Guys and Dolls

The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men - Christina Hoff Sommers 2015

Guys and Dolls

In the summer of 1997, I took part in a television debate with feminist lawyer Gloria Allred. Allred was representing a fourteen-year-old girl who was suing the Boy Scouts of America for excluding girls. Girls fifteen and older can join the Explorer Scouts, which is coed, but Allred was outraged that girls younger than fifteen are not allowed in. She referred to same-sex scouting as a form of “gender apartheid.”1

I pointed out that younger boys and girls have markedly different preferences and behaviors, citing the following homespun example: Hasbro Toys, a major toy manufacturing company, tested a playhouse the company was considering marketing to both boys and girls. But it soon emerged that girls and boys did not interact with the structure in the same way. The girls dressed the dolls, kissed them, and played house. The boys catapulted the toy baby carriage from the roof. A Hasbro general manager came up with a novel explanation: “Boys and girls are different.”2

Allred flatly denied there were innate differences. She seemed shocked by the boys’ catapulting behavior. Apparently, she took it as a sign of a propensity for violence. She said, “If there are some boys who catapult baby carriages off the roofs of dollhouses, that is just an argument why we need to socialize boys at an earlier age, perhaps, to be playing with dollhouses.”

Allred has powerful allies. Resocializing boys to play more like girls has been a part of the gender equity agenda for several decades. Notably active on this front throughout the 1990s and early 2000s were the Wellesley Center for Research on Women, US Department of Education, and Harvard School of Education.

A Wellesley College Equity Seminar

In 1998, the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women sponsored a daylong teacher-training seminar entitled Gender Equity for Girls and Boys: A Conference for K—12 Teachers and Administrators. It attracted two hundred teachers and administrators from the Northeast (teachers received state recertification credits for attending). One session, “Dolls, Gender and Make-Believe in the Early Childhood Classroom,” was concerned with sex stereotypes and how to defeat them. It was led by Dr. Nancy Marshall, a senior research scientist and associate director of the Wellesley Center, and two of her associates.

According to Marshall, a child’s sexual identity is learned by observing others. As she noted, “When babies are born they do not know about gender.” Since newborn babies know very little about anything, Marshall’s comment was puzzling. They don’t know their blood type either, after all, but they still have one. Marshall explained that gender, indeterminate at birth, is formed and fixed later by a process of socialization that guides the child in adopting a male or female identity. According to Marshall and her colleagues, a child learns what it means to be a boy or a girl between the ages of two and seven. In those early years the child develops a “gender schema”—a set of ideas about appropriate roles, attitudes, and preferences for males and females. The best prospects for influencing the child’s gender schema are in these early malleable years: these years are the opportunity zone.

Marshall and her associates presented a slide show, explaining, “A young mind is like Jell-O: you learn to fill it up with all the good stuff before it sets.” What counts as “good stuff” for the Wellesley pedagogues is making children as comfortable as possible participating in activities traditionally “associated with the other gender.” One favorite slide—to which they repeatedly referred—showed a preschool boy dressed up in high heels and a dress. “It’s perfectly natural for a little boy to try on a skirt,” they said.

The group leaders suggested that teachers “use water and bathing” to encourage boys to play with dolls. Acknowledging that preschoolers tend to prefer same-sex play, which reinforces “gender stereotypes,” they advised teachers in the audience to “force boy/girl mixed pairs.” In a follow-up discussion, one of the participating teachers boasted of her success in persuading her kindergarten-aged boys to dress up in skirts. Another proudly reported that she makes a point of informing boys that their action figures are really dolls.

At no time during this eight-hour conference did any of the two hundred participating teachers and administrators challenge the assumption that gender identity is a learned (“socially constructed”) characteristic. Nor did anyone mention the immense body of scientific literature from biologists and developmental psychologists showing that many male/female differences are natural, healthy, and, by implication, best left alone.3 On the contrary, everyone simply assumed that preschool children were malleable enough to adopt either gender identity to suit the ends of equity and social justice. The possibility that they were tampering with the children’s individuality or intruding on their privacy was never broached.

Early Interventions

Throughout the 1990s, equity activists in the Department of Education promoted a national effort to liberate children from the constraints of gender. The Women’s Educational Equity Act Resource Center (a national center for “gender-fair materials” maintained by the Department of Education) distributed pamphlets that confidently asserted the social origins of feminity and masculinity. Here, for example, is a passage from the center’s guide, entitled Gender Equity for Educators, Parents, and Community:

We know that biological, psychological, and intellectual differences between males and females are minimal during early childhood. Nevertheless, in our society we tend to socialize children in ways that serve to emphasize gender-based differences.4

In fact, we know no such thing. Play preferences of chimps, rhesus monkeys, and other primates parallel those of children.5 A special issue of Scientific American in the spring of 1999 reviewed the evidence that these play preferences are, in large part, hormonally driven. Doreen Kimura, a psychologist at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, wrote, “We know, for instance, from observations of both humans and nonhumans, that males are more aggressive than females, that young males engage in more rough-and-tumble play, and that females are more nurturing. . . . How do these and other sex differences come about?”6 Kimura points to animal studies that show how hormonal manipulation can reverse sex-typed behavior. (When researchers exposed female rhesus monkeys to male hormones prenatally, these females later displayed malelike levels of rough-and-tumble play.) Similar results are found in human beings. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is a genetic defect that results when the female fetus is subjected to abnormally large quantities of male hormones—adrenal androgens. Girls with CAH consistently prefer trucks, cars, and construction sets over dolls and play tea sets. “It appears,” says Kimura, “that perhaps the most important factor in the differential of males and females . . . is the level of exposure to various sex hormones early in life.”7 These sorts of findings undermine the simplistic view that gender-specific play is primarily shaped by socialization.

