Girls-Only Is OK
by Ted Rueter
The ACLU is at it again. The organization that opposes school uniforms,
obstructs teen curfews, fights metal detectors at airports, and challenges
restrictions on child pornography is now turning its legal firepower against
single-sex public schools.
Last fall, the Young Women's Leadership School opened in East Harlem, NY. It has
165 students in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. School officials plan to
expand it to the 12th grade by adding a grade each year. The school is intended
to emphasize math and science and allow young girls to attend school in an
environment free of sexual pressures. It is one of three all-girl public schools
in the country.
As soon as the proposal for the East Harlem school was announced, Norman Siegel,
executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, wrote to the
chancellor demanding that the school not open. He was joined by the New York
chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the New York Civil
Rights Coalition. Now the federal government is getting involved. Investigators
from the US Department of Education's office of civil rights will soon be
meeting with New York City Board of Education officials to discuss gender
discrimination at the school. The opposition of civil rights groups to
single-sex education is unfortunate. There is a strong case for single-sex
Numerous studies indicate that a single-sex environment is conducive to higher
levels of learning and achievement. One study found that women attending a
women's college were more likely to earn degrees than their peers at
coeducatonal institutions. A report by the American Association of University
Women argued that "boys are rewarded for aggressive behavior and girls become
spectators at learning." For many female adolescents at coeducational schools,
self-esteem plummets, as does interest in science and math. And then there's the
prevalence of sexual harassment, especially in junior high.
The ACLU's answer to gender bias in the classroom is to remake society.
"Rather than excluding boys from the classrooms, the school board should train
and monitor teachers to assure that all girls and boys are treated equally. The
focus should be on substantially improving the integrated model and not on
institutionalizing a segregated model," says Siegel, of the New York ACLU.
This shows a woeful ignorance of classroom dynamics. I've seen the matter up
close. A few years ago, I taught at Smith College, a women's college. My first
semester, I taught "Introduction to International Relations," with 53 students:
51 females, and two males from Hampshire College and the University of
Amazingly, during the first few days of class, discussion was dominated by the
two males. The females fell virtually silent in the face of verbal aggression by
the minority outsiders. I was forced to pull the men aside, remind them they
were guests, clue them in on the purposes of single-sex education, and ask them
to cool it.
While the nation's 83 women's colleges fiercely maintain their right to exclude
men, they don't support the right of men's colleges to exclude women. In the
case of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), the Women's College Coalition
(WCC) sponsored an amicus brief in support of the government's challenge to
VMI's single-sex status. The WCC's contention was that the mission of some
single-sex schools was to end, rather than continue, traditional gender
In other words, the women's colleges argued that they should be able to remain
single-sex because they are politically correct, while politically-incorrect VMI
should be forced to go coed. What hypocrisy.
In my view laws banning sex discrimination shouldn't be used to deny educational
diversity. Equal protection under the law does not mean that every school has to
be exactly the same. If Smith wants to admit only women and VMI only men, it
should be permitted.
And if Detroit, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis want to create special public
academies for young black males, they should be allowed to as well.
There is some movement in this direction. In 1994, Sen. John Danforth (R) of
Missouri proposed that federal grants be awarded for the creation of 10
experimental single-sex programs for "low-income educationally disadvantaged
students." The amendment passed the Senate but was defeated in the House after
heavy lobbying by NOW. In California, Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation that
makes $5 million available for 10 pilot single-sex schools.
The civil rights community should value educational diversity, and recognize
that voluntary single-sex public education is a basic civil right.
Published in The Christian Science Monitor, October 23, 1997