How to Make Bloody-Minded Women

The last women’s college in Oxford has just voted to remain a single-sex college. I’m always interested in these campaigns to keep women’s schools single sex, and the idea (which I tend to believe) that single sex education is good for girls and bad for boys. I went to a single sex school myself, one that combined with a boy’s school the year after I graduated. I regretted it at the time but later decided I’d been lucky. If nothing else, I derived the benefit (at least I think I did) that it never crossed my mind for an instant that women were supposed to shut up and let men do the talking. So when I went to a double-sex university I talked and argued with the best of them, if not more. Maybe I would have anyway, not being a notably compliant person; but I wonder.

It is a difficult question. The whole issue of whether women do better when they’ve had a chance to build up some blithe, unaware confidence in a boy-free zone, or whether that notion merely perpetuates the idea that women are so fragile and malleable and pathetic that they have to live in a bubble to survive at all. Val McDermid chooses the first option in this article by a graduate of St. Hilda’s from last year:

I think the single-sex environment allowed women to flourish in a way that is much harder for them in a male-dominated college. It meant that, when we emerged into the world of work, we had a bedrock of self-confidence that made it far easier for us to compete on the unequal terms we found there.

Former student Katherine Wheatley is definite: ‘Women benefit from a single-sex education, whereas men benefit from a mixed one,’ she says, and that this ‘is borne out by the results at GCSE and A-levels year on year.’ I think it’s probably true, I’m glad St. Hilda’s stayed single-sex, and yet, and yet…I also wish women didn’t need special enclaves in order to flourish. But then I wish a lot of things, as we all do. If wishes were horses.

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