I was all geared up to write a column fulminating against Harvard for setting up women-only hours in one of its gyms because apparently some Muslim women students felt more comfortable exercising away from the eyes of men. Kowtowing to religion! Validating Islam’s obsession with female–and only female–modesty! Denial of equal gym time to men! When I was an undergraduate, Harvard kept women out of all sorts of good stuff, like convenient places to eat on campus. Until a year before I got there, women were banned from centrally located Lamont Library, supposedly to discourage canoodling in the stacks. All the gyms on campus were single-sex back then, not that I knew where they were. In short, I’m very conscious of the ways single-sex arrangements have historically given men the lion’s share of whatever is being divvied up.
Unfortunately for my life as a casuist, I made the mistake of asking my ever-sensible daughter and her friend Lindsey, both college juniors, what they thought. They thought women-only gym time was fine. “It’s only six hours a week, Mom,” said Sophie. “And the gym is the least used one on campus.” What about the principle? “I think it’s hard to be a Muslim girl in a co-ed school,” Sophie answered. “If this makes it easier, they should have it.” “Well, I don’t know that it’s especially hard for them,” Lindsey put in–here followed a lengthy discussion of the social lives of Muslim and Orthodox Jewish girls. But say you were a male student, I asked, and you showed up to work out at girls-only time? “Well, I would just come back later,” said Sophie, or go to another gym. Honestly, Mom, what’s the big deal?” So it doesn’t bother you that Harvard is making a special arrangement because of religion? “Well, it isn’t really doing that,” Lindsey said, “because any woman student can use the women-only hours, and Muslim women don’t have to use them if they don’t want to.”
Right. Why hadn’t I thought of that? The Harvard gym controversy looks like it’s about religion, but really it’s about whether women (or men) should have a little bit of separate space in a co-ed university.
But that’s not so exciting. Few would be writing about this handful of single-sex gym hours if the request had come from, say, overweight women or shy women or the club of virgins recently written about in the New York Times Magazine.Some co-ed campuses have single-sex dorms–Cornell has one for women–to say nothing of sororities, fraternities and single-sex societies like Harvard’s ghastly final clubs. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Orthodox Jewish women at Queens College of CUNY asked for one hour of women-only swimming, a request seconded by other women; now Queens has a weekly pool hour for women and one for men as well. Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, St. John’s College in Santa Fe, and Kalamazoo College have all experimented with women-only gym times or classes. None of this has aroused a lot of interest from the national opinion industry. Maybe the women writers are too busy exercising at Curves, the ubiquitous women-only chain, while the men writers are off at their Elks lodge.