GENDER SEGREGATION AND SEXISM. Becks of Unfogged is appalled that the ACLU and a feminist group are threatening to sue over a federal decision to permit more single-sex public education. I think the issue is a little more complex, however. I do agree with Becks that the equation of gender and racial segregation by Nancy Zirkin is excessively simplistic, and probably the former is somewhat more defensible than the latter when education is concerned. Current Supreme Court jurisprudence would seem to agree. In her landmark opinion ruling Virginia's exclusion of women from the Virginia Military Institute, Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that "[s]ingle sex education affords pedagogical benefits to at least some students, Virginia emphasizes, and that reality is uncontested in this litigation," and implied that if Virginia offered a school for women comparable to VMI, its exclusion of women from VMI itself would be defensible.
However, the VMI case also suggests that there is serious cause for concern. Virginia lost the case because the alternative school offered by the state was not only inferior in terms of credentials, the scope of degrees offered, and other academic credentials, but also didn't provide the "adversative" method used by VMI. In other words, Virginia excluded women from a particular form of education based on gender stereotypes, and offered a watered-down, academically inferior alternative. The women excluded from VMI were right to litigate, and the Court was right uphold their claims. So while I think that the constitutionality of the new federal rules will depend on the facts of their implementation, at the very least I hope that feminist groups will be vigilant: there is significant room within single-sex education for sexist assumptions about what women can accomplish. Given the Bush administration's attitude toward Title IX (also see here), and the kind of people it's appointing to the Supreme Court, I'm rather less sanguine about its motives than Becks.