Recently, I came across an article raving about the new advertising campaign for Mercy Academy, a girls’ Catholic school in Kentucky. The campaign is powerful in all its anti-Disney glory. “You’re not a princess,” it reminds girls, “but you can still rule the world.” Another reads “Don’t wait for a prince. Be able to rescue yourself. (Prepare for real life.)”
As a feminist (duh!) who hopes to one day raise daughters (and sons!) who fight for equality in every way, I’m super about these ads. They market an image of women as independent, strong human beings who need to learn the same skills that boys/men learn (like science, math, engineering, life skills, etc.).
(As an aside, I was just recently having a conversation with an aunt-in-law who’s in her 60s about the disparity between what she learned as a child and what boys are taught—besides just the formal educational disparities, there are the basic things. How many girls/women are taught to change a tire, change their oil, fix a leaky pipe, use tools, chop wood? [How many boys, on the other hand, are taught to iron, clean, and cook? In my experience, not many—although in my house, most of the cleaning and cooking is done by my fiancé!] My aunt—who is an extremely independent and progressive artist—related a story about how she had to call her ex-husband for help removing the ice on her roof the winter after he’d moved out, because she had no idea how to do it. In many cases it’s always just assumed that women will have a man in their life to do these things.)
That’s why, when I hear the tagline “be able to rescue yourself,” I’m pumped. I’m all for girls being encouraged in the direction of whatever it is at which they excel, be it art, technology, science, athletics, etc. And I love the idea that these girls are being prepared for a future that may or may not include a man—and either way, they’ll be successful.
All of that is, of course, fantastic.
But this “rebranding” of girls’ education is just that—marketing. Besides the fact that this is a Catholic high school (a faith that still does not allow women to hold its highest offices), the very idea of a “girls’ school” has a problematic history. Since the late 1700s, when public girls’ schools became more common, they were separated from boys because it was assumed hat what they were taught should be fundamentally different from what boys were taught. Girls’ schools focused on faith, etiquette, and home economics (a fancy name for cooking and sewing); in many instances, women were taught to read, in order to ensure they could participate in faith-based activities, but not write—literally robbing them of their authority. Even in the 1940s and 50s, when my grandmother went to college, it was assumed that women would be housewives, and their “liberal arts” education just served to make them more well-rounded mothers. (When my grandmother went to school for nursing, it was considered somewhat ridiculous for an upper-class white woman to be so career-focused.)
Today, a gender gap still exists—while women have made great strides, making up 57% of college students and improving math and science statistics by leaps and bounds—boys are actually falling behind in some of the more “feminine” subjects such as reading. And still today, women are much less likely to pursue careers in highly competitive fields such as engineering, and medicine (possibly because of the conflicts between these high-pressure industries and the demands of motherhood).
It’s interesting to me that sexual discrimination persists in schooling, down to the way that students are treated in class, the courses that they are encouraged to take, and how seriously they consider college. Studies show that time and time again, sex differences in intelligence and capability emerge only in secondary school—and many psychologists point to socialization as opposed to inherent differences as the culprit. This socialization occurs both within the school and at home, through the positive encouragement received by family members, toys purchased for the child, media messages, etc.
I recognize and appreciate these modern girls’ schools as safe spaces where girls can focus on their education without the distractions of boys, dating, and sex, and in the case of Mercy Academy, even fashion and status symbols (they wear uniforms). I love that education for young women has made a step in the right direction, embracing all forms of female success. However, I worry that by separating young men and young women in these formative years, we might be doing them an educational and social disservice.
Logically, it seems probable that these schools may produce women who are sheltered and unaware of real-world sexism. Maybe that’s a good thing—if they are unaware of gender norms, they can’t possibly adhere to them—but it also may create naive women who are uneducated about gender and sexual violence, harassment, etc. I—and I’m sure many other women—had my first experiences with sexual harassment and sexual expectations in high school, and it changed the way I viewed my own gender identity immensely. I wonder about the effect that the postponement of this experience might have on young girls.
Additionally, by taking these bright, talented, independent young women out of co-ed schools, we’re robbing young men of the knowledge that, yes, a girl can be good at math, and yes, a girl might be able to run faster than you. (It’s important to remember, also, that many of these “progressive” girls’ schools are pricey private schools—so where does that leave lower-class girls?)
If these schools really want to focus on preparing girls (and boys) for the “real world,” it seems an equality-focused, co-ed model would be the best. I’d love to see more schools, both public and private, advocate for teacher and guidance counselor training that promotes the ideals spouted by Mercy’s video above. We need more open, safe educational spaces, with opportunities for all types of careers and lifestyles discussed, for all genders. All children should be taking science, all children should be taking reading, all children should be taking home ec, and all children should be taking sexual violence prevention programs. We need to eliminate the idea that there is some inherent gender difference in the way that young children learn, and remember that the best way to get a society of forward-thinking, equality-focused young people is to teach them that way.
Alecia Lynn Eberhardt is a logophile and a library bandit wanted in several states. In addition to feminist rants, she also writes essays, short stories, bad poetry, recipes and very detailed to-do lists. She currently resides in a little blue cabin in Woodstock with one fiancé, one Dachshund and one pleasantly plump cat. Find her tweeting @alecialynn.