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Single-Sex Ed.: Outstanding or Outdated?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?

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3 Comments

You have your institutions confused. Randolph-Macon College is located in Ashland, Virginia and has been coed since the early 1970's. Originally an all male school it is the oldest Methodist related college in the country.

Randolph-Macon Women's College is located in Lynchburg, Virginia. The two school are historically related, but have not had intertwined governing boards in many years.

As a graduate of a women's college, I whole heartedly agree that these institutions serve a vital interest, nurturing women in a unique and fruitful environment. While I cannot speak about the merits of all women's colleges, I can speak to the ways in which a Wellesley education empowers young women to be more assertive, more focused on academic achievement, and more willing to experiment in leadership roles than many women who attend co-educational institutions. Furthermore, Wellesley epitomizes a sense of sistership and solidarity that is bred, I would argue almost exclusively, in single-sex environments. Wellesley Alumnae participation, engagement, and investment in their college community are all renowned and envied by other educational institutions, and help current and former students learn and advance in various fields. Wellesley encourages a sense of cooperative leadership and communal responsibility that contrasts dramatically with the model of individual, competitive advancement that often prevails in other sectors of academia.

On a separate note, however, I think it is worth studying why the percentage of Jewish women at women's colleges is lower than at other comparable institutions? Most top tier colleges and universities have more than ten percent of their student body composed of by Jews. At Wellesley, and I've heard that at other women's colleges, the percentage hovers at around five to six percent. Provided that my information is accurate, what does this trend reveal about these colleges and about young Jewish women? How does this fact relate to issues of education, assertiveness, marriage, and family in the Jewish world? What does this indicate about how women's colleges fulfill the cultural/spiritual/social needs of Jewish students versus comparable co-educational institutions?

JN -- I completely agree with you. For me, one of the many benefits of having attended a women's college was realizing that women could be anything -- because at a women's college they have to be everything. The political leaders, the cultural figures, the athletes, the RAs; filling every campus job and position, taking every class. You get used to seeing women doing absolutely everything, and that sets you up for taking that for granted in the "outside" world -- which is a good thing. That way, you take for granted that women can achieve whatever they want -- professionally, personally, at work, at home, etc.

And then of course there was the benefit of realizing what the world could be like if it were physically and emotionally a safe space for women, where women's physical, personal, psychological needs were taken very seriously -- and not ridiculed or minimized, as, for example, the safety issues were at the co-ed school where I studied abroad during my junior year.

Being in a women-focused environment 24/7 isn't being cloistered: it's being able to see an "ideal world" where women are concerned -- what the "outside" world could be like if women were treated with equal respect and dignity.

And actually, now that I think about it -- there's a parallel in the Jewish communal world, as well. The Jewish community believes that the most effective mechanisms for building a strong Jewish identity are just these same kinds of 24/7 environments -- but of course they're 24/7 Jewish rather than 24/7 women (though sometimes both!). The best examples are Jewish summer camps and trips to Israel, where you're around Jews all the time, in a holistic, organic, entirely Jewish environment. The very air is Jewish -- so you realize that being Jewish is something that affects every aspect of your life, that waterskiing can be Jewish, that time can be Jewish, etc. -- and, obviously, it (ideally) makes being Jewish an entirely positive thing. This gives you new perspective on what it's like to be Jewish in a mixed environment, and ideally gives you some kind of strength to maintain that positive Jewish identity in a non-Jewish world.

I think the same applies to single-sex education -- it's an excellent mechanism for building a strong identity as a woman, whatever that winds up meaning to you, and it helps you glimpse, briefly, an ideal world -- a vision that you can then use to inspire and sustain you in the often less-than-ideal world "outside"...

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How to cite this page

Namerow, Jordan. "Single-Sex Ed.: Outstanding or Outdated?." 16 October 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 20, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/singlesexed>.

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