How did a feminist, public-school-supporting, progressive woman with a Ph.D. wind up sending her son to a private Jewish high school that’s separated most of the day by gender—and love it?
Like most American Jews, I grew up in the heyday of public education: I was told there was nothing I couldn’t do; I was encouraged to enter traditionally “male” fields like science and computing; I was showered with the era’s “Free to Be You and Me” egalitarian spirit.
Of course, it wasn’t always so straightforward.
When I signed up for computer programming classes in 9th grade, I was the only girl in the class. I wondered why the teacher seemed so much quicker to call on my male peers than on me, and I blamed myself for not being energetic in class enough. Put in a special advanced math class in 8th grade (again, one of the few girls in the class), I was dismayed to find I soon fell behind. Reared on a steady diet of girl-power slogans, I blamed myself: Surely, with a little more effort, with greater go-get-’em spirit, I told myself, I’d do better.
If feminism was responsible for opening doors to studying advanced math and other “male” subjects, I wondered, was I letting feminism down by not getting straight A’s?
Steeped in the language of feminism, I felt that I’d failed the movement that had promised to liberate my generation. I wasn’t good at math or science. I preferred English and history, traditionally “female” subjects, I was told. But even in those classes, I failed to speak up as much as the boys in my classes. Boys held leadership positions in clubs and activities. Even when I left home for college, landing in an Ivy League school, boys’ voices dominated.
So it was with mixed feelings that I approached the search for schools for my own children. On the one hand, I still passionately believe in equality of the sexes. On the other, my own experiences in a supposedly-progressive, equal environment were anything but. Add to that, through the years, my family had embraced religious tradition, and my husband and I were confining our searches to the available pool of Orthodox Jewish schools, where I worried separating students by gender might mean lower expectations for girls. What was I to do?
We settled on a truly wonderful co-educational elementary school, where girls and boys are separated for only a few classes throughout their K-9 years. Even this degree of separation made some of my public-school-choosing friends raise their eyebrows.
“Isn’t your daughter being shortchanged?” I was asked. Watching her assert herself in her few gender-separated classes (prayer, Talmud, an advisory period where girls discuss issues such as self-esteem) I had to answer no: Those classes where she was with only girls seemed to be the areas in which she thrived the most.
Then came the big surprise: My son went on to the local Orthodox high school, where gender segregation is the norm all morning until the afternoon’s secular classes, where boys and girls finally mix. With so much time only with other boys, I wondered, would my son suffer? I worried he’d get an inflated sense of his own ego. I wondered if he’d still be able to relate to his female classmates with ease. Most of all, I wondered, what was the point?
Watching my son navigate his partly-gender-segregated school, I have to admit the single-sex classes encourage him and his classmates to thrive. With his male classmates, I notice discussions are higher energy, a little more raucous. When he tells me about his day, the difference is palpable: There’s a sparkle, a twinkle in his eye, and a giggle in his tone when he talks about his gender-segregated classes. He still enjoys his gender-mixed classes, but his tone is more decorous, a little less animated. At this stage in his life, when he’s still more kid than adult, I’m happy he has the space to be more high-energy, to be a little more wild, in all-boy classes.
One of my younger sons tells me his favorite teacher is the one who lets him stand during class, instead of conforming to expectations and sitting still. I see that my boys are, well, boys—high energy, a little potty-mouthed, a little silly. I’m happy when they can be themselves in school, and in our experience, that means being in gender-segregated classes.
My daughter is preparing for high school now. Whereas in the past I might have been afraid of sending her to all-female classes, now I’m looking forward to it. Studies by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development show that in the vast majority of single-sex schools, single-gender girls’ classes achieved significantly higher levels of achievement than co-ed classes. (The results were similar for boys.) A large majority of schools report fewer behavior problems in single-gender classes.
I was raised to see myself as a pioneer, the only girl in all-boy classes. When it comes to my own kids, I’m happy to reverse course: to embrace rigorous, single-gender classrooms where my kids can be themselves and thrive.