Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On Sex Segregation

Bathrooms. That's probably what comes to your mind if you think about where the sexes are segregated in this country. Bathrooms and physical education classes after a certain age. But there are also sex-segregated schools and the conservatives would like to make those much more common.

The principle they would apply to justify that is "separate but equal", pretty much, according to the legal rule (Plessy v. Ferguson) which allowed for race-segregated public education in the United States until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of the mid-fifties. That "separate" was not "equal" in that system goes without saying: the black schools were much, much poorer than the white schools, for example.

But it wasn't all the economic evidence which really made up the Court's minds to declare that intentional race-selection was not permissible: It was the stories psychologists told about how black children preferred white dolls over black dolls and how they attributed better personal characteristics to white faces than to black faces. In short, how they breathed in and drank and ate racism every day of their lives.

School integration has not stopped racism, of course, and neither are schools really integrated today. But the situation is not as horrible as it was fifty years ago when the segregation was legally required.

Where did that "separate but equal" decision come from, anyway? The Plessy v. Ferguson, had to do with the question whether trains could legally segregate their passenger compartments by race. The court thought that they could, as long as the seats were equally comfy in all carriages, as long as the conductors were equally polite, and as long as the chances of finding a vacant seat didn't differ by race. But of course all these differed in practice.

That long preamble was an attempt to explain why I don't think that sex segregated education in this country could ever be guaranteed to be an equal education for both boys and girls. Note, for one thing, that if anyone really wants to discriminate against, say, girls in this field, an absolute prerequisite for doing that successfully is to segregate girls from boys. Otherwise it's much harder to require that girls take courses in cooking and household management while boys take courses in physics. Or to spend less money on girls' education in the guise of providing for the different ways that the sexes supposedly learn best.

Segregation doesn't have to result in unequal education, but stopping it from doing exactly that requires great vigilance. In a way segregation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sex discrimination of the extreme types.

For those types we can turn our eyes to Saudi Arabia, a country in which women live in an almost separate world from that inhabited by men. But note how very unequally the space in that world is divided: women are limited to their homes, pretty much, whereas men have all of the public space as theirs. Even the homes are ultimately men's spaces. It is the men who have the final power at home, too. There's nothing about the "equal" in that "separateness."

All this made me try to imagine what a truly "separate but equal" world would look like in terms of gender segregation, and the only answer I could come up with is that it would be a world consisting of two sovereign states: one for men and one for women. These states would trade in sperm in one direction and baby boys in the other direction. Because these two trades are not equal in effort, the guys' state would also probably have to pay the gals' state for the boys.

Does that sound like science fiction to you? Sheri Tepper has written about that very idea in The Gate To Women's Country, and her book addresses many of the dilemmas present in that solution: How to keep the women's country from being taken over by the men's country, what to do about the grief that the mothers of boys feel when they have to relinquish their sons and how to reintegrate the countries at some future date. But the point she perhaps fails to stress enough is the advantage of that two-state solution: It's the one way that women actually could have institutional power in a gender segregated world.

I should probably stress that this post is an intellectual exercise in thinking about what sex segregation means. I'm not advocating it and neither am I arguing that men on the whole would advocate it or would want to dominate women through it. But pointing out the negatives of sex segregation is a useful thing to do, especially in light of the many proposals to reintroduce it into the American public school system.