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Educating Women of the World

Despite worldwide differences, presidents and academic deans of women's colleges and universities from five continents were united this June in a common goal: furthering women's education. The three-day conference that brought them together, "Women's Education Worldwide: The Unfinished Agenda," was jointly sponsored by Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges.

Some 40 representatives from 29 colleges and universities in the United States, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and the Middle East acknowledged the challenges of educating women to assume leadership roles not only in government, business, and especially science and technology, but also in their own households and local communities as agents of social change. They also took steps to form a larger alliance that will advocate for women's education worldwide and become an international force for women's advancement.

Presidents and deans of women's colleges around the world gathered at Smith and Mount Holyoke last June for a three-day conference on the issues and challenges in women's education worldwide. Photo by Fred LeBlanc.

Not surprisingly, the diverse group set forth a number of notable ideas and ideals:

Amartya Sen, one of the keynote speakers, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and Lamont University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, explained that basic education for women holds the potential for "facilitating radical social and economic changes that are so badly needed in our problem-ridden world." He presented evidence that basic literacy and numeracy enable women to find their voice in the family, village and beyond.

Carol T. Christ, president of Smith College: "In countries without free and compulsory primary education, gender inequities manifest themselves as early as the primary school level, making women extremely vulnerable to poverty and deteriorating economic conditions."

Joanne Creighton, president of Mount Holyoke College: "Advancing educational opportunities for women across all ethnic, racial, age and socioeconomic groups continues to be the great unfinished agenda of the 21st century…. Our goal is to encourage our students to take their place along with men in the highest reaches of the professions, society and government."

Haifa Jamal Allail, dean of Effat College in Saudi Arabia, acknowledged that women at her college "think about what women lack with respect to the political arena."
Sheila Widnall, another keynote speaker, Institute Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former secretary of the U.S. Air Force, explained that although there have been increases in the number of women in the engineering field in recent years, "never has there been such a need" for their greater involvement "in a world of resource constraints and environmental challenges."

Susan Bourque, Smith College provost and dean of the faculty, argued for coupling the sciences with liberal arts programs to attract more women and create scientists and engineers who will bring a broader perspective to their professions. "We know that in all the scientific fields there are critical and ethical and scientific issues [where] we want women's voices at the table -- a variety of women's voices -- and even women leading that conversation."

Mary Patterson McPherson, chair of Smith's board of trustees, stated "a commitment to educating women students broadly as well as deeply in their own rich histories and traditions and in those of other peoples with whom they will live and work across a shrinking world."

Amrita Basu, director of the Five College Women's Studies Research Center, noted that the conference demonstrated "an underlying recognition that the goals of women's education are the goals of creating a more tolerant, pluralist world."

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