Ten years ago, on October 2, 2004, Wells College, a tiny, women’s liberal arts college in rural New York State, announced its decision to become coed. Frustrated and angry, many Wells Women — myself included — protested by holding a sit-in at the main academic building in hopes of compelling the college board of trustees to reverse its decision. We refused to leave. We slept in our classrooms; we chanted and sang; we lined up from one end of the building to the other, arm-in-arm, our mouths gagged with black fabric to symbolize how we had been silenced by the Wells administration.
The decision and resulting protests sparked debate in both the surrounding communities and within the student body. The women students who staged the protests were alternately portrayed as petulant girls and righteous feminists in the media. Within the college, there was friction between students and faculty who supported the decision and those who protested it. Debates about gender and women’s rights were as commonplace in the dining hall as the classroom. Was it feminist or antifeminist that we wanted a space reserved for women only? Did women actually learn differently, or was that belief based on stereotypes? What about transwomen, and those not conforming to gender norms — should they be welcomed at the college? Did the protests privilege the voices of white women over those of women of color? It was as if the college’s decision to admit men had captured and dragged to the surface underlying anxieties about feminism.
The merits of single-sex education have been debated for centuries, often serving as a stand-in for Americans to discuss other issues such as feminism, the place of politics in the classroom, and issues of gender and sexuality. In the nineteenth century, as women’s colleges attempted to extend to women the same level of education available to men, health professionals expressed concern that strenuous education overtaxed women’s bodies. In reality, the fear that women would be made ill by their studies had less to do with women’s education and more to do with concerns about the changing roles of women in American society. Harvard professor and physician Dr. Edward Clarke, in his 1873 Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls, did not question whether women could learn, but rather whether they could receive a rigorous education “and retain uninjured health and a future secure from neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements of the nervous system.”  The problem, Clarke believed, lay in women’s menstrual cycle, which many physicians believed drained women’s bodies of vital energies. Pursuing academic work while menstruating had the potential to make women ill. To avoid such criticism, many women’s colleges asserted control over their students’ bodies, enforcing firm schedules that provided a balance of rest and study. Daily activities often included exercise, long walks, periods of quiet repose, and frequent chapel services, along with academic classes.  Other feminist physicians and educators rejected the idea that women’s bodies required less rigorous study. In her rebuttal to Clarke, physician M. Putnam Jacobi argued that menstruating women required no more rest than anyone else.  While bolstering their claims for women’s education, these arguments also had the potential to undermine the case for women-only institutions. If women did not require accommodations in order to learn, why were single-sex institutions necessary?
In the twentieth century, the public’s concern about women in single-sex education turned away from health and toward sexuality. Women’s colleges had long provided a space for powerful female relationships, often through smashing, a form of courting between women. Women- only spaces gave women the freedom to establish strong relationships, both sexual and platonic, with other women. While smashing was initially seen as harmless, as more and more traditionally single-sex colleges became coeducational, women’s colleges, and the strong bonds between their students, began to seem abnormal. As a result, the 1920s and 1930s saw a surge in literature featuring lurid lesbian relationships at single-sex institutions, including the well-known play The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman, sparking a wave of concern that women’s colleges were incubators of lesbianism.  During the women’s liberation movement, when many women’s colleges became centers for feminist thinking and scholarship, concern that these campuses were breeding grounds for the twin menaces of lesbianism and feminism intensified.
The debate is far from settled today. The American Civil Liberties Union’s campaign against single-sex education in elementary and high schools, entitled Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes, has been growing momentum since its inception in 2012, as more and more public school districts implement single-sex classrooms. In May 2014, the ACLU issued a letter of complaint against a Florida school district for offering professional development seminars with names like “Busy Boys, Little Ladies” and “Gender Differentiation: Boys and Girls Learn Differently.” These types of programs, the ACLU maintains, are based on stereotypes, but the school district argues that they are just trying to find new ways to teach effectively. At the post-secondary level, women’s colleges have recently made headlines for grappling with the contradictions between their traditional identity as spaces for women and the problem of enforcing a gender binary.
At the end of August, Mills College in Oakland, California announced that it would accept “self-identified women” and people “assigned female at birth who do not fit into the gender binary.” Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts made a passionate speech at the college’s fall convocation just recently, announcing that the college’s administration had come to a similar decision regarding transgender applicants. At the same time, other colleges are grappling with the economic realities of women’s education: the first male students have just arrived at Wilson College, a small women’s college in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which announced in January of 2013 that it would become coeducational. Chatham University, another women’s college in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, announced this past May that they would become coeducational in the fall of 2015.
In the decade since I slept curled under the table in my poetry classroom and wrapped a black cloth around my lips, I’m not sure I’ve come to many conclusions about some of the debates sparked by my college’s coed decision. I haven’t become an expert on the research regarding women’s learning outcomes in single-sex classrooms, and I still can’t decide whether it’s good or bad that I did not want to share my classrooms with men. What I do know is this: living and learning in a women-centered space helped me become self-assured. The ability to dress, speak, and move without feeling a male gaze helped me establish my own identity. Being a part of a sisterhood helped me understand the importance of female relationships. Perhaps most important, I know that feeling the crush of disappointment at the Wells coed decision and participating in the subsequent protests opened my young, naive eyes to the fact that feminism was not just a historical event, but a critical, ongoing fight for women’s rights. It was hard. It was frustrating. It was incredible. And it made me the feminist I am today.
 Edward H. Clarke, M.D., Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1875), 18.
 Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 29, 289.
 Mary Putnam Jacobi, The Question of Rest For Women During Menstruation (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1877).
 Sherrie A. Inness, The Lesbian Menace: Ideology, Identity, and the Representation of Lesbian Life (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 38.
For further reading:
Jane M. Dieckmann, Wells College: A History (Aurora: Wells College Press, 1995).
Ann Mari May, ed., The ‘Woman Question’ and Higher Education: Perspectives on Gender and Knowledge Production in America (Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc., 2008).
Leslie Miller-Bernal and Susan L. Poulson, eds., Challenged By Coeducation: Women’s Colleges Since the 1960s (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006).
Barbara Miller Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
Featured image: Statue of Minerva at Wells College, gagged in observance of the second anniversary of the coed decision, courtesy of the author.