Reform or Retrenchment? Single Sex Education and the Construction of Race and Gender

70 Pages Posted: 27 Oct 2003

See all articles by Verna L. Williams

Verna L. Williams

University of Cincinnati - College of Law


As parents, policymakers, and educators search for solutions to the crisis in the nation's public schools, single sex education emerges time and again as a promising strategy, particularly for African American students. As the abstract indicates, the Bush Administration has indicated its support for sex segregation and announced its intention to loosen the applicable legal standards to enable school districts to experiment with single sex schools and classes. This paper argues that, in order to comprehend fully the implications of single sex schooling in inner city schools, examining the history of sex-based and race-based segregation in education is essential.

History demonstrates that sex and racial segregation in education has supported gender and hierarchies and the attendant subordination of African Americans and white women. For example, when public education became available for Blacks, its primary purpose was to prepare males and females alike to work. To the extent that gender-based educational opportunities were available, they were to train Black women for the social roles relegated to them - as domestics, for example - and to compensate for their perceived moral shortcomings. For white students, sex segregated education was key to perpetuating the cult of true womanhood, which, in turn defined and privileged white masculinity and white femininity. Thus, state-established schools for "white girls" prepared their charges to take their rightful places as keeper of home and hearth. The lasting nature of the sex- and race-based stereotypes underlying these forms of education were particularly apparent during the effort to racially desegregate schools in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In this context, recalcitrant southern school districts resorted to sex segregation as a way to "dull the edge" of integration.

With this history, the paper examines current efforts to segregate students based on sex, which reveals the intransigence of the racial and gender stereotypes, and the limitations they impose on students' educational opportunities. The paper thus argues that critical examination of single sex schooling, considering the intersection of race and gender, at a minimum, is necessary to ensure that current efforts do not perpetuate subordination of already under-served students.

Keywords: Discrimination, Segregation, Single Sex Education, Title IX

JEL Classification: K40

Suggested Citation

Williams, Verna L., Reform or Retrenchment? Single Sex Education and the Construction of Race and Gender. Available at SSRN: or

Verna L. Williams (Contact Author)

University of Cincinnati - College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 210040
Cincinnati, OH 45221-0040
United States
513-556-1220 (Phone)
513-556-1236 (Fax)

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