Feminist Voices in the Debate Over Single-Sex Schooling: Finding Common Ground

Posted: 1 Jun 2004


This article examines the deep divide within the ranks of women's advocates on the question of publicly funded single-sex schooling. Over the past decade, as this approach has gained renewed appeal especially among urban educators and minority students and parents, it has generated heated debate in academic, legal, and policy circles. The most vocal and visible opposition has come from organized women's groups, although the American Civil Liberties Union also has played a key role in litigation and administrative enforcement efforts. What may appear on the surface as the "feminist" position, however, is neither unified nor is it clearly articulated in its full range. Numerous individuals including dissenters within these same organizations, some of them graduates of women's schools and colleges, have supported single-sex programs. These disagreements and uncertainties within feminism, broadly defined, ironically hold within them a wealth of insights that are crucial to making the connection between what is legally permissible and what is pedagogically sound. That connection has become most critical in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Virginia striking down the all-male admissions policy at the state-supported Virginia Military Institute. The implications of that decision for public schooling have yet to be resolved. The link between law and educational practice also has become more immediate in view of recent Department of Education proposals under Title IX that would provide local educators with flexibility in establishing single-sex schools and classes. These proposals have proven highly contentious. In that regard, this article proposes a constructive and crucial role for feminist understandings as single-sex schooling inches its way toward legal certainty and into the mainstream of educational reform. In doing so, it examines how competing perspectives on women's equality and especially disputes over sameness, difference, dominance and essentialism, set against the historical backdrop of exclusion, have shaped the current single-sex debate and brought it to an impasse. It looks to Justice Ginsburg's opinion for the Court in Virginia as a roadmap for feminists to follow in reaching common ground, despite ideological differences, to assure that these programs become tools of empowerment as they promise. In the end, it urges feminists to join in meaningful dialogue among themselves and with others, helping educators to establish realistic and socially relevant goals, and infusing institutional values and practices with core feminist perspectives on gender equality.

Keywords: Education, Single-Sex Schooling, Sex Discrimination, Constitutional Law

JEL Classification: I21, I22

Suggested Citation

Salomone, Rosemary C., Feminist Voices in the Debate Over Single-Sex Schooling: Finding Common Ground. St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=552421

Rosemary C. Salomone (Contact Author)

St. John's University - School of Law ( email )

8000 Utopia Parkway
Jamaica, NY 11439
United States
718-990-6622 (Phone)

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