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The Young Women Who Taught Lane Tech a Lesson

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March 21, 2012

This week, as part of Women’s History Month, ACLU staff across the country will participate in a blog series about Title IX highlighting some of the core areas of educational equality that this landmark statute covers.

By Rochelle Harris, Ph.D. (Salutatarian, Lane Technical High School Class of 1975, member ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri)

In the spring of 1971, 1,500 angry young men, waving fists and shouting, marched on the Board of Education building in downtown Chicago. “We don’t want no broads” was their chant when they walked out of school that day to protest the Board of Education’s decision to admit girls into the all-male Lane Technical High School on Chicago’s north side.

Lane admitted its first female students in 1971, 200 sophomores and 400 freshmen. These young women joined about 5,000 young men. I was among the first class of freshmen girls to enter that fall. It was a unique experience.

Founded as a manual training school in 1908 and changed in the 1930s to a college preparatory school with a continued technical education focus, Lane Tech had been an all-male bastion for over 60 years. But the winds of change were howling against institutions that practiced sex discrimination and sex segregation. Title IX was on Congress’ doorstep and the ACLU of Illinois was interested in integrating single-sex schools.

To receive the girls, the district had to remodel the school’s single-sex facilities, such as washrooms and locker rooms, but — more important — the attitudes of the majority of the student body, faculty, and administration had to change.

“What rights have the girls to be in this school?” opponents of integration demanded. Females will lower the academic standards, distract the boys, and ruin the football team. Girls will drag in home economics classes, and in two years Lane will be just another regular high school.

Nor did full equality happen immediately. The sophomore girls admitted in September 1971 were required to take the art and music track rather than the honors or college prep tracks. During my freshman year, Lane offered no sports opportunities for girls while it fielded boys’ teams in nearly a dozen sports. In the early years after desegregation, the district turned away many qualified girls with excellent academic records while accepting boys of equal or lesser qualifications.

But despite these stumbling blocks, Lane remained basically the same. The technical courses were still offered, academic standards remained high and even climbed, the football team survived, and tradition continued to prevail. Having the opportunity to attend one of Chicago’s premier high schools and to take technical classes greatly enhanced my education. And I think having girls around improved the educational experiences of all of those disgruntled boys as well. Today, Lane holds to many of the traditions established 90 years ago, and maintains an excellent record, including having produced more graduates who have gone on to earn Ph.D.s than any other high school in the nation.

Lane’s history should serve as a reminder that the history of segregating students by sex is one of exclusion from opportunity for young women and girls, rather than empowerment, and that coeducation was critical in enhancing equal educational opportunity. It also lifts the veil off the sex stereotypes used to support and maintain single-sex education today: the notion that boys and girls are “hard-wired” so differently that they need to be taught differently — which is used to justify a new wave of sex segregation today — is essentially the same justification used for excluding girls from Lane over 40 years ago.

For example, as recently as last year, here in Western Missouri, where I now live, the ACLU forcefully opposed single-sex classes in the Adrian School District because it was based on sex stereotypes — including unproven claims by school officials that girls were more emotional than boys, more sensitive to loud noises, and worse at handling stress. The Adrian school board abolished its ill-conceived single-sex program after the ACLU pointed out its illegality, but the fight goes on across the country, where hundreds of schools operate single-sex programs (including the Eagle Academies in Chicago), and new ones are proposed practically every day.

It is dispiriting that, as a society, we are still facing the same tired, stereotypical arguments 40 years after my classmates and I were in the vanguard in desegregating Lane Tech. Policymakers should heed the lesson of Lane’s history and put an end to this harmful and reactionary trend.

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