The Department of Education equity educators promoted materials in the schools that ignored the scientific research. They assumed, along with Gloria Allred and the Wellesley Center experts, that typical male and female play preferences were the result of imposed cultural stereotypes. Creating Sex-Fair Family Day Care is a model curriculum guide for day-care teachers developed by the department’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement. It offers concrete suggestions on how to change children’s gender schemas.8

The central thesis of the guide is that the only way to win the battle over gender stereotypes is to stage interventions as early as possible, preferably in infancy. Masculine stereotypes receive the lion’s share of attention. Getting little boys to play with dolls is a principal goal. The 130-page guide includes ten photographs: two show a little boy with a baby girl doll; in one, he is feeding her, in the other, kissing her. The guide urges day-care teachers to reinforce the boys’ nurturing side: “It is important for boys and girls to learn nurturing and sensitivity, as well as general parenting skills. Have as many boy dolls as girl dolls (preferably anatomically correct). Boys and girls should be encouraged to play with them.”9

Ever vigilant for gender stereotypes, the guide warns child care workers to “be wary of charming Mommy Bears . . . wearing little aprons and holding a broom in one hand.”10 And it offers a new second verse for “Jack and Jill,” now with Jill leading a safety-conscious, rough-and-tumble-free adventure:

Jill and Jack went up the track

To fetch the pail again.

They climbed with care,

Got safely there

And finished the job they began.11

This government-sponsored day-care guide also urges teachers to carefully monitor children’s fantasy play: “Watch your children at play. Are stereotypes present in the fantasies and situations they act out? Intervene to set the record straight. ’Why don’t you be the doctor, Amy, and you the nurse, Billy?’ ”12 The purpose of these interventions is described expansively: “Unless we practice nonsexist child-rearing, we cannot fulfill our dreams of equality for all people.”13

William’s Doll

Boys do not always cooperate with efforts to rescue them from their masculinity. Sometimes they openly rebel. In their 1994 book Failing at Fairness, education scholars Myra and David Sadker describe a fourth-grade class in Maryland in which the teacher worked with the boys to help them “push the borders of the male stereotype.”14 She asked them to imagine themselves as authors of an advice column in their local newspaper. One day they received the following letter:

Dear Adviser:

My seven-year-old son wants me to buy him a doll. I don’t know what to do. Should I go ahead and get it for him? Is it normal, or is my son sick? Please help!

The nine-year-old “advisers” were unsympathetic to the boy. The teacher then read aloud from a popular feminist book, William’s Doll. It is a story about a boy who wants a doll “to hug it and cradle it in his arms.”15 His father refused and tried instead to interest him in a basketball or in an electric train. But William persisted in wanting the doll. When the grandmother arrived, she gently scolded the father for thwarting William’s wish. She took William to the store and bought him “a baby doll with curly eyelashes, and a long white dress with a bonnet.” William “loved it right away.”

The story did little to change the fourth graders’ minds. According to the Sadkers, “Their reaction was so hostile that the teacher had trouble keeping order.”16 A few reluctantly agreed that the boy could have a doll—but only if it were a G.I. Joe. The Sadkers were surprised that boys so young could be so inflexibly traditional. “As we observed her lesson, we were struck by how much effort it took to stretch outmoded attitudes.”

William’s Doll has been made into a play. Boston University professor Glenn Loury tells about sitting through a production at his son’s elementary school in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1998. Loury, the father of two boys—one starring in the play—was not impressed: “First of all, what is wrong with wanting your boy not to play with a doll but to play ball? There is nothing that needs to be fixed there.”17 Loury was speaking for many fathers and mothers. However, his voice and sensibility seemed to count for naught with the resocializers.

Shaping the gender identities of schoolchildren was a heady enterprise. And it was inspired and informed by the scholars in some of our leading universities. Preeminent among them was Carol Gilligan. Gilligan and her colleagues at the Harvard School of Education saw themselves leading a profound revolution that would change the way society constructs young males and females. Once children were freed of oppressive gender roles, Gilligan predicted a change in their play preferences. She and her associate Elizabeth Debold firmly believed that so-called male behaviors—roughhousing and aggressive competition—are not natural but are artifacts of culture. Superheroes and macho toys, they said, “cause boys to be angry and aggressive.” Debold reported on their studies of three- and four-year-old boys who “are comfortable playing house or dress-up with girls, and in assuming nurturing roles in play.” Unfortunately, as they saw it, boys’ interest in playing dress-up with the girls is rarely encouraged or sustained. “By kindergarten, peer socialization and media images kick in.”18

The gender reformers at Wellesley, the Department of Education, and Harvard helped shape attitudes and policy in schools throughout the country. They were convinced that breaking down male stereotypes, starting in preschool, was good for society. Whether it was good for the boys never came up. In classrooms across the country little boys got the message that there was something wrong with them—something the teacher was trying to change.

It is doubtful that these efforts at resocialization were ever successful. But they surely succeeded in making lots of little boys confused and unhappy. Questions abound. What sort of credentials do the critics of masculinity bring to their project of reconstructing the nation’s schoolboys? How well do they understand and like boys? Who has authorized their mission? To better understand the logic and motives of the resocializers, it is helpful to consider the arguments of a contemporary gender theorist.

