Separate by Degree: Women Students' Experiences in Single-Sex and Coeducational Colleges
reviewed by Linda Serra Hagedorn & Athena Perrakis - 2002
Title: Separate by Degree: Women Students' Experiences in Single-Sex and Coeducational Colleges
Author(s): Leslie Miller-Bernal
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 082044412X , Pages: , Year: 2000
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The benefits and drawbacks of single-sex education have long been the subject of heated and intense debate among scholars who seek to examine the relevant issues at stake for women educated in the United States. In Separate By Degree, Bernal bravely contrasts the reigning view of co-education as a tool for female progression and social mobility while suggesting that single-sex education for women promotes gender equity and addresses deep-rooted aspects of sexism often overlooked or sidelined at co-educational institutions. Further, she contends that since co-ed women students are not taken as seriously as their men counterparts, the environment at a single-sex college or university becomes akin to Virginia Woolf's notion of "A Room of One's Own," wherein women can find support from faculty, administrators and peers. To uphold her thesis, Bernal initiated a longitudinal study of the class of 1988 at: (1) Wells, one of the oldest women's colleges in the country; (2) Middlebury, a college which added women to become a co-educational facility; (3) William Smith, a coordinate women's college; and (4) Hamilton, an institution which ultimately absorbed its women college. By following approximately two hundred women and probing their attitudes, feelings, experiences and beliefs relative to their tenure at one of the four campuses mentioned above, she was able to dissect the dominant literature on co-education and render visible the complex subtext underlying much of the major research on women's colleges.
In order to grasp the subtleties of Bernal's well-crafted analysis, one must understand the context in which women's colleges developed at the turn of the last century. Many believed that higher education for women would necessarily result in protracted marriage and childbearing rates. The term "college habit" was coined to describe women's rising attendance rates, which threatened to undermine the stability of patriarchal society. Even in the early twentieth century women were not seen as obvious or rightful beneficiaries of post-secondary education. William Smith, then, was developed out of the desire to offer women "practical" skill training without feminizing or otherwise damaging the quality of male college experiences. Only in recent decades when women's roles became more accepted, recognized and mainstreamed, have women achieved any parity in postsecondary education. However, Bernal cautions the reader to acknowledge that separatism in this context can be used either for progressive or reactionary ends; in other words, the promotion of single-sex colleges can be seen either as a move to advance the causes of female liberation or to reify traditional social arrangements that benefit men exclusively.
The question of "natural" or realistic relations between the sexes arises numerous times in this book, specifically in response to the argument that men and women need to be educated separately, lest boys identify themselves as failures vis-à-vis women who can and often do outperform them. David Starr Jordan of Stanford University is one authority who quickly dilutes the potency of this contrived claim. The reality, unfortunately, is that in the most common co-education scenario women are admitted to male-centered institutions where they serve largely as controlled, but not controlling, factors in the development of curricular and extra-curricular programs. Therefore, women's needs go unmet while men are praised for their admission of, and lip service to, female students. Ultimately then, as Florence Howe makes clear, co-education has not created a real model of gender equality but has rather reinforced the dominance of men in postsecondary settings – allowing them to shape the experiences of women for better or worse.
The final portion of Bernal's book examines the results of her longitudinal study, with emphasis on women's retrospective views of their development as female students who were educated during a time of change and progress in the area of single-sex instruction. She finds that "getting in the door" of co-educational institutions was not per se the panacea for women's advancement for which many had hoped. Instead, a majority of women at schools like Middlebury were actively targeted for removal when the college considered ousting its female population altogether. Therefore, even though co-educational institutions vary in their effectiveness and treatment of women students, Bernal concludes that women's colleges provide uncompromising and unqualified support, which cannot be replicated or artificially created in a co-educational environment. She warns that unless more co-educational colleges and universities enact active outreach programs to preserve some characteristics of the women's colleges, a "typical chilly climate" may drive some women to fail who might otherwise have succeeded under different, more optimal conditions.
The struggle for equity, begun so valiantly in the twentieth century, continues today, despite our attempts to integrate the female population and raise the educational glass ceiling. To the question, "Should women embrace rather than reject the idea of single-sex education?" Leslie Bernal responds with a resounding, even convincing, "yes." Her own status as a Middlebury alumna and Professor of Sociology at Wells College only solidifies the apparent value of her observations.