Women's Rights Take New Twist

From fitness centers to public schools, single-sex institutions make a comeback in America.

America's long march toward gender equality may be taking a strikingly different tack.

For decades the nation has tramped through gender barriers. Women got the vote. They went to college. They joined the military.

But now a small segment of America is starting to question whether men and women need to always be together, to have equal access to everything.

Massachusetts, for instance, is about to pass a law to protect women-only health clubs, where members leave their makeup and spandex at home and come for serious workouts, without concern about leers from men. California is doubling the number of single-sex public schools, hoping for classes where boys are more focused and girls speak up. After a spate of sex scandals, the military may return to single-sex basic training.

The moves hint at a sharp - some say practical - shift away from the feminist ideal of equal access for all. Under this new creed, separate and equal may be just fine in some cases. Indeed, if men really are from Mars and women from Venus, as the bestseller insists, then maybe they should just stay there, say proponents of single-sex institutions.

"After a lot of years of integration, feminists have turned their attention to a new subject. We're now talking about how to empower women in the workplace without having their sexuality be their main identity," says Linda Hirshman, feminist scholar at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Sometimes, an outgrowth of this shift is separation of the sexes.

But for every woman who endorses separate but equal, there's one who sees that position as a sellout - and as legally compromising. If integrated institutions, such as public schools and the military, aren't meeting the needs of women, those institutions need to try harder, they say.

To the National Organization for Women and other traditional feminist groups, the new acceptance of single-sex institutions stems from this despair over ever reaching real gender equality.

"Part of it comes out of a hopelessness of getting to a place where women aren't harassed by men," says Massachusetts NOW lobbyist Andrea Mullin. "They think, 'A colorblind and gender-blind society would be great, but it's not happening, so let's protect our own.' "

The Massachusetts chapter of NOW opposed recent legislation to protect women's health clubs because, it says, the measure allows gender discrimination. It sees the bill as a dangerous precedent.

Next week, women who want to pump iron at Bay State clubs - without men - will have the force of law on their side. Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) is expected to sign the bill that protects health clubs' single-sex status.

The controversy arose after a Boston patent attorney - a man - won a civil rights-based court battle to gain access to a women-only fitness club near his home. But women's objections were so strong that legislators quickly moved to protect the clubs.

For most women who use them, single-sex health clubs provide privacy and comfort. When they're contorting every which way to tone various muscles, they don't want any men around to stare. The clubs are also a sanctuary for those who are overweight, out of shape, or are victims of domestic abuse.

"This way, they can concentrate. They're not looking over their shoulder all the time to see if anyone's watching," says Noreen, a manager at a Boston-area club. She and other fitness center operators say 50 percent of their members would leave if men were allowed in.

But one area where frustration still runs high is the military. From the infamous 1991 Tailhook convention to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, sex scandals in the ranks seem to be cropping up with uncomfortable regularity. In December a high-powered panel appointed by the secretary of Defense recommended that the Army, Navy, and Air Force abandon gender-integrated basic training.

Meanwhile, single-sex settings are enjoying new popularity - despite a recent US Supreme Court ruling ordering the all-male Virginia Military Institute to go co-ed. California, New York, and Pennsylvania are among states that are experimenting with an expansion of single-sex public schools.

Heading into eighth grade last fall, Caitlin Buggy, a studious girl who lives in sunny Stockton, Calif., had become uninterested in school. Like other girls, she often hung out at the bleachers during gym class as the boys romped on the football field. Her mother attributed it to teasing between the sexes.

This year, Caitlin opted to attend a new girls-only program at the local middle school. "If she's giving a presentation, she no longer has to worry about ... what the boy she likes is doing during her talk," says Ann Baggy.

The school is part of Gov. Pete Wilson's initiative to offer more kids the choice of attending a single-sex school. He's planning to double the number from 12 to 24 - still a small fraction of the schools for the state's 5.5 million students.

The program is expanding carefully. At Caitlin's school, the girls get the exact same lessons as those in the boys-only program - often even on the same day. It's part of an effort to avoid lawsuits charging that the schools are separate and unequal.

"I'm hoping this year of being successful and assertive will give her the confidence to succeed" when she goes to co-ed high school next year, Caitlin's mom says.

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