In short order, the number of girls in the student ranks did roughly equal the number of boys. The faculty today is more than half female. And until her retirement last summer, the head of school was a woman, for nearly two decades.
And yet some of the young women — and men — at the 235-year-old prep school feel that Andover, as it is commonly called, has yet to achieve true gender equality. They expressed this concern several weeks ago in a letter to the student newspaper, The Phillipian, and like a match to dry tinder, it set off a raging debate that engulfed the campus.
The proximate cause of concern was the election, held Wednesday, for the top student position, called school president. Since 1973, only four girls have been elected, most recently in 2003. (The other top student position, that of editor in chief of the newspaper, has had nine girls and 33 boys.)
The letter writers said this was an embarrassment, especially at a school considered so progressive. The paucity of girls in high-profile positions, they said, leaves younger students with few role models and discourages them from even trying for the top.
But the broader concern involved age-old questions of whether men and women could ever achieve equality, the nature of sexism and the nature of a meritocracy, which Andover very much purports to be.
“Right off the bat, it’s not a meritocracy for girls,” said Maia Hirschler, 19, a senior from New York City. “They’re starting behind because we don’t associate leadership qualities with them.”
John G. Palfrey Jr., the headmaster, said in an interview that Andover was only a reflection of other schools and society at large as it grappled with these issues. “We do not live in a post-gender, post-race, post-class society,” he said. “Girls have not had equal access to top leadership positions.”
In an attempt to improve the chances of electing a girl president this year, the school dropped the single presidency in favor of two co-presidents.
Many more girls did enter the race, all with boy partners. Other teams were made up of two boys. Over the last several weeks, the finalists were winnowed down to one girl/boy team and one all-boy team.
Both teams said the race became ugly in ways they had not expected. Clark Perkins, 17, from Fairfield, Conn., and Junius Onome Williams, 16, from Newark, said they felt attacked for simply being boys.
“We had to grapple with this on a political level but also a moral and personal level,” said Mr. Williams, who said he aspires to become secretary general of the United Nations. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘Am I doing an injustice to the female members of this school?’ ”
They decided they were not and said they would “not apologize for not filling a gender-balance quota.” Mr. Williams, who is black, noted that gender was only one demographic category. “Since 1973 there have been only four females, but African-Americans have been admitted since 1865, and we’ve had only three black presidents,” he said.
Mr. Williams and Mr. Perkins faced Farris Peale, 17, of Seattle, and Ben Yi, 18, of South Korea
Ms. Peale said that she had been Mr. Williams’ campaign manager — until he chose to run with Mr. Perkins. “He picked a boy and I got mad, so I decided to run myself,” she said. “Junius picked Clark because he thought he would appeal most to girls who think he’s cute, and to jocks.”
Mr. Perkins took offense at this suggestion, saying that he and Mr. Williams ran together based on their previous student council experience and leadership qualities.
After the votes were counted Wednesday night, the boys won (the tally was not made public). Mr. Perkins said they hoped to heal the rift in the student body.
“We are committed to ensuring that the voices and perspectives of all students — regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other factor of identity — are heard,” he said. “For the past few months, bitter divisions have torn us apart. During our presidency, we will host a series of campuswide forums discussing gender equity in student leadership.”
Ms. Peale said she was disappointed but did not see the outcome as setting back the cause, only making it more urgent.
“This can be used as momentum to get a girl in office next year,” she said. “Fewer girls try to get ahead because of a mentality in our culture that says boys have better leadership skills. But you have to put yourself out there.”
On the afternoon of the vote, a warm spring day, many students were outside, some tossing a Frisbee, others sitting around on the manicured lawns.
One group of boys said they had tried not to factor gender into their votes. Daniel Feeny, 16, from California, said that he voted for Mr. Perkins because he was a natural leader and that he would not vote for a girl just because she was a girl.
“I find it shocking that this is still an issue,” he said, noting that his mother and three older sisters were all “strong feminists.” “I’ve grown up with feminist values,” he said. “It’s surprising to me to get here and see women say they are still treated unfairly.”
His group of friends agreed that the person elected president usually has stage presence and is entertaining, and they concluded that perhaps girls have to be more serious in order to be taken seriously, which makes them less electable.
Girls who were interviewed were far more galvanized about the matter. They said that previous generations of women had broken down important legal barriers, but today’s struggle was against a less overt sexism that was embedded in cultural attitudes.
“The access has been achieved, but the equality in terms of roles has not,” said Jing Qu, 18, a senior from Illinois. “Girls are scared to be overly ambitious because they’re scared of the potential backlash.”
When girls strive for equality, several of them said, the boys feel threatened and as if they are being put down.
“There have been moments of feminism here, but it hasn’t taken root,” said M. J. Engel, 17, a senior from Wisconsin who ran for president last year and lost. “Now we’re in this moment again when feminism has receded and we’re back to a boys’ school in terms of student leadership.”
This has firmed her resolve, and that of her friends, to give the younger girls all the encouragement they can before they graduate.
“To use Sheryl Sandberg’s words, we’re going to ‘lean in,’ ” Ms. Engel said. “For us, that means push in.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 12, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the most recent year that a girl was elected school president of Phillips Academy. It was 2003, not 2004. The article also misstated the number of teams in a recent election for school president that were made up of two boys. There were more than one. And the article also incorrectly stated that only young women sent a letter about gender equality to the student newspaper. Young men signed it as well.