Girls in Independent Schools: ‘Equality of Access Is Not Enough’

By Lynn Olson — March 27, 1985 10 min read
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More than a decade has elapsed since some of the nation’s most prestigious independent schools began opening their ivy-covered gates to female students.

But today, with coeducation securely in place, many private-school leaders are saying that the admission of women has not necessarily meant their full incorporation into the academic program. And in both coeducational institutions and traditional girls’ schools, these educators say, the perspective of the curriculum is all too often predominantly male.

The admission of women “was meant to be the ultimate statement in equality,” said Lynda Beck, assistant principal of the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, at the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools this month. Unfortunately, she added, “nothing else changed.”

Push for Change

But now a growing number of independent-school teachers are saying that equality of access--what one calls “giving the girls what the boys have"--is not enough. They are speaking out against a curriculum they say does not recognize women’s roles or women’s needs and have started to push for change, introducing new topics and viewpoints and creating curriculum-reform committees to lock important shifts in place.

Why this surge of curriculum re-form is occurring at independent schools now--years after colleges have adopted and discarded women’s studies programs, and long after the high-water mark of modern feminism--is not entirely clear.

Some educators say that in part it is because independent schools were too busy merging and becoming coeducational during the height of the feminist movement to deal with anything but the most rudimentary questions about gender: who got which dorms, where to install the second set of bathrooms, how many men and women sat on the faculty.

For years, they say, the fact that girls might have different intellectual and emotional needs than boys was a subject too sensitive to discuss.

Historically, they add, many girls’ schools have not been oriented toward feminism, but have been more concerned with giving girls educational opportunity equal to boys’.

In addition, some teachers argue that while colleges have been moderately attuned to women’s issues for years, it has taken time for such changes to trickle down to elementary and secondary schools. Only recently, they say, have university scholars helped independent-school teachers understand the implications for teaching of new research findings on gender and sex-role issues.

Those findings, the educators say, have had a particularly strong resonance for today’s female teachers, many of whom are among the first generation of women to fully con-front the changing roles of women in society.

The work of women scholars with close ties to the independent-school community--such research-minded academics as Carol Gilligan at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Peggy McIntosh at Wellesley College, Frances A. Maher at Wheaton College, and Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich at the Union Graduate School in North Carolina--has contributed to the growing interest in women’s concerns at independent schools.

During the last four years, Ms. Gilligan, who is an associate professor of psychology, has conducted much of her research on independent-school campuses, primarily at the Emma Willard School for girls in New York. (See story on page 12.) On the basis of that research, she contends that there is a basic difference in the way men and women approach moral problems and the choice-making they involve.

In general, she says, women view moral concerns in terms of interpersonal relationships and responsibilities to others, while men tend to view them in terms of such abstract notions as justice and individual rights.

To teach girls effectively, Ms. Gilligan suggests, educators must present topics in a way that reflects and harmonizes these differing moral concerns.

Ms. McIntosh, program director of Wellesley’s Center for Research on Women, also advocates more academic attention to values tradition-ally described as female--such attributes as caring and a sense of community--and less emphasis on competition, mastery, and winning.

Five Evolutionary Phases

Typically, she suggests, a curriculum goes through five evolutionary phases in adapting to these so-called women’s issues.

These phases begin with what she calls a “womanless history,” then progress to the stage at which a handful of famous or notable women are included in traditional course matter. Next comes the consideration of women as victims of society and an exploration of why they have been excluded.

Then, the existence of separate women’s cultures is acknowledged and the lives and contributions of ordinary women are examined. Finally, the stage Ms. McIntosh calls “history redefined” is achieved--the recognition, she says, that history is a subject that can include women and other minorities on their own terms.

Incorporating the Ideas

The goal of reforming the curriculum to reflect the consciousness of women, she states, is to validate and record “the traditional work of women holding everything together behind the public scenes ... as something very constructive.” To do that, she argues, students need to spend less time learning about heroes and more time learning about the daily lives of ordinary people in different eras and places.

Last year, under a grant from the Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge Foundation, Ms. McIntosh began a women’s seminar for teachers from 20 public and private high schools in the New England area to help them incorporate those ideas into their schools’ academic programs. Eleven of the teachers in that seminar came from independent schools.

This year, the seminar is being repeated with 22 teachers from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, 15 of whom are from independent schools. Next year, Ms. McIntosh hopes to conduct the seminar again in the Baltimore and Philadelphia areas. “I hope that in the end we will be able to have a national program so that schools in all parts of the country will be involved,” she says.

Most of the independent schools participating in the seminars to date have been coeducational. To participate, teachers must agree to work for change in their own schools.

Rethinking Course Content

But course content--at the heart of real change, according to Ms. McIntosh--has often been the last area schools look at when considering gender issues, according to many women scholars.

Today, the picture is slowly changing. Some schools, such as the Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles and the coeducational Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey--have added electives on women’s studies to their course offerings. In others, teachers have been changing the content of traditional subjects by introducing new materials about women.

