EXPLORING WOMEN’S EDUCATION: The Case for the Option

By Lydia Quarles

We all learn by experience, whether we care to admit it or not. And often mistakes make our best teachers. The United States made a mistake in the 1970s and 1980s when it mandated that all public educational institutions should provide educational opportunities for men and women.

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I am a woman of the Second Wave in women’s liberation; I came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s. As such, I wanted all barriers to women’s opportunities removed. I wanted the United States Service Academies to admit women. I wanted Virginia Military Academy to admit women. I wanted women to be able to do anything they wanted to do.

Some women wanted to receive an education focused on the education of women. I wanted that to be available, too. Like most women of the Second Wave, I wanted it all!

Women’s secondary education has a rich history in America. But what is it, exactly? Irene Harwarth, Mindi Maline and Elizabeth DeBra, experts on women’s college education, define women’s colleges as “colleges that identify themselves as having an institutional mission primarily related to promoting and expanding educational opportunities for women”. They go on to suggest that while most institutions of higher education in the U.S. currently have majority female enrollments, women’s colleges have predominantly female enrollments.

Mississippi University for Women, with around a 15% male enrollment, is such an institution. It has been in existence for 125 years and has been enrolling men for the last 28. Institutions with majority female enrollment cover most state supported and many private institutions in the 21st century. More women currently are attending college than men, and studies on future enrollment suggest that in the near future there will be even fewer men attending college while more women will continue to attend.

But even in institutions with majority female enrollments in Mississippi, such as Ole Miss and MSU, more than a majority of the positions of student leadership continue to be held by males, and more than a majority of faculty and staff leadership positions are also held by males. Even in the 21st century, social custom is strong. Particularly in the South, social customm is strong.

While I do not advocate women’s colleges for everyone – men or women, I do advocate the option. And I applaud Mississippi for its early initiatives in this arena.

There are essentially two types of women's colleges: public and private. Originally called "seminaries" when they were founded in the early 1800s, these colleges responded to the shortage of teachers all across the country as a result of the Civil War and to respond to limited employment opportunities for women, who had essentially no training for the world outside the home and yet were needed to function in a variety of occupational roles, again as a result of the Civil War.

Private institutions are exemplified by the "Seven Sisters": Mt. Holyoke (1837), Vassar (1865), Wellesley (1875), Smith College (1875), Radcliffe (1879), Bryn Mawr (1885), Barnard (1889). These were specifically developed as liberal arts colleges, to provide the opportunity for women to obtain a liberal arts education that was deprived them at most liberal arts institutions in America, public or private. While the Seven Sisters were located in the Northeast, the Southern states also felt a need to educate women, both white and black. Hence, Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Spelman College, in Atlanta, the only two surviving black women's colleges, a number of church affiliated colleges for women, and public schools for women, including Douglass College of Rutgers University, Texas Woman's University and Mississippi University for Women, which remain women's colleges today.

Mississippi University for Women was the first state supported college for women in the nation, opening its doors in 1884 and graduating its first class in 1889. Its mission, articulated by an act of the Mississippi Legislature on March 12, 1884: a dual purpose of providing a liberal arts education and preparing women for employment. In l982 the United States Supreme Court ordered the university to admit a male student to the nursing program. Thereafter the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning ordered the university to change its policies to allow the admission of qualified males into all university programs, probably anticipating additional lawsuits. However, in l988 the Board of Trustees reaffirmed the mission of MUW as an institution of quality academic programs for all qualified students with emphasis on distinctive opportunities for women. To date, it retains the feature of "women" in its name as well as its legislatively mandated women's mission.

But back to the mistakes that we learn from: the Second Wave busied itself in obtaining equality of opportunity for women in education, the professions and the trades, in politics and in avenues of social endeavor. At the same time, grounded in the legislation commenced by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent case law, the various branches of the federal government, in acting to ensure that women had the same opportunities as men, also ensured that men had the same opportunities as women.

Who would have thought that a man would want to attend the W to get a nursing degree? But apparently Joe Hogan did, although he only made it for a semester or two, and did not graduate. The lawsuit filed by Joe Hogan made history and is the basis for the forced admission of men into public colleges with women’s missions as well as females into colleges with men’s missions, such as Virginia Military Academy. In other words, in the world of public education, options for single-sex education no longer remain.

Except, the federal government has, albeit late, recognized that single-sex education can be an effective means of educating and motivating students who blossom in such an environment. Thus, regulations on Title IX have been amended to allow single-sex public education so long as there is a viable coeducational alternative. This decision, made by regulation, was the result of an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act. The amendment was sponsored by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) and former Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), among others, in 2001.

This amendment, supported in part by women who attended single-sex institutions, such as Secretary Clinton, directed the U. S. Department of Education to provide guidelines for single-sex schools and classrooms, creating flexibility for educators to offer single-sex classes, programs and extracurricular activities in public schools and other schools receiving federal support at elementary and secondary levels. Prior to this amendment in 2001, the U. S. Department of Education’s regulations (since 1975) prohibited single-sex classes and extracurricular activities in public and private coeducational schools, with very limited exceptions (physical education classes involving contact sports, sex education classes, etc.)

Numerous studies have indicated that girls and women enrolled in same-gender programs express themselves more confidently in the classroom and pursue more courses in mathematics and science than they do in coed environments. We continue to learn and explore educational initiatives. And we seek to be fair. But let’s also be honest. If some boys learn better in the company of boys, and some girls learn better in the company of girls, these students should be offered the opportunity to be their best. And the truth of the matter is that boys and girls -- young men and women -- do learn differently. Just ask Leonard Sax, one of the most fascinating educators of our lifetime, who has charted learning differences and how to respond to them.

The work of Leonard Sax was a moving force in the legislative initiative of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson and former Senator Hillary Clinton. His research should be utilized as the moving force for promoting opportunities for single-sex education, wherever they may be found. Single-sex traditions are a delightful and meaningful option -- purposeful, indeed. They should be protected.

Why has it taken a decade to consider the impact of the 2001 amendment on public colleges and universities? The federal government now acknowledges the importance of single-sex education in public school initiatives, provided there is available alternative coeducational opportunity. The Board of Trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning in Mississippi provide coeducational opportunities to almost all of the W’s curriculum choices. Nursing, yes. Culinary arts, yes. MUW offerings are available at several state universities, as well as many of our fine community colleges in this state.

As an attorney, I have occasionally wished for a “fantasy plaintiff” who would challenge the validity of the single-sex option in public university education – to readjust the W back to an exclusively women’s college – based on the rationale and application of the 2001 amendments to the No Child Left Behind Act. If primary and secondary single-sex schools receiving public (federal) funding can exist parallel with other educational options, why not colleges and universities? But I adore our “few good men” graduates and would not like to part with their contribution. I would want my fantasy plaintiff’s lawsuit to ensure the validity, viability and importance of the women’s mission in this most historic of all women’s colleges, Mississippi University for Women.

So let’s think about value. And options. And let’s focus on the strength of the single-sex educational opportunity for those students who learn best in that environment. Let’s not be the generation to abandon Mississippi’s historic commitment to the education of women. Particularly now that the federal government has reaffirmed the value of the single-sex educational option.


Lydia Quarles, MUW Class of 1971, is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Stennis Institute of Government at MSU and practices law with Knight Mozingo & Quarles, PLLP.