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  • Separate Schools: Gender, Policy, and Practice in Postwar Soviet Education
  • Andy Byford
Separate Schools: Gender, Policy, and Practice in Postwar Soviet Education. By E. Thomas Ewing (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010. xii plus 301 pp. $42.00).

The principle of coeducation was one of the cornerstones of the Soviet education system, introduced by the Bolsheviks in 1918, as soon as they began overturning tsarist schooling practices. It was enshrined as fundamental to ensuring gender equality in Soviet schools and society more generally. Nonetheless, in the last decade of Stalin's reign, the Soviet educational establishment went back on this seemingly sacrosanct principle and reintroduced separate secondary schools for boys and girls for a period of 11 academic years, between 1943 and 1954. E. Thomas Ewing's study is a detailed examination of this apparent "anomaly" in the history of Soviet education, looking at how and why the reform came about and eventually failed.

Ewing traces first exploratory discussions of separate schooling by the Soviet Commissariat of Education back to 1939, and initial policy proposals and pilot projects to 1941, in the midst of a wartime emergency. He shows, however, that these early plans remained largely invisible until 1943 when the policy was officially adopted and hastily implemented within just a few months of the start of the new academic year. Single-sex schools were introduced only in larger Soviet cities and their number varied from region to region, with the highest concentrations in Moscow and later Leningrad. They were promoted as the new norm in urban secondary education, but a considerable percentage of coeducational schools remained in place, especially in cities furthest from the political centre. Single-sex education implied the gender segregation of students, but not of staff, with women dominating the teaching corps in both boys' and girls' schools.

Although the idea of single-sex schooling went against years of propaganda for coeducation and gender equality, and was hence received with some surprise and uncertainty, it was initially adopted with little open resistance and in some cases even with guarded enthusiasm. The policy matched the need for enhanced military training for boys and conformed to Stalin's pro-natalist policies, which promoted motherhood into one of the primary roles of Soviet women. However, more important for Soviet educational policy-makers was the idea that gender-specific schooling could serve as a panacea for some of the key problems they faced in meeting the demands of the 1930s Stalinist education reforms—namely the challenge of transforming secondary schools into efficient disciplinary spaces. [End Page 257]

Ewing argues persuasively that the introduction of single-sex education was exemplary of the use of gender as one of the key supports of disciplinary state power in wartime and high Stalinism. However, the study's actual analysis devotes relatively little space to theorizing the nature of this gendered disciplinary power in the broader context of late Stalinist society. Instead the book concentrates primarily on charting debates about single-sex education policy and practice among teachers, administrators, parents and the schoolchildren themselves, within the relatively narrow confines of the school system itself.

Ewing's material reveals that gender stereotyping was rampant in the justification of separate schools as well as in the conceptualization of their partially differing curricula. However, sources also demonstrate that much rhetorical effort had to be expended on reconciling the new emphasis on gender particularity with the imperative of gender equality, in response to vocal resistances by female teachers and students to the explicit or implicit reduction of women to the role of mothers and homemakers. Furthermore, the implementation of the policy at the level of teaching and learning depended greatly on how individual teachers and school directors understood the policy. The result was much inconsistency and ambivalence in the articulation, implementation and reception of the reforms, leading to a range of logistical complications, contradictory interpretations and unwanted outcomes.

Crucial to the eventual demise of single-sex schooling was the gross failure of gendered education to serve precisely as an efficient instrument of disciplinary power. This became very clear in the aftermath of the war, as militarization was scaled down and as schools started to swell with higher...


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pp. 257-259
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