Going Coed: Women’s Experiences in Formerly Men’s Colleges and Universities, 1950-2000
reviewed by Thalia M. Mulvihill - 2005
Title: Going Coed: Women’s Experiences in Formerly Men’s Colleges and Universities, 1950-2000
Author(s): Leslie Miller-Bernal and Susan L. Poulson (Editors)
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville
ISBN: 0826514499, Pages: 338, Year: 2004
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Debates regarding the best forms and functions of education for girls and women over the last 200 years have often been tempered by medical, economic, legal, political, and religious ideologies. One of the larger issues at stake in all such conversations, regardless of the time period, is that of equality, and more particularly what constitutes equal educational opportunity within a pluralistic democracy. These debates reveal the great range of positions that exist regarding what constitutes equality and equity when applied to educational questions.
Leslie Miller-Bernal and Susan L. Poulson, the editors of Going Coed, a collection of case studies, bring into better focus one part of the larger story about educational equality that has previously been scattered. As they examine the still-unfolding understanding of coeducation, including how and why institutions of higher education respond to notions of equality, they have allowed for better comparisons across type, region, and institutional mission. Miller-Bernal and Poulson are in the company of other notable scholars such as Patricia Graham (1978), Florence Howe (1984), Carol Lasser (1987), Geraldine Clifford (1989), Lynn D. Gordon (1990), Christine A. Ogren (1995), and Andrea Walton (2002) who have each added important aspects to what we collectively know about coeducation.
Using a combination of historical and sociological methods, Miller-Bernal and Poulson have deepened the dialogue around the topic of coeducation. Conceptually there is still a struggle with what is meant by coeducation, and many significant epistemological arguments about it exist. The book is organized into 2 historical overview chapters, 10 case study chapters, presented as compelling stories, and a concluding chapter, each helping to bring further meaning to ideas such as equal educational opportunity, equitable educational experiences, and coeducation and their relationship to one another. Miller-Bernal clearly reminds the reader that coeducation cannot be assumed to be the same as equal education (p. 14); for example, coeducation did not necessarily bring educational equity for men and women. Physical access to an institution did not mean that the women were represented in positions of power, that policies were changed to reflect a more diverse constituency, or even that they were nominally accepted as equals (p. ix).
The editors expertly arrange the empirical data to provide an overview of the conditions affecting coeducation and the resultant outcomes. They have been very thorough in collecting and analyzing the great array of studies related to coeducation as a backdrop in order to enhance our understanding of a specific time period (19502000) and of a particular group of male institutions that decided to become coeducational within this time frame.
In addition to the editors, who both have strong track records in developing and disseminating important scholarship, the other nine contributing authors (Regina Deil-Amen, Diane Diamond, Mary Frances Donley Forcier, Loretta Higgins, Elizabeth L. Ihle, Michael Kimmel, Christine Lundt, Susan Gunn Pevar, and Marcia Synnott) are noteworthy as well. They represent a mix of established scholars and new academics, each adding remarkably detailed accounts of select institutions that make a better and more sophisticated macroanalysis possible.
Readers may find of particular interest the attention paid to coordinate arrangements, historically Black institutions, Catholic-affiliated institutions, military institutions, and community colleges. For example, Going Coed brings us into the stories of such institutions as the University of Rochester, Lincoln University, Yale University, Princeton University, Dartmouth College, Lehigh University, the University of Virginia, Boston College, Georgetown University, Rutgers University/Douglass College, Hamilton College/Kirkland College, the United States Military Academy at West Point, and Virginia Military Institute.
A good case study aids in the understanding of a complex issue by analyzing claims and evidence from multiple positions. Each of the carefully selected case studies in Going Coed does just that. They remind us of the great and enduring diversity of institutional type within higher education in the United States and the complexity of the theoretical positions taken up by educators, students, legislators, and the general public. They also serve as testimonies to how often decisions regarding educational communities are guided by economic-survival strategies that remain conspicuously absent from larger theoretical considerations about constructing educational environments that value equality.
Going Coed is essential reading for all interested in educational arrangements that produce equal opportunities for all students, faculty, and administrators associated with higher education. The book significantly adds to our growing understanding of the complexities of coeducation. By providing in-depth case studies from which we can decipher the lived experience of those involved in different versions of coeducation, it fills a previous gap in our overall knowledge. I would recommend that university courses that deal with issues related to educational equality, the history of higher education, women and gender issues in education, and/or the broader topic of post-1945 American history consider this book as a central text. It is likely that students and scholars studying these areas will find Going Coed an often-cited text for many years to come.
As I conclude this review, Wells College (founded as a single-sex institution in 1868) is undergoing its most revolutionary transformation in its 136-year history. The board of trustees at Wells, clearly for financial reasons, has decided to exchange the institutions single-sex educational environment for that of a coeducational institution. I imagine that Miller-Bernal, as a professor of sociology at Wells College and the coeditor of Going Coed, will be watching closely as these events unfold. In her previous work, Separate by Degree: Women Students Experiences in Womens and Coeducational Colleges (2000), Miller-Bernal examined four institutions, one of which was Wells College. At that time she concluded that womens colleges provided advantages to women that could not be reproduced within coeducational environments. The story is still developing. In essence, we still have unexamined questions regarding the nature of equality as it emerges within different educational arrangements with different societal, political, economic, and cultural power bases at work. An understanding of how power is constituted within educational environments will continue to influence how we shape the next questions of consequence and how we choose to respond. No doubt we will need the continuation of the fine scholarship in this book that will result when Miller-Bernal and Poulson team up to further examine the critical questions surrounding ideas about coeducation post-2000.
Clifford, G. J. (Ed). (1989). Lone voyagers: Academic women in coeducational institutions, 18701937. New York: Feminist Press.
Gordon, L. D. (1990). Gender and higher education in the progressive era. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Graham, P. A. (1978). Expansion and exclusion: A history of women in American higher education. Signs, 3, 759773.
Howe, F. (1984). Myths of coeducation: Selected essays, 19641983. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Lasser, C. (Ed.). (1987). Educating men and women together: Coeducation in a changing world. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Miller-Bernal, L. (2000). Separate by degree: Women students experiences in womens and coeducational colleges. New York: Lang.
Ogren, C. A. (1995). Where coeds were coeducated: Normal schools in Wisconsin, 18701920. History of Education Quarterly, 35(1), 126.
Walton, A. (2002). The dynamics of mission and market: Debates over coeducation at Columbia University in 1889 and 1983. History of Education, 31(6), 589610.