gender in a vacuum?

Linda Purrington (
Tue, 21 Apr 1998 22:24:58 -0700

Well, no--it isn't possible to discuss single-sex schools, or gender at
all in a vacuum. Everything you say or think about gender roles is
embedded in history and society. Yes, we are all more or less committed
to equity; obviously, part of society is less committed, because we do
in fact have entrenched inequity. But let's say we here in this
cyberlivingroom, are all committed to equity for both boys and girls;
and I am quite sure that is true. The children in our families are all
dear to us, and we wish the best for them, including at school, and in
life--regardless of what gender they are. But we are here under a
cyberumbrella called edequity precisely because we have a sharp or
perhaps just vague sense that something has been and is inequitable. And
that something inequitable didn't just stop yesterday and leave us with
children who have no separate history, and who are indistinguishable
from each other except that each has a little nametag marked M or F,
assigned by computer generation of random numbers.
Because if that were the case--if that was what we had before us, and
we were to work out not a personal anecdote, but a public policy that
might be defended before a world court 100 years from now, as well as
defended before the U.S. Supreme Court 10 years from now--we would not
have a reason to discuss anything. So we must think that for some reason
there is a difference between boys and girls that affects their ability
to learn in each other's presence. Is that what we think? That somehow
boys and girls intrinsically just can't concentrate in each others
presence? Hormones get in the way? And before and after things are
exactly equal? Or equitable (someone should define equity and equality
again, it is a crucial distinction, like the distinction between sex and
Let's think it through a bit from another point of view. Could we
posit the same classroom, now separated into whites and blacks. Now,
remember, the B and W on each child's name tags have been assigned
randomly. Do you think there is any reason why those children should
learn in separate classroooms? Well, if you have uncontrolled racism
toward blacks, yes, you as a black mother might well want your child in
another classroom. The key is the word "uncontrolled": what we need to
pledge ourselves to over and over, is to control our classroooms. To make
them safe for black and white child alike; for girl and boy alike. That
levels the playing ground for learning and education. To do that we will
need to take history and society into consideration. Racism and sexism do
not spring up in a vacuum, and we cannot construct a public policy for
our children's children without reckoning with them.
We also can't do without stats and evidence. Anecdotes are nice, but
they are not enough. Statistics can of course be twisted; but there is a
point at which an educated person can say, OK, I know enough to make a
decision, although of course I will keep my mind open to new evidence as
it comes in.
And here's an anecdote, because we all love anecdotes--they are so much
more alive than stats, which are like bran cereal: I went to a
single-sex high school too, and I loved it; it saved me from fibbing in
class about knowing the answers (the boys weren't fond of smart girls
then--or now). But I would have been happier yet if I could have gone to
a coed school and been valued for who I was. There's a reason why it
makes you happy to separate the social scene from the intellectual
scene--it's because the social status of women is tangled up by sexism,
and it is painful to learn that at the same time you are learning you
have feelings for the opposite sex. It is so devastating, to find that
the very object of potential love thinks girls are dumb--and prefers
them that way. I think that is a very good appeal to the friendly men
who are our potential allies--you matter to us, and the way our sons
grow up matters to us--we want the education system to raise men whom we
could reasonably love, and whom we could feel happy about our daughters'
loving. In a coed school we can confront the sexism and begin to work
out ways of dealing with it; and we can deal with inequities as they
arise. And it is more likely that the funds for the library will be
equal, because it will be the same library.

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