Mills College recently repulsed the male invasion invited by the college’s board of trustees, and it will remain all female, for the immediate future at any rate. At the same time, in the once proudly independent Commonwealth of Virginia, the state’s attorney general, a woman, is attempting to defend the prestigious Virginia Military Institute against a federally ordered female invasion. A private institution’s board of trustees may well prove easier to beat into retreat than the federal government’s immense equal opportunity and affirmative action machinery.
Most observers and commentators have applauded the victory of the Mills College women, while at the same time—and often in the same article—approving the federal mainmise against VMI. Such is the case with William Raspberry, who is unhappy about what he calls his “inconsistent opinions.” As though to confuse an already complex question, Raspberry evokes the phenomenon of black colleges—no longer segregated, as they once were, but still predominantly black.
Mr. Raspberry defends the existence of black colleges and, indeed, sends his own children to them. He even defends the existence of separate colleges for black women and for black men. His reasoning: black men and black women should have the right, if they so desire, to pursue their studies under circumstances that they find comfortable, even if they prefer to study only with members of their own sex. His conviction that people might study best under conditions they find congenial explains Raspberry’s support of the women of Mills College who want an all-female environment, but it does not explain his dissatisfaction with all-male VMI. Mills College is a private institution, while VMI is a public one, but this is not the important thing for Raspberry. All-male institutions bother him, public or private. Therefore it is, Mr. Raspberry says, “not quite all right to have predominantly white all-male colleges.” He defends his position on black colleges by saying: “We believe our children may be better off, socially and academically, in an environment where race is not an issue.” But he argues that it would be “patently racist” to attempt to provide a similarly “comfortable” (Raspberry’s term) all-white environment for white students.
One of the arguments used to persuade or pressure exclusive institutions such as previously all-male Ivy League colleges and clubs to open their doors to women was the contention that such colleges and clubs provided academic and professional advantages that would be unfair to deny to women, even though some or even most of their students or members might prefer it that way. On the other hand, in arguing that colleges such as Wellesley and Mills ought to be allowed to remain all-female, the argument is that they provide their students with important advantages that are not available in coeducational institutions. Somehow, this does not quite rhyme.
Let us suppose that we learned that a major educational institution in Japan categorically refused to admit blacks—or Caucasians, or both. We would immediately call that invidious discrimination. However, if a school in Japan admitted men of all races but no women, or women of all races but no men, would we so quickly condemn it? The Roman Catholic Church does not admit women to the priesthood, nor men to convents; the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod does not ordain women into the ministry, and Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women to the rabbinate. Many people object to these historic policies, but the volume of the objections is far less than would be the case if the Catholics refused to ordain blacks, the Lutherans to ordain Jewish converts, the Jews to ordain Gentile proselytes.
We would agree with Raspberry’s point concerning racial segregation: it should never be permitted as a policy, although if personal preferences and other factors cause members of one ethnic or religious group to flock to a particular school, that should not be prohibited. Some historically male institutions remain predominantly male, even though women are admitted: this is still the case with the service academies and with schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But although there are still 96 all-female colleges, colleges that admit only men are virtually extinct. Why is it permissible for a school to remain all female, but wrong for it to remain all male?
Although a number of Wellesley students rather fatuously criticized the choice of Mrs. Bush as a commencement speaker on the grounds that she has allegedly accomplished nothing in her own right, we are unaware of any criticism of the First Lady—or of her partner in that crime, Mrs. Gorbachev—for giving apparent approval to the continuing “sexism” at Wellesley. What Clark University Professor Christina Hoff Sommers calls “gender feminism” would virtually guarantee criticism if Presidents Bush and Gorbachev had been commencement speakers at one of the few remaining all-male institutions, but so far there is no “gender masculinism” to attack Mesdames Gorbachev and Bush for their action. The “gender feminists” are not impartial enough to say that what is sauce for the gander also has to be applied to the goose.