The Separation Solution: Single-Sex Education and the Politics of Gender Equality

9780520288966Separate but equal. These three infamous words, coined by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, heightened the ever-present racial divide between black and white individuals until struck down in 1954 by Brown V. Board of Education. Just sixty-two years later, after working to rid this axiom from our norm, we have three new words to examine: different but equal. This time, the focus shifts to the sex divide between men and women.  Juliet A. Williams, author of The Separation Solution: Single Sex Education and The New Politics of Gender Equality, assesses the ideas behind single-sex public schools and how these ideas are constructed, especially in terms of sexist and racist stereotypes and economic inequality.

Williams considers single-sex education in public schools and examines how advocates and critics frame their cases and analyze how “gender differences have been defined and positioned within these competing frames” (Williams 28).  She argues to focus on the different beliefs about gender that parlay discourse about racial and economic injustice in education so that a more “constructive trajectory” can be set for future dialogue.  With the integration of women into the previously male-dominated schoolrooms in the 19th century, sociological and biological arguments surfaced, such that this combination would place strain on female reproduction. However, the cost of keeping up with this as well as the dominance of one room houses eliminated the concept of separatism in education until it reemerged following Brown v. Board of Education. As much of society still posed racist sentiments, the thought of white girls and black boys being taught in the same room spurred single-sex education until this argument proved ineffective as Civil Rights activists brought notice to the changing sex discrimination laws. However, at the turn of the 1980’s, the “Black Male Crisis” emerged when advocates claimed black male students were often marginalized in coeducation because they were placed in environments run by female teachers, and often came from single-mother families so they had no male role model and viewed education as “feminine” as a result.  These arguments discriminated against women and so the discourse shifted in the mid-1990’s to single-sex schools for females as “an effective means to build girls’ self-esteem and encourage greater female participation in the traditionally male dominated fields” and break down the existing heteronormativity (Williams 30). The discussion continued to grow for single-sex schools as advocates claimed that boys’ and girls’ brains are “hard-wired” to learn differently and therefore require separate learning situations, but these dubious arguments championing biological determinism were later shut down along with the majority of single-sex public schools.

Juliet A. Williams received her Ph.D. from Cornell University in New York, and is additionally trained as a political theorist.  Currently, she serves as a professor of Gender Studies and as the Associate Dean of the Division of Social Sciences at the University of California in Los Angeles.  Williams’s research focuses on feminist theory, masculinity studies, gender and the law, gender and education, and cultural studies.  She has additionally written Liberalism and the Limits of Power and contributed to Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals.

Williams notably frames her arguments through cross-disciplines: history, sociology, and biology. A series of court cases, specifically Plessy v. Ferguson, Garret v. Board of Education, United States v. Virginia, are used to set the historical context and establish precedents for building arguments for and against same-sex public schools. Moreover, relevant acts and laws, such the Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Education Opportunity Act and the Women’s Educational Equity Act served to exhibit the political history and legal studies behind same-sex education and the decisions behind those in office.  By developing the terms gender, education, race, ethnicity and examining how men and women learn and react to learning styles differently exudes a sociological and biological argument respectively. Moreover, Williams did not not conduct any studies herself, but furthered the discussion based on court cases, research studies, and news and media studies in local areas. She specifically emphasizes the pre-existing arguments of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Rosemary Salome and Leonard Sax. Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality, continually examines how women of color can be marginalized by feminist and antiracist agendas especially in single-sex education. Salome builds an argument against the “conflation” of gender into racial discussions that halted the worthwhile single-sex public school initiatives and urges for dissenters of single-sex education to “move beyond ideology”, while failing to address the origins and effects of “conflation” and recognize many dissenters opposed the discussion from analysis based off past programs (Williams 100). Sax argues for same-sex public schools, with the basis of his argument being they will curb the reinforcement of traditional gender roles, believing these stereotypes will persist in coeducational environments because they will mimic society’s structure. This way, students can be successful with techniques geared toward their specific gender. Beyond Crenshaw, Salome and Sax, William’s referenced the work of numerous other scholars to build her argument.

Williams effectively examines the role of intersectionality in the discussion about single-sex education and builds upon Kimberlé Crenshaw’s research on the topic.  She quotes Crenshaw, who asserts that “the failure of feminism to interrogate race means that the resistance strategies of feminism will often replicate and reinforce the subordination of people of color, and the failure of antiracism to interrogate patriarchy means that antiracism will frequently reproduce the subordination of women” (Williams 77). Williams continually frames the discourse on single-sex public education in terms of interesectionality to thoroughly illustrate one of main controversies over over black single-sex institutions—black girls. This concept introduced how they are specifically marginalized more so than their peers by single-sex specifically black institutions.  More so, arguing through an intersectional lens underscores the complexity and ignorance of using a “single-axis” approach to advocate for women because in doing so, the shortcomings black students face are ignored. This incorporation of intersectionality additionally highlights the “strategic leveraging of difference to fracture potential coalitions” and expands this debate beyond the gender discussion (Williams 79). Williams examines not just the way intersectionality is used to characterize identities, but also how it is used to characterize the politics on the issue as well.

Although William’s evaluates the role of separate public schools for boys and girls, she does not thoroughly examine those who do not fit under this rigidly classified system.  Queer students are overlooked and only mentioned in a couple pages at the conclusion as way of afterthought.  The discussion needs to be expanded to fit the ever-changing definitions of gender and sexuality. It is a significant gap in the argument to overlook the specifics of whether a student who identifies as one gender but bears a different sex is forced to conform to the male-female binary, and how this argument can be used for future discussion on single-sex public education.

Ultimately, The Separation Solution reads extremely informative as it provides well-framed, fact based arguments for and against the formation of single-sex public schools. Government officials and school board officials as well as anyone in the field of education should read this book because it poses relevant information on what it means to separate gender in learning environments, and how other factors have to be considered in this separation. Moreover, Williams makes note how putting the spotlight on marginalized categories may seek to provide fair learning environments but in fact generates social divides that created disadvantages and advantages for specific groups in the first place. So we are finally left to consider whether gender-specific problems really garner gender-specific solutions.


Work Cited:

Williams, Juliet. The Separation Solution?: Single-sex Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality. N.p.: U of California, n.d. Print.