Gender equity in education still a thorny issue

PRINCETON, N.J. (U-WIRE) — Last week, Boston College professor Mary Daly took a leave of absence after the administration rejected her plan to prohibit men from taking her proposed feminist ethics course. Daly argues that BC deprived her of her right to teach freely. If men in the class were to openly disagree with her, Daly argued, the women would focus on nursing them, learning nothing about feminist ethics. But when BC insisted men be allowed in, Daly cancelled the course.
In a parallel but opposite event, Dartmouth College trustees recently announced their intention to ban single-sex fraternities and sororities on campus, citing the harmful impact of these organizations on college residential life. According to the trustees, when members of one sex congregate to the exclusion of the other sex, bad things tend to happen, such as excessive drinking, partying and generally unbecoming behavior.
It seems there are two schools of thought about gender-exclusive gatherings in higher education today. One view, seemingly rooted in the goal of educating, holds that it is beneficial, and even necessary, for men and women to be segregated in order to do their best learning. The other view, deriving from the vicissitudes of socializing, maintains that women and men, when sequestered, tend to become uncultivated and beast-like.
The debate over the pros and cons of single-sex congregating is not new. From early medieval times onward, monasteries and cloisters were founded on the notion that men and women lead holier and more learned lives if they renounce all commerce with the opposite sex. Presumably, in a gender-exclusive atmosphere, one is protected from any preoccupation with that handsome fellow or lovely lady across the table — leaving more energy for higher endeavors such as prayer or scholarship. Single-sex colleges, one can surmise, are still based on this idea.
Just as common is the idea that men and women need each other, not only to reproduce, but also to preserve moderation and balance. Women, especially, are traditionally thought to have a civilizing and worldly influence on men, sometimes for evil (as with Eve and the apple), sometimes for good (as with the medieval lady and her knight).
By respectively seeking to create gender-exclusive environments or to abolish them, Daly and the Dartmouth trustees are wrestling with the age-old “can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em” pickle. Upon closer inspection, there is a point of similarity in these diametrically opposed tactics: a gender-motivated sense of fear. Daly clearly fears the influence of men in her classroom. For her, BC’s decision to force her to include men was about “leveling the rights of women and minorities … while male power reigns,” she told The Boston Globe. And can there be any doubt that Dartmouth’s decision has been triggered not by a fear of sororities, but by the threat of unfettered masculinity lurking in fraternities?
Excesses are undoubtedly committed in single-sex atmospheres. But as Princeton’s experience shows, gender-exclusive partying has no monopoly on craziness. There is nothing destructive in all-male or all-female organizations; on the contrary, they offer a form of bonding that can often provide comfort and identity.
As for Daly, one can justifiably defend the merits of single-sex education. But BC is coeducational, and there are men who want to take Daly’s course. How useful can feminist ethics be if it requires the exclusion of men? Men comprise nearly half of the world’s population. They must be either part of the problem of sexism or part of the solution. Either way, excluding them from the dialogue is pointless. This belief in women’s powerlessness only perpetuates the sexism Daly professes to combat.

This opinions piece by Molly Robinson originally ran Thursday in the Daily Princetonian (Princeton University).