Single-Sex Ed.: Outstanding or Outdated?
Last month, Randolph-Macon College, a small liberal arts school in Lynchburg, Virginia, opened its doors to men, ending the college’s 115-year-old legacy as a women’s institution. Students at Randolph-Macon bitterly opposed the changes with petitions, protests, and lawsuits. Yet sadly, due to the financial pressures to win applicants, little could be done to reverse the decision.
One of the major successes of the feminist movement has been creating opportunities for women in education. Decades after Ivy League institutions like Yale and Princeton opened their doors to women, women make up approximately 56% of student bodies nationwide, a percentage that is steadily increasing. The Jewish community in particular has experienced a remarkable shift in leadership (especially in the liberal denominations) as a result of women’s access to rigorous learning. Today, women hold Ph.D.s in Jewish Studies, earning themselves tenured teaching positions at prestigious universities. Women have also entered the rabbinate and, at times, they have outnumbered men in rabbinical schools such as Hebrew Union College.
The result of co-education, however, has been a decline in the number of women’s colleges from about 300 in the 1960s to fewer than 60 today. In an era of educational choice, is there still a need for single-sex education? Having attended a women’s college myself, I believe there is. Being in a women’s environment is both empowering and nurturing. Although the feminist movement certainly brought about tremendous progress, systemic gender inequalities inhibiting women’s capacities for achievement remain stubbornly in place. Unlike coed universities, at small women’s colleges such as Wellesley, Smith, and Barnard, nearly every student can hold a leadership position and has a voice in making important decisions within the college community and beyond. And while some of the feminist advancements in Jewish education have occurred in co-educational environments, many ground-breaking opportunities for women have developed in single-sex institutions. The Drisha Institute, for example, founded in 1979, serves as a forum for empowering women to be Jewish scholars and educators and is the world’s first center for women’s advanced study of classical Jewish texts.
Some argue that women’s education is a departure from the “real world,” creating a cloistered environment in which women who are unable to compete with men receive “special care.” Rest assured competition among women at women’s colleges is fierce and furious. Alongside the spirit of sisterhood comes a drive to out-do every woman in the classroom and in the work world, a motivation to compete that women educated in single-sex environments often carry into their work in traditionally “male” fields such as business, law, and medicine.
Are the days of single-sex education long gone? Or is there still a place, a need, and a market for it? What should women’s education look like in the 21st century?