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Why Educate Women? Global Perspectives on Equal Opportunity



Susan Bourque
Susan Bourque,
  Rosetta Marantz Cohen
  Rosetta Marantz Cohen,
  Education & Child Study



Why educate women? What might appear to be a rhetorical question is, instead, the starting point for our proposed cross-cultural examination of women’s ongoing struggle to become literate, educated participants in the societies into which they were born. In the United States and abroad, in the 19th century and today, we see the question of women’s education as a profoundly interdisciplinary one which draws on history, sociology, economics and religion, and which connects, in fascinating and complex ways, to issues of national identity and culture. The history of female education in America represents an interesting starting point for tracing changes in cultural attitudes towards women’s education, worldwide. In nineteenth-century America, for example, women’s education was motivated by the powerful ideology of domestic feminism. Catherine Beecher’s “Angel in the House” was a woman who required rigorous intellectual training exclusively for the sake of child-rearing; indeed, women’s education was promoted as a way to ensure a protestant, moral space within the home, a far cry from the “equal rights” rationale for educating women that would emerge in the twentieth century. Similarly, as Jill Conway has demonstrated, the decision to employ young single women as primary school teachers in nineteenth-century America was dictated by economic considerations rather than a commitment to expand educational equity.

By 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments demanded a new conceptualization of female access and equality. At that time, arguments about educational parity were largely framed as a movement towards “equal co-education”—towards achieving parity of numbers not only on the playing field, but in calculus and physics classes as well. Since the 1980s, the American movement to return to girls-only education has been linked to the rhetoric of empowerment and a concerted effort to promote female independence and leadership. Single-sex education has experienced a resurgence of popularity in public schools like the Girls Leadership Academy in New York City and in the growing numbers of applications to single sex colleges and private girls’ high schools. In many other countries worldwide, enormous tensions still exist between the economic necessity of educating a broader workforce and the cultural norms and values that resist the idea of female education. Even in highly developed economies like Japan, the philosophical rationale for girls-only colleges is to maintain traditional roles and resist empowerment. Indeed, female education in Japan is often seen as a way to protect culture and teach girls to resist the lure of careerism.

In a number of societies, prejudices against women’s education run even deeper. Religious and cultural practices restrict women to the home and to local agriculture. Educational opportunity for women is limited by the belief that literacy leads to sexual freedom and escape from patriarchal control. Despite the increase in women’s leadership roles in countries around the globe, resistance to female education is a deep-rooted value. India, for example, embraced the notion of a female head of state many decades ago, and yet in rural parts of the country adolescent girls are prohibited by their families from attending local schools because of a lack of female-only toilet facilities. Class and caste differences continue to differentiate educational and political opportunities. In Africa, where women have also assumed important positions of political leadership and play critical roles in agricultural production, parents fear the sexual exploitation of their daughters in co-educational settings. Those fears lead to restricted school attendance and limited educational access beyond primary schools.

In recent years, the goal of national political leaders to speed economic development has led them to strengthen the capacities of their human resources. This relatively new shift in attitudes has initiated an expansion of rural education opportunities, including education for girls and challenges to the restrictions on women’s access to schooling. Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, has argued in his book Development as Freedom, that the single most important investment a nation can make in its future economic development and the well-being of its citizens is the education of women. This rationale for educating women is based on meeting a national need, rather than a claim of equality. Nevertheless, Sen demonstrates that women’s access to education enhances their ability to exercise decision-making power in the home and enhance their control of the quality of their lives and those of their children.

These kinds of contradictions and dilemmas will serve as foundational aspects of this year-long Kahn project. The goal of the project will be to invite an interdisciplinary discussion of the rationales offered for efforts to expand, restrict, or redefine educational opportunities for women. We undertake this discussion at a moment when cross-cultural and interdisciplinary discussion will allow us to engage colleagues throughout the world. We will be able to build on the scholarly interests of a wide range of Smith faculty members and the growing network of women’s colleges across the globe that are a part of Women’s Education Worldwide, a network of women’s colleges that encompasses institutional members from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Oceana and, we hope in the near future, from Latin America.

Project Fellows will explore a wide range of interdisciplinary questions such as: Has increased access to the formal educational system enhanced women’s economic, social and political participation? How have women leaders addressed the issue of broader access to educational opportunity? How does religion impact women’s education worldwide? What is the psychological impact of single sex education for girls on student performance in particular subjects-both in the U.S. and worldwide? What is the future of women’s education and what role can Smith play in its evolution? This project will be of interest to faculty engaged in research or teaching in the areas such as the history of women’s education in the United States and abroad; the study of female “pedagogy,” especially in the sciences, engineering and math; studies of gains and gaps in women’s basic education worldwide, with a particular focus on literacy in developing countries; immigrant and refugee education; changes in higher education of women in specific countries; the development of government programs and policies to ensure educational opportunities for women; and the function or role of non-government organizations in advancing informal education for women.




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