[Single] Sex Education: Learning with Vaginas

by ursavoice

Ginger Grimes
J.D. Candidate 2015, UCI Law

“How did you survive without boys?”

I roll my eyes to this seemingly obligatory response whenever I announce that I went to an all-girls school, as though there’s no conceivable way I could have learned how to be a functioning human being without significant levels of testosterone in my learning environment.

“Um, actually, I loved it.”

“Really? Where did you meet boys?”

Like any young feminist, I resented the implication that high school is really about learning to groom yourself into a suitable mate. But I realized that the response uncovered, albeit unknowingly, something more—single-sex education is about more than academics.

Wait, education isn’t about academics?

Scientific studies on single-sex education search for, and find, a “lack of academic benefit” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/23/education/23single.html?_r=2). But more than that, single-sex educations, they say, are “ineffective, misguided and may actually increase gender stereotyping” (NY Times Article). (Let’s note that the rhetoric surrounding single-sex education rarely distinguishes between sex and gender—now let’s move on because that’s a slightly different issue.)

My experience proved the contrary. My all-girls education challenged patriarchal notions of success that often seek cutthroat competition and individual aptitude over team building. My all-girls education provided a supportive environment where I could ask questions without being afraid of judgment, play sports without being “one of the guys,” run for leadership positions without feeling like losing equated to worthlessness, and surround myself with strong, opinionated, charismatic girls. I believe that an all-girls environment fostered respect, encouragement, teamwork, and communication: qualities that often seem antithetical to academic and business success. I instead learned to question those values and define success in other ways. I do not believe that a single-sex education “forces gender-stereotyping,” but allows girls to explore what they value in their journey to becoming a successful woman.

My nine years of single-sex education challenged, not reinforced, the stereotypes I would face upon high school graduation. Even at my very liberal, liberal-arts college, I encountered surprise from my co-ed colleagues when they found out I was good at math, athletics, telling jokes, or verbally participating in class. I encountered women who internalized the self–monitoring, unreachably-high standards of [white] “beauty” and doubt plaguing our society’s erroneous image of what it means to be a woman (Am I right? Should I answer? What if my answer is wrong? What will my peers think? Will the professor think I’m stupid?). I saw women respectfully raising their hands in the back of the classroom while men spoke out loud (which speaks to the approaches many men and women take to learning rather than the strength of their ideas). I saw women showing up to class in perfectly curled eyelashes and freshly washed hair, glancing at the men in class while I instead read over my notes and prepared to answer questions in class. I couldn’t empathize with the women who cared more about how they appeared than the environment, social inequities, sustainability, creativity, or academic ambition.

I recognize at least some of the many gaping flaws in my irrational love for my single-sex education. I went to a very small, private school in the ethnically and culturally diverse setting of Hawai’i (my school was founded by Queen Emma, married to King Kamehameha IV), and those privileges contributed significantly to my experience. But I still believe that single-sex education has a unique ability to challenge the existing structures of success and call into question what it means to strive for “equality.”

I find many parallels between my single-sex education and my current one. I’m thrilled that I came to an open, supportive culture at UCI Law, an example of the way education can challenge and reshape conventional notions of success. I hope that in our remaining two and a half years, the class of 2015 can continue the tradition of risk-taking and commitment to our community that the classes above have laid out for us.