The World According to Virginia Valian

Virginia Valian, a professor of psychology at Hunter College, is one of the most frequently cited authorities on gender schemas and how to change them.19 She is also a leading light in the National Science Foundation’s gender equity campaign ADVANCE.20 With the help of a $3.9 million National Science Foundation grant, she and her colleagues established the Hunter College Gender Equity Project, where they have developed tutorials on gender role transformation.21 Her 1998 book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women explains the urgency of that mission:

In white, Western middle-class society, the gender schema for men includes being capable of independent, autonomous action . . . [and being] assertive, instrumental, and task-oriented. Men act. The gender schema for women is different; it includes being nurturant, expressive, communal, and concerned about others.22

Our society, says Valian, pressures women to indulge their nurturing propensities while it encourages men to develop “a strong commitment to earning and prestige, great dedication to the job, and an intense desire for achievement.”23 Such gender role socialization, she says, exacts a high toll on women and confers an unfair advantage on men.

To achieve a gender-fair society, Valian advocates a concerted attack on conventional schemas. Changing how parents interact with children is at the top of her list. For example, says Valian, there is a widespread assumption that women are better with babies than men. Where did that come from? The commonsense answer is that women’s special affinity for babies is a powerful, universal, time-immemorial biological instinct. But Valian dismisses such explanations and cites a large body of research showing how parents and other adults aid and abet children’s preferences and propensities.

Valian describes a study in which fathers are placed in rooms with their one-year-old sons or daughters. “On the shelf, within the babies’ sight but out of reach were two dolls, two trucks, a toy vacuum cleaner and a shovel.” What does the father do? Over and over again, fathers were observed giving their sons a truck twice as often as they gave them a doll.24 (They gave daughters dolls and trucks at similar rates.) She mentions another study in which parents appear to reward children for choosing sex-appropriate toys. Valian concludes, “It appears that [parents] want their children . . . to conform to gender norms.” And, according to Valian, those norms inhibit a child’s potential to flourish later in life.

As things stand, children learn to enjoy only half of what is potentially open to them, the half adults give them access to. Girls learn to take pleasure in being nurturant, boys learn to take pleasure in physical skills. Girls’ increasing interest in sports shows how quickly some of them acquire a taste for physical activity. We have yet to provide boys with a parallel opportunity for nurturance.25

In the closing sentences of Why So Slow?, Valian says, “Egalitarian parents can bring up their children so that both boys and girls play with dolls and trucks. . . . From the standpoint of equality, nothing is more important.”26

From the standpoint of reality, nothing seems more unlikely. Most little girls don’t want to play with trucks, as almost any parent can attest. Including me: when my son gave his daughter Eliza a toy train, she placed it in a baby carriage and covered it with a blanket so it could get some sleep.

Valian has heard this sort of objection many times, and she has an answer. She does not deny that sex differences have some foundation in biology, but she insists that culture can intensify or diminish their power and effect. Even if Eliza is prompted by nature to interact with the train in a stereotypical female way, that is no reason for her father not to energetically correct her behavior. “We don’t,” says Valian, “accept biology as destiny. . . . We vaccinate, we inoculate, we medicate. . . . I propose we adopt the same attitude toward biological sex differences.”27

Few would deny that parents and teachers should expose children to a wide range of toys and play activities. And Valian is right when she says that culture can intensify or diminish our natural inclinations. But gender identity is notoriously difficult to change. As one neuroscientist, Lise Eliot, observes, “[I]t is a potent, irreversible piece of self-knowledge that crystalizes children’s perceptions and choice about much in their world, creating pink and blue barriers that parents find difficult to maneuver around.”28 In the hands of little boys, toy baby carriages will be catapulted from the roofs of dollhouses. In the hands of little girls, toy trains will be nurtured. Nothing short of radical and sustained behavior modification could change these elemental play preferences. Is it worth it? Is it even ethical?

We vaccinate, inoculate, and medicate children against disease. Being a typical little boy or girl is not a pathology in need of a cure. Failure to protect children from smallpox, diphtheria, or measles places them in harm’s way. There is no such harm in allowing male/female differences to flourish in early childhood. The resocializers talk of “gender apartheid,” of the schoolyard as a training ground for incipient batterers, of conventional masculinity as toxic. For Valian, the gender system is a source of massive social injustice. But these are all extravagant exaggerations. These would-be reformers completely ignore or discount all the good achieved by a tolerant policy that allows the sexes to freely pursue their different styles of play. More than that, this movement to change children’s concept of themselves is invasive and authoritarian.

Gender-variant children (once called “tomboy girls” and “sissy boys” in the medical literature) are a lesson to us all. These children are powerfully drawn to the toys of the opposite sex. They will often persist in playing with the “wrong” toys despite relentless pressure from parents, peers, and doctors. There was a time when a boy who behaved like William in William’s Doll would have been considered mentally ill and subject to behavior modification therapy. Today, we have developed more enlightened and compassionate attitudes. Most experts encourage tolerance, understanding, and acceptance.29 But surely the same tolerance and understanding should extend to the gender identity and preferences of the vast majority of children.

What If Mother Nature Is Not a Feminist?

On March 21, 2005, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University hosted a conference entitled Impediments to Change: Revisiting the Women in Science Question. The auditorium in Agassiz Theatre in Radcliffe Yard was packed. Dedicated in 1904, the theater has been the site of many a spirited intellectual exchange. But this conference was a forum not for debate but for indignation over (then) Harvard president Lawrence Summers’s speculation that innate differences between the sexes might be one reason there are fewer women than men at the highest echelons of math and science.

The six panelists—four from Harvard, two from MIT—did not challenge one another in the fashion of typical academic seminars, but rather repeated and reinforced a common conviction that there is only one possible explanation for why fewer women than men teach math and physics at Harvard and MIT: sexist bias. Why were no dissenters invited? Because from the point of view of the assembled, that would be like inviting a flat-earther or a Holocaust denier. One panelist, Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke, flatly declared that the case against significant inborn cognitive differences “is as conclusive as any finding I know of in science.”30

For any scholar, especially a Harvard University social scientist, to sweep aside all the evidence for innate differences defies belief. In 2010, David Geary, a University of Missouri psychologist, published Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences. This thorough, fair-minded, and comprehensive survey of the literature includes more than fifty pages of footnotes citing studies by neuroscientists, endocrinologists, geneticists, anthropologists, and psychologists showing a strong biological basis for many gender differences.31 While these particular studies may not be the final word, they cannot be dismissed or ignored.

