Harvard Educational Review
  1. Where Girls Come First

    The Rise, Fall, and Surprising Revival of Girls’ Schools

    By Ilana DeBare

    New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004. 392 pp. $24.95

    Combining history, memoir, and social science research, Ilana DeBare — journalist and cofounder of the Julia Morgan School for Girls in Oakland, California — probes the complicated past and present of single-sex education in her highly readable book, Where Girls Come First: The Rise, Fall, and Surprising Revival of Girls’ Schools. With vouchers, charter schools, and school choice becoming increasingly important factors in the U.S. educational landscape, DeBare’s book is an especially welcome addition to the literature on single-sex education.

    As DeBare reports, more than thirty new girls’ schools across grade level, including the public Young Women’s Leadership School in New York, opened their doors between 1991 and 2001. Meanwhile, enrollment at existing girls’ schools — public, private, and parochial — grew by 15 percent. The idea of educating girls apart from their male peers, however, remains controversial in a nation long committed to coeducation.

    While founding a girls’ school to which she could send her as yet pre-school-aged daughter, DeBare embarked on a research project exploring the past and present of U.S. girls’ schools. In addition to scouring the archives of such famous institutions as the 180-year-old Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, DeBare interviewed current students, teachers, administrators, and heads of school (headmistresses) across the country. She also spoke with more than 200 girls’ school alumnae who had graduated over the course of eight decades, beginning in the 1920s. The interviews, diaries, photographs, and archival papers — including those from African American institutions — yield vivid images of girls’ day-to-day school lives across two centuries. With a journalist’s eye for the apt quotation, DeBare selects both amusing and touching anecdotes to tell her story; at times it is hard not to laugh out loud at girls’ escapades and young women’s glee.

    But DeBare’s narrative, like the girls’ schools she studied, has a serious purpose. Did single-sex schools open doors for their female pupils, DeBare asks, or did they play a conservative role in society, restricting their graduates’ horizons and channeling their interests along socially acceptable lines? The author’s conclusion won’t surprise historians or alumnae of girls’ schools: they did both. DeBare outlines the radical nineteenth-century origins of many Eastern boarding schools, situating their intelligent, unmarried, entrepreneurial founders on the margins of Victorian womanhood. She then describes the differing orientations of turn-of-the-century schools, which presented themselves either as college prep (mirroring the classical curriculum of boys’ schools) or as finishing schools (boasting a curriculum of modern languages, history, science, and the arts, as well as etiquette and manners). As DeBare notes, the finishing school curriculum more closely aligns with today’s education, both coeducational and single sex, and could thus be liberating in and of itself under many circumstances.

    By the early 1960s, however, girls’ schools had "calcified" (p. 158). Having forgotten their radical roots and retaining — uncritically — their traditions and rules, the schools seemed trapped in a time warp while other aspects of American society broke open around them. In order to survive, some girls’ schools merged with their wealthier, more modern all-boys counterparts. Others closed their doors entirely. But the crisis was short-lived. Second-wave feminism and the emergence of social science research examining female development and gender bias in schools breathed new life into girls’ educational institutions. This, combined with a new boldness in advertising and fundraising — practices previously eschewed as "unfeminine" — helped girls’ schools gain new bearing and a renewed sense of purpose. The revival had begun.

    DeBare’s account of the rise, fall, and revival of girls’ schools does not shy away from the tough issues challenging girls’ schools today. Her chapter on "Smashes, Crushes, and Female Friendships," for example, draws on the work of Carroll Smith-Rosenberg to present a clear discussion of same-sex intimacy — of both the platonic and romantic sort — in historical context. DeBare then uses her knowledge of the past to explore the not-unheard-of association of girls’ schools with lesbianism today. DeBare argues that the long tradition of valuing female friendship in girls’ schools, combined with "society’s growing openness about lesbianism and homosexuality[,] provides an unprecedented opportunity for girls’ schools" (pp. 146–147). Their unique single-sex environment creates a safe space for adolescents to explore sexual identity and same-sex friendship, and schools’ attention to these areas of girls’ development might have a ripple effect on coeducational institutions — just as girls’ schools’ boasts about strong math and science programs affected girls’ mathematics education in coed schools, especially independent ones.

    DeBare’s well-researched book forgoes academic apparatus, and the absence of footnotes and bibliographic essay — while easing readability — may frustrate some. DeBare’s brief discussion of eighteenth-century girls’ schools, moreover, exaggerates their haphazard nature — boys’ schools of the time were similarly transient and their pupils’ attendance sporadic. DeBare’s analysis of Catholic schools, moreover, fails to note the pan-Protestantism of public schools that fueled their growth. But these quibbles aside, DeBare’s historical analysis is largely convincing. Pairing her historical narrative with contemporary anecdotes about the founding of the Julia Morgan School for Girls, moreover, makes the historical sketch all the more compelling.

    Where Girls Come First: The Rise, Fall, and Surprising Revival of Girls’ Schools provides a thought-provoking discussion of what is best — academically, developmentally, and socially — for girls. It will appeal to a variety of readers interested in school culture, girls’ learning, and the history of education. Heads of schools, principals, policymakers, and parents of girls will find DeBare’s book useful. Where Girls Come First would also spark especially good discussion within independent school communities.

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