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Why Educate Women Project Year-End Report

Our Kahn project, Why Educate Women?: Global Perspectives on Equal Opportunity, was designed as a forum for both teaching and learning. Because our individual research projects were so varied—in time and geography—we began by assigning one another a series of summer readings. We used these, at the start of the year, to initiate early discussion, and to build a familiarity with the vocabulary of our individual disciplines and the broad boundaries of our various interests. The work of the rest of the year was then roughly divided into three areas of focus: First, we considered women's access to education from an historical perspective, with a consideration of historical issues in the United States, Mexico, France and the Middle East. Second, we turned our attention to contemporary issues in women’s education in the United States, including the continuing discrepancies in educational access and achievement by race and class, the impact of Title IX on women’s educational and athletic opportunities, disparities in women's access, and achievements in the (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) STEM disciplines. Finally, we considered contemporary challenges to women's access and achievement in the developing world, including countries in Africa, South and East Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Hoon Eng Khoo
Hoon Eng Khoo

To enrich our work, the seminar periodically invited outside experts in each of our general areas of research: historical, contemporary domestic, and international issues. We began with an overview of women's higher education in the United States offered by Linda Eisenmann, Provost at Wheaton College (Norton, MA), and an historian of American education. Eisenmann's presentation compared the impact of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique with the Report of the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, published as American Women. Both The Feminine Mystique and American Women appeared during the early 1960s, but as Professor Eisenmann argued, the policy recommendations of the Report were largely ignored and, as a consequence, policies recommended in the Report, such as federal support for childcare for working women, have remained unaddressed. Visitors also spoke about the history of education in other countries. Janie Vanpée brought to the seminar University of New Hampshire professor Nadine Bérenguier who introduced us to the culture of women's conduct books in 18th century France, spurring lively discussion about morals and cultural imperatives across time and place.

To initiate our consideration of contemporary issues of girls' education, we brought to the seminar Jeannie Norris and Sally Mixsell, Heads of School at two all-girls private high schools, Miss Hall's School and Stoneleigh-Burnham School, respectively. Both women spoke passionately about the importance of developing what they called "resilience" in their students, that quality which protects young girls against the cultural assaults that often silence them during the critical years of early puberty.

Jill Ker Conway
Jill Ker Conway

Our focus on international issues in women’s education served as a central comparative focus for the seminar. Professor Hoon Eng Khoo, former Acting Vice-Chancellor and Provost of the Asian University for Women and currently an Associate Professor of Biochemistry in the School of Medicine and the deputy director of International Relations at the National University of Singapore, spoke about the challenges of creating a women's university in the developing world. Professor Elizabeth Bressan from Stellenbosch University in South Africa spoke to the seminar on "Project Hope"—a University wide effort to reach out to underserved girls in South Africa’s townships. Future collaborations between Smith and the University of Stellenbosch are in the planning stages. Irshad Manji, the founder of the Moral Courage Project and producer of the Emmy-nominated documentary Faith Without Fear, discussed how the tenets of Islam can be applied to support the education of girls and women in the Middle East. A highlight of the year was a visit from Jill Ker Conway, President Emerita of Smith, a noted historian of women's history and a leader in developing programs supporting the education of girls and women in Vietnam and China. Conway led the seminar in a lively discussion of the ethnography in the book Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, as well as reporting on the Nike corporation's global efforts to improve conditions for girls through its program, "The Girl Effect."

Our own faculty was also mined for their expertise. This year's faculty Fulbright Scholar from Saudia Arabia, Mohammed al-Shagawi, lectured on the challenges of teaching women in a sex-segregated environment. Suleiman Mourad, Professor of Religion and a scholar of Islam, helped us understand the complexity of utilizing either the Quran or the Hadith as sources for expanding women's educational opportunities in the Middle East. Christine Shelton, Professor of Exercise and Sports Studies, continued our discussion of international education with a presentation on efforts to expand women’s opportunities in the world of sport. She emphasized Islamic women's use of sport as an example of the range of actors in this effort and the progress that has been made in identifying health, well-being and physical activity as human rights.

Nicholas Horton, Chi Gao and Tina Wildhagen at a WEW colloquium meeting
Fellows Nick Horton, Chi Gao, and Tina Wildhagen

Nick Horton, Professor of Mathematics, and Susannah Howe, Senior Lecturer in Engineering, brought to all our conversations critical interpretations of statistical analyses found in the literature. Such expertise was important in discerning the variety of claims that have been made regarding women’s ability in math and science, as well as claims regarding the optimum environments for girls' educational achievements. Comparable expertise was also found in the perspective of Tina Wildhagen, Assistant Professor of Sociology, whose work focuses on the gender gap between social classes and racial/ethnic groups; and in Rosetta Cohen's work on the impact of social class on Ada Comstock scholars' lives and career choices. Literary perspectives were represented in the work of Patricia Gonzalez, Senior Lecturer in Spanish, whose research focused on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the 17th-century Mexican poet and author; and Patricia Skarda, Professor of English Language and Literature, who examined 19th-century British literary depictions of women’s education.

During the spring of 2011, we focused on efforts to expand our understanding of the educational efforts for women in two geographic areas, the Middle East and Latin America. We invited experts working in the field of girls' and women’s education in each region to join us for two mini-conferences focused on the significant changes underway in each region. These mini- conferences (each a-day-and-a-half-long) included scholars such as Isobel Coleman, author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East, and Stacey Philbrick Yadav, an expert on politics in Yemen; political leaders such as Cecilia Blondet, former Minister of Women and Development in Peru; and program directors from the regional office of CARE in Egypt, Areeg Hegazi, and Central America, Karen Mejía Burgos, as well as CARE USA’s Director of Basic and Girls' Education, Sarah Bouchie. The participation of the CARE representatives offered an important practical dimension to our considerations because CARE has made the education of girls central to its international efforts. These conferences were open to the entire Smith and Five College community and attracted a broad audience of students and faculty and widened the impact of our Kahn project.

