On a leafy street in Carnegie Hill, in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, sits the Nightingale-Bamford School, founded in 1920 by Miss Nightingale (joined later by Miss Bamford) to educate young women from kindergarten through 12th grade. Nightingale is in the seven-member Inter-School Consortium comprising four girls’ schools (Brearley, Chapin, Nightingale, and Spence), two boys’ schools (Browning and Collegiate), and one co-ed school (Trinity). These institutions, along with a handful of others, educate the sons and daughters of Manhattan’s elite.
My husband and I did not grow up in New York, or in the world of private schools, and we were excited to visit them all and find the best fit for our daughter. In 1999, when she applied for kindergarten, Nightingale was perhaps the most old-fashioned of the girls’ schools. Its classical curriculum was extolled. It required Latin and poetry memorization, and the girls wore navy blue jumpers with navy blue tie-shoes. The place was rigorous but cozy, demanding but loving. It seemed to be exactly what we wanted for our little girl.
In our thirteen years there, we experienced wonderful times and difficult ones. There were mini scandals and urgent meetings. There was drama, and more drama. Cliques and gossip—it was, after all, a girls’ school. Tears and laughter, archenemies and BFFs. But by and large, the girls thrived and were happy. Or as happy as girls growing up and figuring out how to be young women are ever likely to be.
Above all, and most importantly, our daughters received a first-class education from a superb group of passionate and dedicated teachers. Nightingale girls learned how to write, how to argue, how to hold their own in any situation. Indeed, when they returned from their first year of college, most announced that it was easier than high school had been.
Our daughter graduated in 2013, and in the years since then, we have watched with shock, dismay, and heartbreak as the place we loved has disappeared. No longer do we receive emails celebrating the girls’ latest triumphs in the Latin competition, or on the debate team. Indeed, we never hear anything at all about academic excellence. I do not doubt that wonderful teachers are still doing wonderful work, but Nightingale’s own PR suggests this is unimportant when compared with the school's serious work of “social justice” and “restorative practices.”
We read a great deal about “allyship,” “affinity circles,” and “holding spaces.” Not so much about math and science. Nightingale’s Latin motto, “Veritas, Amicitia, Fides,” might as well be replaced by the three words that appear in every single school email—Diversity, Equity, Inclusion. Beloved traditions have vanished. Famous Women’s Day? Too stressful. Gilbert and Sullivan? You’ve got to be kidding. The rainbow flag is ubiquitous, parental diversity training is mandatory, and DEI administrators police the curriculum for “bias.” Viewpoint diversity, of course, is nowhere to be found.
Not that any of this is unique to Nightingale. Virtually every school in the country—public and private—is in thrall to the DEI gods and woke idealogues. Every day brings a new story of some atrocity in the schools. Brearley, Collegiate, Dalton, Fieldston, Grace Church, Riverdale—each has been the subject of recent articles about the takeover of New York’s private schools. Many were already headed that way in 1999 when we first visited them, but back then, Nightingale seemed immune, so it is doubly painful to watch it go the way of all the others.
What has happened? Well, of course, a great deal. But the seeds for all of this were planted decades ago. Activists have been marching though the academy and all our other institutions, winning battle after battle, while everyone else looks the other way, collaborates, or surrenders.
Which brings me to a moment in 2005, when my daughter was in Class IV. Morning coffee sessions for parents and the headmistress (as we then referred to her) were frequent, and we were attending one of these meetings, sitting in an informal circle and listening to her speak. When she asked whether we had any questions or concerns, I brought up the new photography exhibit on the second floor outside the cafeteria and library. Usually, the space featured art by the girls, but an exception had been made for this show, and it had generated a good deal of behind-the-scenes parental conversation.
The exhibit was titled “Love Makes a Family” and was sponsored by an activist LGBT organization committed to bringing about same-sex marriage. It featured a mostly benign group of portraits showing families with two fathers, two mothers, and a variety of other non-traditional combinations. But one photograph, in particular, had sparked interest. It was of two transgender men. To be clear, these were biological women who had chosen to become “men.”
Bear in mind that Nightingale is in the heart of deep-blue Manhattan. These were liberal parents, most of whom were in favor of gay parenting and wholly supportive of the anodyne statement “Love Makes a Family.” There was, however, some rumbling about the transgender photo, and there was a general feeling that the exhibit, if it belonged at all, should have been on the Upper School floor rather than next to the cafeteria. As I recall, not one of the parents thought the exhibit or its subject appropriate for Classes K-IV.
I raised my hand. “When our girls look at the photo of the transgender men, what are we supposed to tell them?” I asked. “Surely, our mission as a school is to empower young girls and women, not to suggest that if they’re unhappy, they can simply become men?” Silence. “And how do you suggest we explain to Lower School girls that this change occurs? Wave a wand like Harry Potter?” The headmistress, who was rarely at a loss for words, was unable to answer and mumbled something about how complicated it all was. The meeting was over.
Outside the schoolhouse, many parents voiced their concerns about the exhibit. But not one of them had spoken up during the session.
Seventeen years later, Nightingale’s corridors are full of young women who cannot explain what a woman is or why one should want to be female. An astonishing number of the Upper School girls identify as trans or non-binary. If a girls’ school will not or cannot speak clearly about the physical and emotional differences between men and women and, indeed, about the distinct joys and responsibilities of being a woman, there can be no possible reason for its continuing existence. The entire project of single-sex education devolves into absurdity and must surely be abandoned.
Meanwhile, as anyone paying attention knows, women’s sports are in peril, women’s prisons and bathrooms are open to all, women’s wombs are for rent, and “woman” is itself a forbidden concept. We are “bleeders,” “people with a cervix,” “birthing people.” And none of this, none of it, has produced happy and fulfilled young people. Instead, study after study shows that young women (and indeed, young men) are more miserable than ever.
It may already be too late to reverse course. We have all been very, very slow to the party. The orchestrated plan, seeded years ago, has been nothing short of an extraordinary effort to silence and erase one half of the human race, indeed, humanity itself—as it has been understood for millennia. While I loathe what the activists have accomplished, I must admire their persistence and drive. But it is now or never for the rest of us. Whether we kept silence out of complacency, fear, or an understandable if misguided desire to be open and “inclusive,” it is time to stand up and say, “Enough. No more.” The fate of our schools, our young women, and our civilization depends upon it.
Kari Jenson Gold’s most recent piece for First Things was “Woman, Heal Thyself.”
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