I go to a gym class sometimes which is called, I’m ashamed to say, “ass and abs”. In a black and mirrored room a floor above the grunting men with the physiques of balloon animals who pound and slam weights, the classes are a matriarchy: led by and almost exclusively attended by women. In the seconds after one Becky Hill song finishes and before another begins, it sounds like a delivery ward — all heavy respirations and swearing. I like the classes because it feels like the instructor is having just as awful a time as the rest of us. She hisses empathetic affirmations at us as we all hold a high plank to the cathartic lyricism of Adele. We gather like a clan for our little ritual, immolating our muscles as a sacrificial offering, nurturing our intentions for a strong core and a nice arse.
On Monday, our haven of sorority was infiltrated by a man. We cast each other conspiratorial glances as he made us warm up with jumping jacks, which absolutely nobody had the right bra for. The energy of the class was different. Rather than our usual commune of soft collective pain, this new guy brought with him a scary regime of autocratic shouting which was far more stick than carrot. I almost lost the frame of my Russian twist when I heard the woman on the mat behind me desperately whisper, “Why is he so mad at us?”
The technicality of the exercises and exertion required in both the female- and male-led classes are likely to be almost exactly the same. So, if you were to focus exclusively on results, both classes would be equal. But I know which one I would prefer to do, had I a choice.
Last week, some very interesting research by the University of Limerick and the University of Murcia found there is no real educational advantage or disadvantage in attending a single-sex school. It inspired yet another conversation about the need to eradicate gender-segregated schools — which are widely regarded as an embarrassing Irish anomaly, vestiges of Catholicism and archaic ideas about adolescent relationships.
Most of us attended ordinary all-girls schools in ordinary Irish towns and don’t recognise the portrayal of our model of education as some preserve of the bourgeoisie
I hate these debates, because the lone defence of single-sex schools often comes only from those in Dublin, where all-girls schools are often bywords for poshness and privilege. Most of us attended ordinary all-girls schools in ordinary Irish towns and don’t recognise the portrayal of our model of education as some preserve of the bourgeoisie.
I am sympathetic to those who would like to keep all-girls schools, not because I believe that students of such schools stand to benefit from any kind of advantage. Nor do I believe that teenage boys are such a threat to girls that they need to be segregated. My own view is that the experience I had in an all-girls school was joyous — often specifically because it was a single-sex school — and I would be sorry if that experience wasn’t available as an option to anyone else.
Those who oppose single-sex schools argue that they could promote sexism by making gender a point of division. My experience was the opposite. I remember secondary school as one of the solitary times in my life when gender truly was neutral. Our ambitions were just that — our own. Nothing that we did or achieved was ever seen in the context of our gender. Football, for example, was just football — not “ladies’ football”. For all the rest of my life, I have felt very keenly that everything I say or do is perceived through the prism of gender. Any professional achievements always seem to be things I have done as “woman journalist” rather than just as a journalist. In school, I felt that I existed more as an individual because there was never an opportunity to make the apparent differences between girls and boys, or men and women, a point of comparison.
College was a shock. I felt conscious of my gender in a way that I never had before, and could feel myself trying to shrink. Some would argue that this is a mark against single-sex schools. But the contrast just made me appreciate my school experience more. I don’t think single-sex schools should be blamed for insulating girls, however briefly, from the sexist structures that unfortunately exist in the rest of society.
And I’m getting increasingly annoyed at the suggestion that young women leave all-girls schools as skittish little mice who flee from men on sight. During a debate on the matter last week, one politician advocating for such schools to be banned posited the question, “What happens when [single-sex students] go on buses?” Let’s not be silly. We went to an all-girls school, but we still lived in the world.
I can’t speak to the positives or negatives of going to an all-boys school, but I can enthusiastically advocate for the experience of going to an all-girls one. While deep female friendship is not a universal experience, I believe that a lot of women might agree that any space that exclusively allows such friendships to flourish is a special thing which should be jealously guarded.
The laudable and long-overdue aspiration to dilute religious control over Irish education has never proposed banning Catholic schools, in recognition of the clear need to facilitate choice — even if it is a marginal one. Why not the same for single-sex schools?