Though it is very common today, coeducation was once a very controversial idea. The notion that women and men can learn together and help educate one another has evolved over a long period of time. The progress of women in education is a product of great determination from the Women's Rights Movement, educational institutions and government legislation.
The history of coeducational schools can largely be attributed to the genesis of the Women's Rights Movement. Early feminists saw the exclusion of women from the best universities as inherently unequal and unfair. According to Rosalind Rosenberg, professor of history at Barnard College, universities began to accept female students due to a combination of economic factors and pressure from the Women's Rights Movement (see References 1).
The implementation of coeducation gained popularity during the American Civil War when universities saw a drop in male enrollment due to the fact that many American males were enrolled in the Army rather than pursuing higher education. Female students began to matriculate many universities facing the economic hardships of the war. The entry of females into academia was a tremendous step toward a more equal society and an invaluable gift to progressive feminist thinking. The new voices being heard in academic circles helped the Women's Rights Movement and eventually led to women's suffrage.
The 19th amendment effectively granted women's suffrage in the United States in 1920. (see References 2) Women in the United States by this point had access to higher education, which in turn led to greater employment opportunities and a more equal society. Without coeducation it is unlikely that women could have achieved this political milestone. Female students today now compose 57 percent of the college population and go on to serve as professors, administrators and university presidents. (see References 3)
While some studies extol the virtues of single-sex schooling, it is important to remember that single-sex schooling is the historical by-product of sexist exclusion. Equality for women in education and society benefits a given society as a whole by providing a more educated populace and a more competitive workforce. Women's voices are essential in creating a balance in pedagogic and educational thinking.
The inclusion of women's voices in academia has broadened the scope and depth of academic thought. Female students and professors are now an integral part of the academic dialogue and provide new perspectives that were previously unavailable in the academic world. Coeducation has certainly benefited women, but it has also served male students by exposing them to great female minds and mentors. If your education was positively affected by a female educator, you can thank coeducation and the Women's Rights Movement.