Nor can human reality be tossed aside. In all known societies, women have better verbal skills, and men excel at spatial reasoning.32 Women tend to be the nurturers and men the warriors. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker points to the absurdity of ascribing these universal differences to socialization: “It would be an amazing coincidence that in every society the coin flip that assigns each sex to one set of roles would land the same way.”33 A recent study on sex differences by researchers from the University of Turin and the University of Manchester confirms what most of us see with our eyes: despite some exceptions, women tend to be more sensitive, esthetic, sentimental, intuitive, and tender-minded; while men tend to be more utilitarian, objective, unsentimental, and tough-minded.34 It is true that we do not yet fully understand the precise biological underpinnings of these universal tendencies, but that is no reason to deny they exist. And there are many tantalizing theories.

Consider, for example, Cambridge University’s Simon Baron-Cohen. He is one of the world’s leading experts on autism, a disorder that affects far more males than females. Individuals with autism tend to be socially disconnected and unaware of the emotional states of others. But they often exhibit obsessive fixation on objects and machines. Baron-Cohen suggests that autism may be the far end of the male norm, or the “extreme male brain.” He believes that men are, “on average,” wired to be better “systematizers” and women to be better “empathizers.”35 It is a daring claim—but he has data to back it up, presenting a wide range of correlations between the level of fetal testosterone and behaviors in both girls and boys from infancy into grade school.

It is hard not to be attracted to theories like Simon Baron-Cohen’s when one looks at the way children play and how men and women are distributed in the workplace. After two major waves of feminism, women still predominate—sometimes overwhelmingly—in empathy-centered fields such as early-childhood education,36 social work,37 nursing,38 and psychology39; while men are overrepresented in the “systematizing” vocations such as car repair,40 oil drilling,41 and electrical engineering.42 And there are no signs that boys are going to surrender their trucks, rockets, and weapons for glittery lavender ponies anytime soon.

Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser has what seems to be the appropriate attitude about the research on sex differences: respectful, intrigued but also cautious. When asked about Baron-Cohen’s work, Hauser said, “I am sympathetic . . . and find it odd that anyone would consider the work controversial.”43 Hauser referred to research that shows, for example, that if asked to make a drawing, little girls almost always create scenes with at least one person, while males nearly always draw things—cars, rockets, or trucks. And he mentioned that among primates—including our closest relations, the chimpanzees—males are more technologically innovative, while females are more involved in details of family life. Still, Hauser warns that a lot of seemingly exciting and promising research on sex differences has not panned out and urges us to treat the biological theories with caution.44

Clearly, gender differences are driven by some yet-to-be understood interaction between culture and biology. And we must always bear in mind that no one is claiming that all men and women embody the tendencies of their sexes: some girls have superb spatial reasoning skills and little interest in nurturing, while some males reject rough-and-tumble play and prefer calm, imaginative games. When we speak of gender differences, we are referring to statistical differences between groups, not the rigid determination of individuals. If we say, for example, that women tend to enjoy romance novels more than men do, we are not saying that all women enjoy them. Hauser is right that we need to proceed with care.

But where is that care where the social constructionists are concerned? Though their research appears to be going nowhere, they are still marching ahead with their workshops, curriculum guides, and tutorials. Confident in their theories, they have taken on the task of resocializing the American child.

Ms. Logan’s Classroom

There is much to be learned from classrooms where teachers are actively attacking the schemas of their pupils. Peggy Orenstein’s SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap was written in association with the American Association of University Women.45 Just after the AAUW had alerted the country to the plight of its shortchanged adolescent girls, Orenstein visited several middle schools to see firsthand how they were coping with the “confidence gap.” As a trusted insider, Orenstein was given full access to classrooms that were “raising the gender consciousness” of students. From her detailed report, we get a good understanding of how the new gender-fair activists view boys and what they have in mind for them.

The climatic section of SchoolGirls is entitled “Anita Hill Is a Boy: Tales from a Gender-Fair Classroom.” Orenstein describes the classroom of Ms. Judy Logan, an award-winning English and social studies teacher at the Everett Middle School, a public school in San Francisco. Logan has gone as far as anyone in transforming her classroom into a woman-centered community of learners. Indeed, Logan is something of a pedagogical legend among girl-partisan activists. Jackie DeFazio, former president of the AAUW, says that a teacher like Logan, “who puts equity at the center of her classroom,” fills her with hope.46 Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, praises Logan for offering “a new vision of what our schools can give to our children.”47

When Orenstein stepped into Logan’s classroom for the first time she found it “somewhat of a shock.” There are images of women everywhere:

The faces of Abigail Adams, Rachel Carson, Faye Wattleton, and even a fanciful “Future Woman” smile out from three student-made quilts that are draped on the walls. . . . Reading racks overflow with biographies of Lucretia Mott, Ida B. Wells, Emma Goldman, Sally Ride, and Rigoberta Menchú. . . . There is a section on Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes. . . . A giant computer-paper banner spans the width of another wall proclaiming, “Women are one-half of the world’s people, they do two-thirds of the world’s work, they earn one-tenth of the world’s income; they own one hundredth of the world’s property.”48

At first, Orenstein found herself wondering “Where are the men?” But then in one of those characteristic “click” moments that feminists often report, the light dawned and all was clear: “In Ms. Logan’s class, girls may be dazzled by the reflection of the women that surround them. And, perhaps for the first time, the boys are the ones looking through the window.”49

