Alice de Rivera: Fighting the Gender Divide Fifty Years Ago

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Fifty years ago, Alice de Rivera, a thirteen-year-old girl from New York City, brought Stuyvesant High School to court and fought a case against educational sexual discrimination.

In the year of 1969, the U.S. was in chaotic divide upon issues of war, gender, and race. Despite the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision on the racial integration of public schools, fighting gender segregation in education was a radical idea. At the time, many elitist institutions, such as the Ivy League, preparatory schools, and specialized public schools, remained all-male.

A selective specialized public school in New York City providing accelerated college-prep education, Stuyvesant High School, was one of them. The school at that time accepted male students only based on a selective entrance exam; other specialized high schools in New York City had similar policies of inequality. For example, the Bronx School of Science had a two-to-one gender quota in effect 1946. Only 900 female students attended the city’s major STEM specialized high schools out of a combined population of 10,000 or so students.

In 1968, Alice de Rivera was a thirteen-year-old freshman at John Jay High School in Brooklyn. She had an aptitude in math and science, scoring a ninety-ninth percentile in the city-wide math examination. Because of her excellence, she was among the youngest students at her school. However, de Rivera was not satisfied with the lacking tutelage at John Jay and decided to transfer to Stuyvesant—one of the best high schools specializing in math and science—despite the gender restriction. Her action gained public support through civil rights activists and lawyers- it was no longer a girl’s fight for a spot in a prestigious high school but also a fight against the system of gender inequality in the education scene.

In the same year, Alice de Rivera met Ramona Ripston and Eleanor Jackson Piel who took on the case pro bono. In 1969, de Rivera filed a lawsuit in New York against the Board of Education. In the courtroom, Piel cited constitutional arguments against sexual discrimination and criticized the white liberal men’s attitude of blindness and aloofness to civil rights issues happening in their backyard. Although de Rivera, according to a New Yorker article, had to confront the pressure of her publicity in the media that sometimes sexualized the thirteen-year-old girl, she persisted with the lawsuit under the flow of the civil rights movement. She also gained the support of students at Stuyvesant High School who were particularly excited about a female student on the campus that they called “stuffy”. It was in fact gaining the support of her peers that encouraged De Rivera the most, regardless of their motives. Similarly, she at that time simply sought for secluded educational opportunities and did not realize the historical significance of the lawsuit

Soon, with sympathy from the judges, the board of education and the school board of Stuyvesant High School was awaiting public defeat. To avoid that, the New York board of education repealed Stuyvesant’s gender restriction in May 1969.

In the following year, thirteen girls enrolled at Stuyvesant High School facing judgments and seclusion. The school hastily changed a men’s bathroom into one for the girls, they used an auxiliary gym separate from the main one and even faced sexual comments and abuses from male teachers. Nevertheless, two hundred more girls entered the next year. Soon to follow, other elite specialized high schools in New York City became coed. Prep schools such as Andover, Exeter, and Boston Latin as well as elite colleges followed the trend. Harvard, for example, reversed their one to four quota of female students and started practicing “sex-blind admissions” only in 1977. Unfortunately, Alice could not enjoy her legacy immediately and attend Stuyvesant as her family had to move that same year.

On the fiftieth anniversary of this monumental case, it is a marvel to think about how much education, especially at prestigious institutions, became much more accessible for women in the past few decades. The tale of Alice de Rivera was also an exceptional example of how one person was able to spark change through entire systems. However, this is not the time for complacency, there are yet many changes to be made in the educational system—such increasing accessibility and mobility for groups of low-income and racial minority status.

Featured Image via the New Yorker

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