Ladies Firsters: Why the new sex segregation is great for women

Last week I hired a babysitter, put on a dress and took a taxi to a friend’s birthday party across town. Her beautiful house swirled with a hundred guests or more. The conversation was flat-out great: the election, how college is a scam and (my favorite topic) Lana Del Rey. Little was made of the birthday; I still don’t know which one it was. In place of cake and candles was an exclusionary door policy. Women. Only women. The three men present were waiters.

There was nothing defiant or political in this separatism. Separatism by sex is so standard at social events now that no one even commented on it. The crowd was cool and gracious. The women seemed universally like winners, expansively at home in this unmixed company. No men around to worry about, to protect, to impress, to slow down for.

It was at that party that I began to think about men and women in a new way. A new, new way. I’m not sure that the reign of men is over, as Hanna Rosin contends in "The End of Men," her blockbuster book about female adaptability and the service economy. But I began to seriously brood, for maybe the dozenth time, about coeducation. Maybe bringing men and women together to get educated was a good idea. For its time. Maybe it had a good run. And maybe it didn’t quite work out.

I grew up around Dartmouth College, where my father, who’d been educated at the then all-male Georgetown, went to teach in 1965, when Dartmouth too was all-male. When I was three, in 1972, Dartmouth went coed, the last of the Ivy League schools to do so. That year, my father taught female undergraduates for the first time. From then on, much of college life—the campus politics, the tenure battles, the social troubles—came to revolve around gender relations.

The same was true when I got to college at the University of Virginia. Date rapes were reported every weekend. Take Back the Night rallies—poster-construction, strategizing, socializing—became a big part of my curriculum. I studied the minutia of frat-house sexism.  (A subject maybe better suited to macro-analysis.) Wasn’t I supposed to be studying Latin or David Hume or something?

At the same time, chronic courtship and coupling and heartbreak flooded the limbic systems of students. We turned flush and stammery, with none of the sincerity about and gratitude for liberal arts and great books that I imagined in wool-clad students at Smith College or Yale or Oxford, before coeducation. With all these teenagers on top of each other at home and at work, every day in the lecture hall became a fraught fraternity mixer and not an opportunity for sustained and peaceful scholarship. No wonder our attention spans seemed to go to pot. How were we ever going to find the balance and focus to do scholarly work in such a climate of giddy flirtation?

But even if women and men in coed classes didn’t try to impress one another or have their attention split from schoolwork by courtship shenanigans, a single statistic should be enough for administrators to question having teenaged men and women together in residential colleges. In short, one in four college women in 2011, “report experiences that meet the legal definitions of rape or attempted rape,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Would you let your daughter move to a sketchy neighborhood with those odds? Now, would you pay $50,000 for the privilege of those odds?

And yet our parents paid. Probably, as parents, we’ll pay, too, and expose our daughters and sons to a similarly rigged social scene. And we’ll just hope that the threat of sexual violence, or the upset caused by it, or the efforts to protest it or understand it or downplay it or defend against the charges of it, will not interfere too much with higher education. We can further hope that the other infinitely absorbing details of gender relations won’t usurp education entirely.

But then we should also not be surprised when our daughters and sons seek to resegregate themselves by gender, as we have.

Because women—semiconsciously, maybe—are now openly seeking women-only refuges. This coming weekend, there’s the star-studded Women & Power conference at the groovy Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. There’s the jammed calendar of TEDxWomen events featuring a repertory cast of ululating drummers, breast-health experts and Oscar winners. And year round, in almost every town with a Starbucks, you can find yoga studios and meditation retreats and spa weekends and vegan restaurants and book clubs and nail salons and walking groups—all of them geared largely to women.

It’s really a good time, these girls-days-and-nights-out. The events don’t feature man-bashing, consciousness-raising or even the girly neuroticism of  “Sex and the City.” Rather, the women are deeply self-assured. They believe they have the cultural whip hand, but this belief is so deep that they feel no need to brandish that whip; they’re playing it cool. Only occasionally does the tone of a ladies event tilt into self-congratulation.

It buoys spirits, of course, that there are big, bestselling new books that fly the flamboyant colors of female chauvinism. They have those ugly, slightly bullying titles. There’s "Vagina," by Naomi Wolf. "The End of Men," of course, by Hanna Rosin. And "The Richer Sex," by Liza Mundy. These books have not exactly delighted reviewers, but they’ve made it possible to pretend that playground name-calling (“boys are dumb!”) is social science. Better still, Wolf, Rosin and Mundy do the name-calling for all womankind, so the rest of us can meet in silk dresses and not talk about gender madness at all.

The stylized “war on women” may rage on as a fiction of the election, but in the barracks women are living it up. Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader, now sits in parliament in Myanmar.  Women play golf at the Augusta National Golf Club. And, this week, we come to find out Jesus may have had a wife. The actual numbers cut all kinds of ways for women in corner offices and women in developing nations, but these cartoonish grrrl triumphs fuel and refuel the 24-hour it’s-great-to-be-a-woman jamboree.

So maybe the single-sex parties and single-sex book clubs and innumerable ladies’ nights are victory laps. Where my mother in the ‘70s and ‘80s hosted or attended coed cocktail parties once or twice a week, women I know in New York City increasingly socialize with women only. Nights that used to be dopily called “girls nights out” and then “ladies nights” are now just “dinners” or “drinks,” with the assumption being that the events are single-sex unless explicitly stated in the organizing email.

Somewhere, I assume, emails and evites are flying around setting up comparable gatherings of men. What do they do? Talk about the demise of manufacturing jobs? Fatherhood? Things men are good at—like rotating three-dimensional objects in space? I’m sure it’s really fun. You have your steaks and scores, then. I’ll just keep yammering on about Lana Del Rey with these ladies. And maybe, as we used to say in college, we can all meet up later.