between single-sex education and achievement? Virtually nothing. Tidball made the common mistake of confusing correlation with causation. As Faye Crosby, a professor of psychology at Smith College, and other critics have observed, Tidball did not control for characteristics of women's colleges, apart from sexual homogeneity, that might well account for the success of their graduates. She did not allow for the socio-economic privileges shared by many graduates of elite women's colleges or for the selectivity of the schools.

Tidball's 1973 study focuses on women who graduated from women's colleges in the years before elite men's colleges were integrated; until the mid-1970s ambitious, high-achieving females gravitated to Seven Sister schools because they were among the most selective and prestigious institutions open to women. Students at these schools were self-selected for success, like their male counterparts in the Ivy League. They also tended to be well connected; many may have owed their success to the males present in their families more than to the absence of males from their classes.

Tidball's subsequent finding, that single-sex schools produce more female achievers in the sciences and medicine, also collapses under scrutiny. Faye Crosby and her Smith colleagues found in a comparison of similarly selective single-sex and coeducational schools that "women's colleges are not more productive." There are no definitive comparative data on the benefits of single-sex colleges for women. "Data are slim," Crosby writes, "but they indicate that coeducational schools are as likely to produce women scientists as are women's colleges."

Crosby's assertion challenges conventional wisdom about the risks of coeducation which is becoming increasingly fashionable in secondary schools. A recent, widely cited study commissioned by the American Association of University Women (prepared by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women) decries the current system. Titled "How Schools Shortchange Girls," the AAUW report declares that "the educational system is not meeting girls' needs." The executive summary cites "gender bias as a major problem at all levels of schooling," asserting that girls are plagued by sexual harassment, even at the grade school level, and neglected by sexist teachers, who pay more attention to boys. As a consequence, it seems, girls fall behind their male classmates: "Girls and boys enter school roughly equal in measured ability. Twelve years later, girls have fallen behind their male classmates in key areas such as higher-level mathematics and measures of self-esteem."

These remarks might awaken the anxieties of many parents with daughters in coed schools. But the dire tone of the summary is belied by the underlying findings of the AAUW study. Reviewed in its entirety, it presents a more complex, nuanced view of the female educational experience, which varies with race and class. In fact, "socio-economic status," not sex, is said to be "the best predictor of both grades and test scores."

Are schools "shortchanging girls"? Reading the entire AAUW report, it's hard to say. "There is considerable evidence that girls earn higher grades than boys throughout their school careers," the report acknowledges. And the sexes seem to be approaching parity in skills. Recent research indicates that "sex differences in verbal abilities have decreased markedly.... [and] differences in mathematics achievement are small and declining." Findings regarding achievement in science, however, are discouraging: girls are not catching up to boys and may even be falling further behind. Both sexes tend to lose interest in math and science as they proceed through school, but the loss is more pronounced for girls. Girls also exhibit less confidence in their mathematical abilities than boys, although it's worth remembering that girls are generally socialized to be relatively self-effacing; boys are expected to brag.

These differences in social conditioning complicate the task of measuring girls' relative self-esteem. The AAUW study suggests that high school girls have less self-esteem than boys and that the self-esteem of girls declines dramatically after puberty. How did researchers measure self-esteem? They counted the number of elementary school and high school students who reported being "happy the way I am." Sixty-nine percent of elementary school boys and 60 percent of elementary school girls declared that they were indeed happy with themselves. But among high school students 46 percent of boys were "happy the way I am," and a mere 29 percent of girls.

It's impossible to know what this survey means. Maybe it is evidence that girls have low self-esteem, as the AAUW report suggests. Or maybe it demonstrates that girls are less complacent and more ambitious than boys, and more likely to hold themselves to high standards of performance. Maybe boys are in a rut. Maybe not. By itself, Are you happy with yourself? is a useless survey question, because interpretations of the answer are hopelessly subjective.

What additional evidence is there to support the common assumption that girls are more likely to suffer a drop in self-esteem as they enter their teens? The AAUW report cites recent work, by Carol Gilligan, Lyn Mikel Brown, and Annie Rogers, documenting "the silencing of girls" in junior high and high school. But even if their findings on a loss of confidence in girls are accurate, these tell us very little about sexism or sex difference, because they offer no comparable study of boys. Maybe a loss of self-esteem is a function of adolescence, not of sex. Maybe boys are silenced too, metaphorically if not in fact. Maybe they make noise to drown out their fears. Maybe not.

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.