Cecilia Blondet
Cecilia Blondet

Among the many insights that emerged from our yearlong considerations, several were especially notable and surprising: With respect to the historical studies, the nonlinear nature of women's access and experience in education was reinforced in several research projects. What became clear to us was that the gains of one era did not necessarily carry over to the next; movement forward could be extinguished by changes in the economy, demography, or cultural norms, or by shifting political forces. Another insight that emerged from our cross-disciplinary and comparative historical study concerned the apparent similarities in the evolution of attitudes about women's access across many different countries. Fears about women's education in contemporary emerging democracies bear interesting resemblance to historical attitudes that served to thwart or slow the emergence of women's access in the U.S. Concerns about religion and culture, about economics and family hierarchies assert themselves in familiar ways, whether in 18th-century France, 19th-century America, early 20th-century Mexico or 21st-century Saudi Arabia.

As a group, we compared contemporary rationales for expanding women's access to education and found that similarities across countries were often striking. Proponents of expanded educational opportunity for girls and women stressed the positive impact education would have on the families of women: smaller family size, decreased infant mortality, increased probability that children would be educated, especially female children. While women’s increased agency in the family is noted in recent efforts to argue for expanded opportunities for women, we were particularly struck by the tendency to stress the impact of women’s education on others—be it their families or the community at large (as opposed to the women themselves). The contrast to a lack of such justifications for educating men led to a number of discussions about the "politics" (both historically and in the contemporary world) of developing public policies supporting expanded educational opportunities for women. Our exploration of such questions was enhanced by the insights of Judith Helzner, Director of the International Program on Population & Reproductive Health at the MacArthur Foundation, and Marysa Navarro, Professor of History at Dartmouth College, both of whom visited the seminar over the course of the year.

Student Fellow Gwen Gethner
Student Fellow Gwen Gethner

Our students produced a number of fascinating studies with regard to women’s access to education in the contemporary developing world. Chi Gao's project on the one child policy in China, for example, showed an unforeseen benefit for girls: When girls were the "single" child within a family, greater educational opportunities were made available to them than might have been the case without that policy. Other surprising research findings emerged from Samra Nadeem‘s project on Pakistani soap operas: contemporary soap operas that convey images of enlightened gender roles have had a measurable impact on viewer attitudes. This work seemed to suggest new avenues for delivering educational messages and material to women and men in developing countries.

Our ongoing consideration of the impact of education in the developing world led to further discussion of the impact of literacy, formal and informal education and the very positive impact of school attendance for girls. Most notable in this regard was the research by Faculty Fellow Cristine Smith, an Associate Professor of Education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and her colleague, Marla Solomon, a Professor at SIT Graduate Institute, whose findings from a broad international sample, indicate that regardless of the quality of the education delivered or the quality of the school attended, the singular act of attending school elicits positive results for girls. Clearly, much remains to be learned about the mechanism within schools that elicit these positive outcomes, as well as the ways in which those results can be enhanced and extended to more women. While it is clear that making schools safe for girls and protecting them from sexual violence are critical components for girls’ attendance and persistence in schools, there are significant unanswered questions about what additional factors might further enhance this process.

The year ended with the participants committing to a series of group projects intended to keep our cross-disciplinary work alive over the next few years. First, we intend to tap into the group’s rich intellectual resources by offering to newly appointed faculty members an informal lecture series on "what it means to teach at a woman’s college" —sharing insights about the history of Smith itself, as well as neurological, psychological and pedagogical understandings about how girls and women learn. We lamented that such information has not been immediately accessible to newly hired colleagues, and that each of us had to find our own way of learning, over time, about the rich history of our institution. Second, we intend to develop a new curriculum "concentration" at Smith, focusing on this broad and complex issue of women’s education. Again, pooling our intellectual resources and drawing on courses that already exist across the Smith and Five College curriculum, we will build a sequenced cluster of required and elective courses, independent study opportunities and internships and a capstone course or project that will allow interested students to pursue women's education as a coherent field of study. Finally, several participants in the seminar were involved in planning and hosting "Teaching Globally," the first faculty conference of the international network of women's colleges, Women’s Education Worldwide ®. One outcome of the conference will be sharing curricular and pedagogical materials across this network of institutions on women’s education. Further information on the WEW network and on the outcomes of the "Teaching Globally" faculty conference can be found at

Women's Education Worldwide Conference Delegates
Delegates at the Women's Education Worldwide Conference "Teaching Globally". Photo by Jon Crispin

But the greatest impact of our colloquium was on our own individual work. For many of us, the colloquium created a new sense of urgency for finding solutions to real and entrenched problems. Educating women across the world—whether it be by bringing equality to girls in Afghanistan, literacy training to women in rural Kenya, or effective high-level math instruction to female students in American cities—starts with scholarship in women’s colleges. We need to be able to gather the data and share more accurate information with the widest possible audience about the most effective means to broaden access, retain girls and women in schools, assist in the connection between the informal and formal systems of education, and identify the additional tools that will be necessary to expand equity. Such an ambitious agenda must be grounded in the highest quality research, and it is to that end that the ongoing work of the Kahn Fellows from the "Why Educate Women" project will be directed.


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