Ann Althouse is having a little discussion on single-sex education over at her weblog, inspired by the conundrum of what to do about transgendered people in single-sex colleges like Smith. It would seem that the single-sex model does have certain advantages in that it enables women to pursue their education and form their identities without pressure from a competing masculine mode, although escaping the "distraction" of male students is less relevant today, given the image of Smith as a popular school for lesbians (it was rated the 5th gay-friendliest college in the nation).
It's clearly not an escape from sexual distractions that makes the women's college atmosphere unique. It's something about everyone being a woman, and allowing them to explore the plasticity of that identity, of being able to push the boundaries of what it is to be a woman in our society. That sounds like a plausible goal for a college to promote.
So when the only unifying theme is womanhood, what to do when some students renounce that identity? One alumna said, "If they want to be boys, they should go to a co-ed school." I have to say that I agree. There's exploration and role-play, and there's fundamentally changing your gender identification. I'm not sure if Althouse sees a difference, though. (Of course this comes back yet again to the bathrooms debate, and again Althouse expresses her utter intolerance of being in the same bathroom as someone with male genitalia, although her statement that "if no one can tell, I don't think it matters," is even more baffling--apparently her concerns about safety and messiness disappear if the genitals in question are attached to someone who's really good at passing.)
Having a space in which the infinite mutations of woman's identity can play themselves out is a valuable thing. Holding to a biologically essentialist line may keep out all the Y chromosomes, but it lets male identities and masculinity into a space that sought to exclude those influences because of their effect on woman's development. If you identify as a woman, you should be able to attend Smith, and if not, you should not.
I'd be interested in hearing anything Denise had to say with respect to this issue.
There's also a separate discussion of whether there should be single-sex law schools at Althouse here.