Logan’s classes are unusual and fun. She is popular with her students. But, according to Orenstein, many students complain that she is unfair to boys. One sixth grader, Holly, says, “Sometimes, I worry about the boys, that they kind of get ignored.” Another says that her brother had taken one of Ms. Logan’s classes, and “all she ever talked about was women, women, women. And he did not like it.” Even the girls get tired of all the “women-centeredness.” Orenstein reports one as complaining, “Ms. Logan, I feel like I am not learning anything about men, and I do not think that is right.” Orenstein attributes the girls’ objections to their low self-esteem; because of the “hidden curriculum,” girls “have already become used to taking up less space, to feeling less worthy of attention than boys.” By contrast, one older student, Mindy, who spent three years with Logan (Orenstein describes her as “a model of grunge chic”), has clearly learned the lessons that Logan strives to impart. Here is how this student explains the boys’ resentment:

I think it’s the resentment of losing their place. In our other classes, the teachers just focus on men, but the boys don’t complain that that’s sexist. They say, “It’s different in those classes because we focus on the important people in history, who just happen to be men.”50

As Orenstein describes her, Mindy rolls her eyes to indicate the incredible cluelessness of the boys. Mindy’s reference to those other classes shows she has, indeed, learned her lesson well. The new pedagogy justifies its intense focus on women by reminding us that allegedly gender-neutral classes on such subjects as the Age of Discovery or the Rise of Science are “all about men” like Columbus and Isaac Newton. Now it is time to put women in their rightful place at the center of attention.

In one history class, the girls take over the discussion and go after the boys for being sexual predators. As the girls get angrier, Logan gets more animated. The girls’ anger is the sign that her pedagogy is working. “This is a very important, scary, and profound conversation you are having.”51 What do the boys have to say for themselves?

One boy tries to placate the girls: “It’s true that some guys are assholes in school. But there are nice people too.” During a subsequent male-bashing session, a girl points out that though sexual harassment happens to girls more often, the girls are doing it to boys as well. “We go up and feel on guys too.”52

“That’s a good point,” says Logan. But not one she chooses to pursue. She soon stops the discussion, “We’ve gotten a lot done on this, but the class isn’t about sexual harassment. It’s American Women Making History.” But later, she will return to the topic of sexual harassment and explain to her students how it is a part of a “hidden curriculum” that teaches girls to be second-class citizens. “They learn to become silent, careful, not active or assertive in life.”53

Logan’s pedagogy turns out to have its own hidden curriculum, which she teaches in every class, regardless of the subject. It is unflattering to males, and they learn the lesson. Luis, a seventh grader, later confessed to Orenstein, “I couldn’t really defend myself, because it’s true. Men are pigs, you know?”54

As a final “unifying project,” Logan’s sixth-grade social studies class made a quilt to celebrate “women we admire.” Logan was alarmed by one student’s muslin square. A boy named Jimmy had chosen to honor the tennis player Monica Seles, who, in 1993, was stabbed on the court by a deranged man. He had drawn a bloody dagger on a tennis racket. It’s not the sort of thing a girl would think of. Jimmy’s square may be unique in the history of quilting, but Ms. Logan did not appreciate its originality. In his own defense, he said, “I thought it was kind of important, a tennis player stabbed just so she wouldn’t win.” The teacher insisted he start again and make an acceptable contribution to the class quilt.

I can see why Logan did not want Jimmy’s square on the class quilt. But perhaps Jimmy was looking for some way—within the confines of a feminist quilting environment—to assert his young maleness, which was under direct assault by his teacher. Logan, clearly exasperated, did not see it that way. She confided to Orenstein: “When boys feel like they’re being forced to admire women, they try to pick one that they think behaves sort of like a man.”55 Jimmy is left looking “despondently” at his rejected square.

Jeremy, another boy in the class, showed more progress. His muslin quilting square celebrating Rosa Parks had been done to Logan’s specifications. When he handed it in, Logan turned to Orenstein, saying, “This is how you teach about gender. You do it one stitch at a time.”56 Much taken by that remark, Orenstein used it to end her book.

Interdicted Research

A female colleague of Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, once told him, “Look, I know that males and females are not identical. I see it in my kids. I see it in myself. I know about the research. I can’t explain it, but when I read claims about sex difference, steam comes out of my ears.”57 Feminist Gloria Steinem has called research on sex differences “anti-American.” She says, “It is what is keeping us down.”58 According to Gloria Allred, such research simply should not be done. “This is harmful and dangerous to our daughters’ lives, to our mothers’ lives, and I am very angry about it.”59 Feminist critics have a term for neurologists who study sex differences: “neurosexists.”60

From a historical perspective, apprehension over research on sex differences is understandable. The idea of natural difference was once the thinking man’s justification for keeping women in their place, socially, legally, and politically. Before the women’s movement took root in the nineteenth century, patriarchal thinking was the norm. It was then taken for granted that women were not just innately different but naturally inferior to men. Even an enlightened moral philosopher such as Immanuel Kant comfortably held the view that women were by nature ethically substandard. Kant believed that women have little respect for concepts like right and obligation, which are at the very foundation of ethical living: “Women will avoid the wicked not because it is unright, but because it is ugly; and virtuous actions mean to them such as are morally beautiful. Nothing of duty, nothing of compulsion, nothing of obligation! Woman is intolerant of all commands and all morose constraint. They do something only because it pleases them. . . . I hardly believe that the fair sex is capable of principles.”61

It was also widely believed that women are less intelligent than men. Stereotypes that demeaned women were commonly accepted, and women everywhere paid the price. Soon eminent scientists were weighing in to confirm women’s inferiority. In the mid-nineteenth century, when anatomy and physiology were gaining scientific respectability, Paul Broca, a French professor of clinical surgery and pioneer in brain anatomy, concluded that “the relatively small size of the female brain depends in part upon her physical inferiority and in part upon her intellectual inferiority.”62 A contemporary of Broca, French psychologist Gustave Le Bon, went further: “In most intelligent races, as among the Parisians, there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that one cannot contest it for a moment.”63

Given the history of interpreting natural differences between men and women as proof of male superiority, it is understandable that women like Allred and Steinem and Lawrence Summers’s tormentors react with suspicion to the suggestion that men and women are innately different in any way. But the proper corrective to bad science and rancorous philosophy is not more of the same but rather good science and clear thinking. For the moment, bad science and rancor are ubiquitous.

