What women can teach men

November 28, 1994|By Judith Shapiro

BY NOW, the benefits of single-sex education for girls and women have been reported so often and so fully that you might think the advocates of women's institutions could snap their briefcases shut and declare the case closed.

But we can't.

It isn't enough to cite the familiar statistics showing that graduates of women's colleges succeed in traditionally male fields -- business, government, academia -- far out of proportion to their numbers in the population.

Unless we understand the reasons for the success of single-sex education for girls and women, we risk missing some important lessons about education, society and the sexes today.

What is it that women's colleges and girls' schools do that coeducation does not? All manner of research -- governmental and academic -- provides a clear answer. They are places where girls and women get more attention, more respect and more room to be individuals.

If too many coed classrooms are places where boys will be boys and girls will be girls, all-female classrooms are places where girls stand a better chance of getting to be people.

Does this mean that we can make as compelling an argument for all-male schools?

Though there are very few such institutions left, the question is more than theoretical, since the cases over admitting women to the Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel remain unresolved. The answer lies in how a single-sex institution connects with the society as a whole.

In a society that favors men over women, men's institutions operate to preserve privilege. Women's institutions challenge privilege and attempt to expand access to the good things of life.

In addition, all-male institutions can produce a culture of male-female relations that is not everything one might wish. Certain military academies may provide particularly florid examples, with exotic degradation ceremonies in which initiates are symbolically identified with women.

But generally, the link between all-male groups and misogyny is fairly robust, whether you're looking at it in the United States or in such places as lowland South America and Melanesia, as we anthropologists are in the habit of doing.

Moreover, research to date does not show that boys and men benefit academically from single-sex education in the way that girls and women do. Clearly, the rationales for women's and men's institutions are not parallel.

But even among advocates of women's institutions, we find disagreement, particularly about how they produce their beneficial effects. Some will insist that they serve women's distinctive styles of thinking and learning.

This view reflects the influence of "difference feminism" -- the branch of feminism that accepts and celebrates what are believed to be distinctive attributes of femaleness.

Now, I happen to be among those who view "difference feminism" with concern.

I think it has tended to take our society's folk beliefs about the sexes and run with them, when what we need instead is some critical distance on the subject. Recently, we have seen too much gender folklore in both scholarly and popular writing.

Sexual stereotypes are a paradigm of what the Columbia sociologist Robert Merton long ago identified as "self-fulfilling prophecies." It is our belief in them that makes them true.

The point here is not to argue that there are no differences between men and women. Nor do I ignore the fact that men and women tend to be dealt different hands in the poker game of life.

The problem arises when discussions of gender difference turn into sweeping and ethnocentric generalizations about what men and women are basically like.

Women are said to be inherently nurturing, skilled at relationships, imbued with a deep, intuitive sense of when the garbage needs to be taken out. Men, on the other hand, are predisposed toward certain aggressive pursuits, from laboratory science to rape, and they also exhibit a possibly genetically based inability to see when the garbage needs to be taken out.

We would do better to shift our focus from whether men and

women are the same or different -- indeed, they are both -- to the question of who benefits from current arrangements and how these benefits might be shared more widely in a way that better serves the society as a whole.

Women's colleges go to the heart of that issue because they exist to address inequality between the sexes and to serve the interests of women -- not as places where women can think differently, or learn differently, or speak differently, but as the proverbial room of one's own.

As Virginia Woolf might have put it had she been from the Upper West Side, "Give a woman enough subway tokens and a college of her own, and let her tell it like it is."

People who ask questions about the purpose of women's colleges generally assume they know what "coeducation" means.

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