Last summer, for example, six English teachers at the Lincoln School for girls in Rhode Island conducted a curriculum-development project to identify more texts by and about women. As a result, they have made some changes in the reading lists for every English class in grades 6 through 12.

“We found that we wanted to introduce more contemporary women and a number of black women writers into the courses,” says Carolyn M. Peter, head of the English department. “But we also have been careful to include traditional books by women writers such as Willa Cather and Jane Austen. We didn’t try to bring about radical change.”

Women in History, Art

At the coeducational Buckingham Browne and Nichols School in Massachusetts, Linda S. Kaufman, who teaches history, says she has abandoned a textbook chapter on the rise of cities in her American history class. Instead, students read about the growth of the settlement-house movement under Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and Lillian Wald, and talk about the skills these women needed to run the settlement houses, at a time when most professions were closed to them.

And at the Dwight-Englewood School, Carole Neivert, a teacher of art history, says she has been trying to expand her classes to include women artists. But “the art-history textbooks available ignore women almost completely. The book I use has, if I’m not mistaken, seven illustrations of works of art by women artists out of a few hundred. There are a number of books written on women artists, but it requires a lot of footwork to dig up what you want to talk about, to prepare the slides.”

Shifting Perspectives

Teachers like Ms. Neivert are also approaching familiar material from a new perspective. Fran Scoble, chairman of the fine-arts department and a teacher of English at the coeducational Colorado Academy in Denver, says she now discusses “Romeo and Juliet” and The Scarlet Letter as offering examples of “women who became autonomous and lived with the consequences of their choices"--a perspective she would not have introduced 10 years ago.

In a way, she says, such illustrations show choice “as something essential to the maturing of women as individuals.”

Carole B. Shmurak, head of the science department at Connecticut’s Miss Porter’s School, says her teachers explain familiar scientific concepts with new examples. Instead of using the image of falling bombs to explain projectiles in physics, they talk about airlifting food to people caught in an avalanche.

Ms. Shmurak also tries, she says, to present science as a passionate and personal interest. Too often, she argues, teachers discuss science issues as cold and impersonal topics that do not appeal to females.

At the Westlake School for Girls, Headmaster Nathan O. Reynolds says that both content and focus have been shifted in a new, two-year course on Western civilization. It emphasizes the history of art and music and the development of ethics and morals, rather than the progression of wars and economies, he notes.

“I think all of us felt, as we worked with the curriculum and tried to make it capture and cultivate the imagination of our students, that there is a certain way of approaching history to which young women seem to respond much more readily,” Mr. Reynolds says. “And I don’t just mean with more interest. They seem to be able to reason and to think about certain subjects in a way that is very meaningful and very moving for them.”

One of the most visible signs that women’s concerns are alive and well on independent-school campuses is the current proliferation of women’s study groups and committees.

Women’s Study Groups

About a year ago, for instance, Rhode Island’s Lincoln School formed an interdepartmental women’s study group, which meets monthly and is open to everyone in the school. At one time or another, says the school’s Ms. Peter, the group has included half the faculty.

About four years ago, the coeducational Millbrook School in New York began a women’s issues committee whose general mission was to look at the quality of life for women on campus, says Rita V. McBride, chairman of the committee and a teacher of history.

“We talked about issues having to do with housing, with women’s teams here at the school--a lot of issues that had been underground were brought to the surface and discussed,” she says. Now the committee is focusing on curriculum research and its implications for women.

At the coeducational Wheeler in Rhode Island, a newly formed “committee on a balanced curriculum,” which includes representatives from each academic department, is spurring teachers to reevaluate their course content, says Priscilla Wolff, chairman of the committee and an English teacherat the school. In April, the group plans to pull together each department’s recommendations and decide on the next step.

And at Connecticut’s Miss Porter’s School, the faculty has just completed a review of the entire curriculum to see whether it is sensitive enough to women’s issues and the needs of students.

Fighting Tradition

Advocates for change are confronting a long tradition of “excellence” in schools that is based on a male role model, says Barbara F. Stock, director of academic services for the nais “That’s very difficult stuff. I think there are some settings where it will take longer than others for people to understand that we aren’t talking about less quality.”

“I’m not sure it’s all misogyny,” she adds. “When you get right down to who’s to say what you’re going to get rid of--the question that’s always present when you change the curriculum--that’s hard. And I think we have to be very thoughtful about that.”

Just how far schools have to go is suggested by Sandra Guylay, a senior at the coeducational Hotchkiss School in Connecticut.

“Sometimes, I feel Hotchkiss is really a male school still,” she says, “but they have made a very conscious effort not to treat the girls differently or pamper them. I would rather have that than be treated differently, because different at Hotchkiss can also mean inferior.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 1985 edition of Education Week as Girls in Independent Schools: ‘Equality of Access Is Not Enough’


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