The ACLU Goes to War Against Single-Sex Schools

When students, especially boys, were falling behind academically at the Van Devender Middle School in Parkersburg, West Virginia, school officials decided to experiment with single-sex classes for sixth and seventh graders. Leonard Sax, a physician and prominent advocate of single-sex education, had visited the school and offered teachers suggestions for classroom activities. Many boys think of reading as “feminine,” but following Sax’s advice, teacher Mackenzie Lackey found a way around their resistance. For the past two years, she has divided her all-male sixth-grade classes into two teams and organized a Battle of the Books competition. Her students read a series of books and then competed to see which team could answer the most questions about the readings. The boys started reading like mad. The exercise was so successful that in both 2010 and 2011, in a schoolwide Battle of the Books, Lackey’s sixth-grade boy teams beat the entire school, including coed teams from traditional seventh- and eigth-grade classes. To her delight, her pupils asked for more books to read over the summer. “Imagine,” says Sax, “boys from a low-income neighborhood who demanded more books to read.”64

But on May 21, 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union sent the school authorities a ten-page cease-and-desist letter demanding that they terminate their “gender-specific” programs post haste. “Our analysis demonstrates that this program is unlawful because it is premised upon and likely promotes harmful stereotypes about the different learning styles and development of boys and girls.”65 Failure to terminate the programs, warned the ACLU, could result in a lawsuit and/or a formal complaint with the pertinent federal agency. “We expect your response no later than June 4, 2012.”66 Similar letters were sent to school districts with single-sex programs in Florida, Mississippi, Maine, Virginia, and Alabama.

Wealthy families have always had the option of sending their children to all-male or all-female academies, but parents of lesser means have rarely had the choice. That changed in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act sanctioned innovative programs—including single-sex classes and academies—in public schools.67 Then-senator Hillary Clinton, a coauthor of the provision, urged that the single-sex option be broadly expanded and not limited to a fortunate few: “There should not be any obstacle to providing single-sex choice within the public school system. . . . We have to look at the achievements of [single-sex] schools that are springing up around the country. We know this has energized students and parents. We could use more schools such as this.”68

There are now nearly 400 public schools that offer single-sex classes and about 116 public all-girl and all-boy academies.69 Single-sex programs are especially popular in low-income neighborhoods where parents are worried about their daughters and panicked about their sons. The Claremont Academy in Chicago, for example, offers a single-sex academic program for seventh- and eighth-grade, mostly poor, African American students. “It helps us to focus more,” said one eighth grader. According to a profile of the school in Phi Delta Kappan magazine, students’ test scores have improved dramatically since the program began in 2007.70

The Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School in Dallas opened in 2004 and enrolls 4,525 girls in grades six through twelve. Its success has been dazzling. The school has scored at or near the top of all Dallas public schools on state tests for the past five years.71 Dallas has now opened a comparable academy for young men—the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy. Madeline Hayes, a mother of a young man attending the school, said she’d always dreamed “that there would be a boys’ school that doesn’t charge $25,000 a year, but would give the same academics, the same level of interaction and leadership.”72

Galen Sherwin, an attorney for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, explained why she and her organization want such programs eliminated: “Over and over we find that these programs are based on stereotypes that limit opportunities by reinforcing outdated ideas about how boys and girls behave.”73

It is hard to see how the classes limit anyone’s opportunities. In West Virginia, boys are behind girls about one year in reading and two and a half years in writing. And West Virginia places close to last in national reading tests.74 Put another way, boys in West Virginia are among the worst readers in the nation. The reading classes seem to be improving their abilities and opportunities. The seventh and eighth graders at the Claremont Academy are scoring higher on standardized tests. Children at the Irma Lerma Rangel School and Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy appear to be thriving. What is wrong with a voluntary program that seems to be helping? Plenty, says the ACLU—and they claim to have the research to prove it: a 2011 critique of single-sex education published in the prestigious journal Science.75

Eight Professors and a “Study”

Teachers visiting the website of the American Council for CoEducational Schooling (ACCES) are invited to take a quiz that measures their gender inclusiveness.76 The quiz asks how often they do the following:

A. I say “Good morning, boys and girls”;

B. I call students “boys” and “girls”;

C. I refer to my students as “ladies” and “gentlemen.”

Any teacher guilty of using such gendered language receives low marks on “gender mixing.” The executive director of the ACCES, Rebecca Bigler, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, explained her organization’s logic in Education Week. “If you compare it to race, if you said to your first-grade classrooms, ’Good morning, whites and Latinos; let’s have the Latinos get your pencils,’ what would happen is you would go to federal prison. . . . Labeling children routinely by race in your classroom is a violation of federal law, and, of course, you can do this routinely with gender.”77

Bigler’s mention of federal prison is hyperbolic, but it highlights her passion and moral certainty. Success stories from schools like the Claremont Academy do not impress her. As she told the Phi Delta Kappan, “African American males should be schooled right next to white girls because they would benefit from it. And those white girls need to know and understand the views of other people.” She and her fellow ACCES officers, all professors, view “male” and “female” as arbitrary and invidious distinctions that should be left behind. They are now waging a major campaign against single-sex schools.78

Bigler and seven ACCES colleagues are the authors of the article cited by the ACLU, “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling.” Because it appeared in Science, it has proved to be a potent weapon against programs like those in West Virginia and Chicago.79 What does the article say?

