Single-sex education

Kathleen Feeley

August 06, 1991|By Kathleen Feeley

THE LEGAL challenge to Virginia Military Institute to accept women has made thoughtful citizens reflect more deeply on the values of a single-sex education. The men-only decision is double-edged: It upholds the philosophy that different educational settings are important for our society; it deprives women of the very special advantages of V.M.I.

Because this is a public institution, the argument is a bit sharper: Should public dollars pay for education not open to everyKathleenFeeleyone?

The decision would be solidly in favor of diversity and equal access if there were a public institution of higher education for women in Virginia which would give them the same competitive edge, esprit de corps and excellent education that VMI. offers to men. A comparable institution for women would not necessarily be a military institution but one which would capitalize on the special gifts and understandings which women as a group possess. Perhaps it could be Virginia Peace Institute.

This controversy caused me to reflect again on the clear advantages of a single-sex institution of higher education for women. (We have lost almost every college for men.) Examples of outstanding women with a bachelor's degree from a woman's college abound.

In The Sun's "People" section one recent Sunday, the two featured women, Dr. Bernadine Healy, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Frances Froelicher, activist for the environment, represented feminine leaders in different fields. Both are graduates of women's colleges, as is Dr. Antonia Novello, U.S. surgeon general, featured recently in The Evening Sun.

Now that women's achievements are being more systematically studied and documented, it becomes increasingly clear that women who are educated in women's colleges become high achievers. Their self-esteem rises as they recognize their first-class citizenship in the academic world. They are encouraged by significant role models in every area to set high goals, and to reach them.

The graduating seniors in the day division at the College of Notre Dame were invited to choose an administrator with whom to have an exit interview before they left the campus in May. One open-ended question was the following: "What advice would you like to give to Sister Kathleen?" Responses ranged from "Give shorter speeches" to "Renovate Meletia" (senior residence hall). But more than half of the respondents said, in various ways: Keep Notre Dame a women's college.

As I turned over paper after paper and saw the frequency of this unsolicited response, I realized that, instinctively, these young women know what they have received and realize how society is drifting toward eliminating this essential choice in education. They feel the empowerment, and want it to continue.

We are living in a world of over-choice in small items, but one in which options for important choices are becoming fewer and fewer. The option of a college education completely focused on developing women's self-esteem and talents is one that only 93 institutions across the United States are now offering. We need more thoughtful people to look carefully at the facts of the matter, look at the success of women's college graduates, and understand that this is one option that our society needs to preserve.

Sr. Kathleen Feeley, S.S.N.D., is president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

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