Are we ‘over’ single-gender institutions?
By Maeve Rose Browne & Julia Rittenberg
Since we both experienced single-gender institutions as part of growing up, we’re taking the time to question the continuation of these institutions and how to make them more inclusive.
Single-gender institutions are sort of a misnomer these days. With the diversity of gender identity, various all-girls or all-boys schools have had to come up with policies in order to include transgender and non-binary students in their communities.
A notable example in New York City were the elite private schools Brearley and the Spence School. Students who come out as transgender or non-binary are explicitely allowed to stay at the schools, and they have affirmed their commitment to supporting students experiencing those changes.
While all-girls education (or girls education that has turned to be more gender inclusive) continues to be a contentious issue, all-male spaces persist, whether by rule or by custom. All-male social clubs (or gentlemen’s clubs, as some prefer to be called) still operate all over the United States. There are many offices and professions that end up with all men because of giving jobs to friends, who are all men. One of the critiques against all-girls schools is that they shield young girls from the reality of the mixed gender world. However, this criticism cannot hold water when men so aggressively cloak themselves away from women and transgender and non-binary people.
As these institutions modernize and work toward broader acceptance of gender identity, those of us who have benefitted from these institutions still see a reason for their existence. As we’ve both had experiences with all-girls institutions, we wanted to reflect on the benefits and areas for growth that we see in their future.
The launch of my experience with an all-girls school began in 2007 when I was enrolled in Kindergarten at PS 199, a local New York City public school. Although I had about 200 kids in my grade, I naturally stood out. I was one year younger than my fellow peers and about five inches shorter than the smallest person. I hid behind my long, red bangs, occasionally peering out to see the world. I never participated in classes and endured bullying from students (like being shoved against a brick wall, which still has my blood mark to this day).
It was a pediatrician who first gave my parents the idea of an all-girls education: it was a source of hope that someone shy like me could one day raise her hand as opposed to crouching when the teacher asked a question. I was fortunate enough to be able to do a series of interviews with many of the private, all-girls schools on the Upper East Side. I was accepted into one school, and although it doesn’t have the same reputation as Brearley or Spence, it was the perfect place for me.
I repeated Kindergarten in 2008 and stayed until senior year. When I mention to people that I’ve grown up with the same 40 or so girls for the past 13 years, they assume many things — the frontrunner being competition. Much of the media has shown an all-girls education to be full of envy and rigor. These are institutions where girls stress each other out with their designer jackets and catty attitudes. And although the fashion part is pretty accurate, the other isn’t. I don’t think I’d ever label my all-girls education any more competitive to my experiences in the public school system. The pressures may be different, but both are still there.
All of the stress and anxiety is always present, as being a teenager is stress and anxiety provoking. But I was fortunate to be able to attend a school where much of that was relieved due to the fact that my grade and I became one big group of sisters. Of course we fight, and we get irritated with one another. But at the end of the day, I know that all 39 of my peers do care for me.
A single sex education isn’t just about discarding distractions or high amounts of pressure. They are places where you form bonds with those around you. I have a deep respect for my school, but I will continue to hold them accountable for certain decisions. Because I am already in a position of privilege, I am not one to say whether or not my experience is universal. However I hope that in the future more students will be able to take advantage of the opportunities this school has to offer.
We are both hopeful for a future of all-girls education that is more inclusive of marginalized identities. At the Hewitt School, they have started to embrace a more race-inclusive education from kindergarten onward that will raise more accepting students overall. We hope diversity becomes the norm instead of spectacle.
Although we both moved on to mixed-gender institutions, we both treasure our time in the all-girls space and want these spaces to be more accepting and inclusive in general.
We researched the recent news stories about single-gender institutions (especially ones that prioritize girls and femmes) to see if there had been any major changes. We found that a few schools were changing with the times in terms of gender inclusivity for nonbinary and genderfluid students, but many of them are still behind in terms of socioeconomic diversity. We eventually agreed that spaces that prioritize girls and femmes are valuable to helping them develop voices outside of patriarchal constraints.
Maeve Browne is a current senior in high school in New York. She is new to the Girls Write Now community, but has learned a lot from her mentor and the programming. She is interested in photography and hopes to go into a career in public health communications.
Julia Rittenberg is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. She writes for various publications about business, tech, and the publishing industry. Her favorite topic to write about is comics and graphic novels.