The Science article is a two-page summary of the state of the literature on single-sex education. That could be useful, were the authors not so blatantly biased. It is little more than a compendium of their opinions, supported by cherry-picked findings. They try to persuade the reader of two propositions: (1) There is no well-designed research that proves that single-sex education improves academic achievement, and (2) there is good evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and “legitimizes institutional sexism.”80

On the first point, it is certainly true that the research connecting single-sex schools to improved performance is inconclusive. Historically, students have flourished in such schools; throughout the world, wealthy parents have sought them out for their children (think of England’s Eton and Harrow). But critics reply that the purported success of single-sex institutions is due to the social standing of the parents, the schools’ resources, the quality of faculty—some feature other than it being single-sex. What was needed was a study that controlled for such factors. That came in 2012, when three University of Pennsylvania researchers looked at single-sex education in Seoul, Korea.81 In Seoul, until 2009, students were randomly assigned to single-sex and coeducational schools; parents had little choice on which schools their children attended. After controlling for other variables such as teacher quality, student-teacher ratio, and the proportion of students receiving lunch support, the study found significant advantages in single-sex education. The students earned higher scores on their college entrance exams and were more likely to attend four-year colleges. The authors describe the positive effects as “substantial.”

They note that their study is inconclusive. For example, the proportion of male teachers is much higher in Seoul’s all-boys schools than in coeducational schools. The sex of the faculty could be importantly connected to student achievement. Further research is in order. But these findings are more than suggestive and may point the way to one solution to the boy gap—with positive outcomes for girls as well.

When the Department of Education carried out a research review on single-sex education in 2005, it found a tangle of contradictory results. Like much education research—large schools versus small, charter versus traditional public schools—advocates on either side can find vindication if they look hard enough. The Department of Education rightly deemed the research “equivocal” and called for more studies. But it drew no strong conclusions and advised that the question of single-sex schooling might never be resolved by quantitative investigation because it involves issues “of philosophy and worldview.”82 If that is so, then the matter would seem to be ideally suited to practical experience, individual circumstance, and voluntary choice.

But the Science article goes further, claiming that such schools actually harm students by promoting sexism. And this is where the eight professors discard any pretense to objectivity. As proof of harm, they cite a 2007 British study that showed an increase in divorce rates for men (but not women) who had attended single-sex schools, and another study finding that “boys who spend more time with other boys become increasingly aggressive.”83 The latter study, coauthored by two ACCES board members, consisted of observations of preschoolers and kindergarteners in coed classes; its relevance to single-sex classes for older children is never explained.84

That 2007 British study compared life outcomes for thousands of middle-age graduates of single-sex and coed schools. On most measures, the two groups looked about the same: Both had similar levels of marital satisfaction and similar views on gender roles. It did conclude that the males who attended single-sex schools were “somewhat” more likely to have divorced, but the report carried a lot of good news about single-sex education as well. To wit: “For girls . . . single-sex schooling was linked to higher wages.” It was also linked to boys focusing their studies on languages and literature and girls on math and science. Did the British study address the central argument of the Science authors, that single-sex schooling promotes “sexism and gender stereotyping”? Yes, it did—finding that “gender stereotypes are exacerbated” in coed schools and “moderated” in single-sex schools!85 All of these glaring contradictions go unmentioned by the eight authors.86

In a subsequent issue of Science, several academic critics faulted the authors for failing to cite any serious research showing that single-sex schools foster sexism. The authors’ reply conceded the point: “We agree with [critics] that systematic reviews have yet to address the potential harm of single-sex schools in increasing stereotyping and sexism.”87 But, to bolster their original claim, they cited a 2001 study of a single-sex experiment in California in which “increased gender stereotypes was a prominent finding.”88

They better hope no one looks up the study. Its three feminist authors do not use a conventional methodology. As they explain, “Drawing upon feminist theory, we provide a critique that illuminates how power which is ’both the medium and the expression of wider structural relations and social forms, positions subjects within ideological matrixes of constraint and possibility.’ ”89 True to this murky goal, they devote most of the study to critiquing parents, teachers, and students for their “gendered perceptions” and evaluating how effectively they challenge “oppressive power relations inherent in traditional education.”90 One unwitting instructor explained why the all-male class voted to read All Quiet on the Western Front and why the all-female class chose Pride and Prejudice: “The girls tend to choose the romantic spiel . . . and guys tend to go for the action.” This sensible and innocent remark is grist for the authors’ mill. “Significantly,” they say, “teachers did little to change student choices by suggesting alternative book choices or topics that might potentially challenge gendered dispositions.”91 These authors warn how “gender ideologies” can shape an instructor’s classroom practices. But they have their own ideology—and it shaped every word of their bizarre study.

What explains the determination of the Science authors? For them—as for Gloria Allred in the case of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts—organizing children by girls and boys is analogous to racial segregation. As the lead author, Claremont McKenna’s Diane Halpern, explains, “Advocates for single-sex education don’t like the parallel with racial segregation, but the parallels are there.”92 No, they are not. Mandatory racial separatism demeans human beings and forecloses on their life prospects. Single-sex education is freely chosen, and millions of pupils have thrived intellectually and socially within it. Boys and girls, taken as groups, have different interests, propensities, and needs. And they, and their parents and teachers, know it: The teacher who begins the day with “Good morning, boys and girls,” is being friendly and conventional, not invidious and oppressive.

But the ACLU is not circulating the letters from critics of the Science article, nor highlighting the outré worldview of the authors or their misuse of the research of others. The article is presented as settled science. So far, the ACLU campaign is working. As it boasts on its website:

Many school districts in the nation have responded to our letters pointing out Title IX violations by shutting down their single-sex education programs in states such as Maine, Pennsylvania, and Alabama. To spread the message further, we’ve launched a nationwide campaign called Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes, to combat the harmful gender stereotypes at the root of the new wave of single-sex programs.93

Schools with successful single-sex programs are responding to the ACLU threats because they cannot afford costly court battles. School board members in West Virginia, for example, estimate that it could cost as much as $10,000 to defend the Van Devender program in court.94 But on July 3, 2012, they voted to continue the single-sex classes. The ACLU immediately filed a suit, and a judge has issued a temporary injunction against the program. The Van Devender principal was dismayed that the ACLU refused to meet with teachers and parents. “If [the ACLU] would sit down with us . . . we could all be on the same page.” He is certain they would see the merits of the program.95

Unfortunately, the ACLU’s success in other school districts, its sense of momentum, and its determination to expand its campaign suggest otherwise. In September 2012, the ACLU successfully pressured the school officials in Cranston, Rhode Island, to ban the traditional father-daughter dance and mother-son baseball game. According to the ACLU, “Public schools have no business fostering the notion that girls prefer to go to formal dances while boys prefer baseball games. This type of gender stereotyping only perpetuates outdated notions of ’girl’ and ’boy’ activities and is contrary to federal law.”96

Girls will be hurt where the ACLU and ACCES succeed in their campaign to shut down single-sex classrooms. But boys will lose the most. The activist professors and lawyers may believe that “male” and “female” are superficial distinctions best ignored. But here is one glaring gender distinction we ignore at our peril: boys are seriously behind girls in school. We do a far better job educating girls than boys, and we must find out why. All-male schools and classrooms may not be panaceas and are certainly not for everyone, but they have produced many promising results. They seem to be especially effective in poor districts, where boys are the most vulnerable. These boys’ schools and programs are experimenting with male-friendly pedagogy, and they may offer the best hope for discovering classroom practices that work for boys everywhere. Turning a blind eye to real differences and dogmatically insisting that masculinity and femininity are irrelevant distinctions poses serious dangers of its own.

Respect for Difference

In 1984, Vivian Gussin Paley, a beloved kindergarten teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, published a highly acclaimed book about a children’s play entitled Boys & Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner. The book would not be well received in today’s boy-averse environment. Her observations are worth dwelling on, if only to remind ourselves how teachers used to talk about children before the gender police appeared. Paley felt free to express her fondness for boys as they are, warts and all. She also accepted and enjoyed the clear differences between the sexes and had no illusions about the prospects of success for any efforts to do away with these differences: “Kindergarten is a triumph of sexual self-stereotyping. No amount of adult subterfuge or propaganda deflects the five-year-old’s passion for segregation by sex.”97

In one passage, she describes the distinctive behavior of some nursery school boys and girls in the “tumbling room,” a room full of climbing structures, ladders, and mats: “The boys run and climb the entire time they are in the room, resting momentarily when they ’fall down dead.’ The girls, after several minutes of arranging one another’s shoes, concentrate on somersaults. . . . After a few somersaults, they stretch out on the mats and watch the boys.”98

When the girls are left alone in the room without the boys, they run, climb, and become much more active—but then, after a few minutes, they suddenly lose interest and move on to other, quieter activities, saying, “Let’s paint” or “Let’s play in the doll corner.” Boys, on the other hand, never lose interest in the tumbling room. They leave only when forced to. “No boy,” says Paley, “exits on his own.” The “raw energy” of boys delights this teacher: “They run because they prefer to run, and their tempo appears to increase in direct proportion to crowded conditions, noise levels, and time spent running, all of which have the opposite effect on the girls.”99

At the time Paley wrote her book, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader were all the rage with the boys in her kindergarten class and all across America. The more she studied and analyzed the boys’ play, the more she grew to understand and accept it; she also learned to be less sentimental about what the girls were doing in the doll corner, and to accept that as well. Not all in the doll corner was preparation for nurturing and caring. She learned that girls were interested in their own kind of domination: “Mothers and princesses are as powerful as any superheroes the boys can devise.”100

Boys’ imaginative play involves a lot of conflict and violence; that of girls seems to be much gentler and more peaceful. But as Paley looked more carefully, she noticed that the girls’ fantasies were just as exciting and intense as the boys’. The doll corner was in fact a center of conflict, pesky characters, and imaginary power struggles.101

Refreshingly, Paley does not have the urge to reform the kindergarten to some accepted specification of social justice or gender equality. In particular, she doesn’t need to step in to guide boys to more caring ways of playing. “Let the boys be robbers, then, or tough guys in space. It is the natural, universal, and essential play of little boys. Everything is make-believe except the obvious feelings of well-being that emerge from fantasy play.”102

Many teachers, perhaps most, share the tolerant and generous views of Paley. But they are proving to be no match for the army of change agents at the ACLU, ACCES, US Department of Education, Wellesley, Harvard, Hunter College, and numerous other schools and activist organizations across the country. Today, these determined reformers are rarely challenged; their influence is growing and can be expected to grow. Few teachers will risk opposing the cause of gender justice backed up by science and lawsuits. Few parents have much of an idea of what their children are facing. As for the children themselves, they are usually in no position to complain—and, when they are asked and do complain, their answers are taken as further proof of their need for resocialization.