Sunday, October 10, 2010

What is Our Work? Towards A Feminist Future in Education

Ellie Smeal and Alan Alda, ERA rally
June 30, 1981.  Photo credit
This concludes a three part series on feminist education:  you may want to read Part I and Part II first.

Gender inequality occurs in educational, and subsequently professional, atmospheres in which we have substantial evidence that men and women are equally able. The gender gap in math testing is shrinking rapidly, and at the top levels, it is insignificant. But as  New York Times reporter Tamar Lewin noted in her commentary on “Why So Few,” a lack of faith in women’s abilities on the part of those who should be welcoming them to the next level of achievement may also reduce the confidence of even the top young female mathematicians. Hence, as Lewin concluded, “girls’ lesser belief in their own skills may partly explain why fewer women go into scientific careers.”

So returning to the question I asked in a different way --what is the role for a women's college in creating gender equality?  First and foremost, women's colleges create visible locations to find and connect to talented women are eager to be found and have their interests promoted aggressively.  Second, a woman's college is a critical institutional base for feminism.  Third, it is a location from which feminists have an obligation to articulate all institutional issues – scientific, commercial, political --as women’s issues.  

These are not tasks whose time has passed.  And at a historical moment where the wage gap between men and women has stalled at an average of .77 to the dollar for over four decades, the task is urgent.  The fact that this gap grows as the job itself requires more education and training makes discussion of this problem even more urgent for educators. Women's colleges have a special civic and an international obligation to be leaders in the debate over gender equality and wage gaps, in the United States and around the globe.  All feminists must support them in this task, holding conferences, creating forums, and generating policy papers that build on and reproduce feminism's successes while striving to correct its failures.

Science is just one important example of why an institutional locations for feminism matter, in the private and in the public university world. When I say “feminism,” I use that word as a historian who understands the range of political and social meanings that can have among women of different racial, class and national backgrounds. It is, by definition, an inclusive posture that articulates rights and responsibilities for women. As Nancy Hewitt has recently argued, there have been no “permanent waves” of feminism over the last 150 years, only tendencies that often compete with as much as they support each other. But all feminisms assume that the health of any social order can be measured by the status of women within it. Bettye Goldstein, who I introduced you to in Part I of this series, was an old Popular Front feminist who saw coalition as essential, even though it wasn’t something she was always good at achieving. She began NOW as an explicitly non-partisan organization, believing that feminism ought to cast its net as broadly as possibly in the interests of women’s equality. Hence, my feminism may be different from your feminism, but for the purposes of building and strengthening women’s colleges, let me make this argument: institutional feminism should be a broadly inclusive, woman-centered approach to pedagogy and community that recognizes and supports all women’s aspirations to equality.

This commitment to equality would include:

Recognizing a parent’s connection to (and often primary responsibility for) children and family. In the absence of universal daycare, it would endow a subsidized, co-operative 24-hr daycare center on campus where undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, administrators and staff could know their children would be safe and loved until they or their partners could pick them up.

Recognizing women’s rights – on campus, in the United States, in the hemisphere and around the globe – as a critical topic of study, both academically and as a co-curricular focus.

Aggressive affirmative action for demobilized veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and reaching out to women veterans, many of whom will leave the service deeply traumatized by their experiences in and around combat zones.

What this kind of agenda requires is close attention to the needs of the individual student who is seeking equality in a gendered world: it is the kind of work a feminist, women's college can do. Such spaces must be inclusive, places where feminists of many descriptions -- some of whom will be men -- can make arguments on behalf of women’s right to have access to everything.  The support of a like-minded community is important, but it is pedagogical, curricular, and practical reforms that will support women’s aspirations to scientific, or any other rigorous form of education. That might mean daycare, as I suggested, so that women can maintain an onerous lab schedule; it might mean enhancing mentoring. It might mean a center dedicated to women’s physical and sexual safety, where concerned men are included in a feminist project to prevent campus violence. It might mean a women’s gym, like Harvard has established, so that women who must limit their physical exposure to men on religious grounds may relax and be physically healthy.  It might mean a veterans’ center, where military women could be paired with mentors, have quick access to psychological support and tutoring, and from which a phone call would originate when a woman doesn’t show up for class, a phone call that would gently inquire whether she is sick, has missed her bus, or is just overwhelmed.

Equality is never a finished project. As women’s aspirations and achievements change, so do their needs. While a women’s college privileges a feminism that puts women at the center, we must remember the other piece of the gender equality equation that feminism attends to: providing spaces where men who care deeply about the advancement of women in science, or any other field, can come to recruit the best minds, to partner with them, to mentor them, and to learn from them. Gender equality is a project, and it is, as Mary Maples Dunn said to me, an unfinished one. But to believe and invest in a project like feminist education is to demonstrate optimism about gender equality by investing in the institutions that will create it. Gender equality is, in the most optimistic scenario, a feminist task that may remain unfinished as long as women continues to re-imagine and re-invent themselves to meet the challenges of their own generation.

This is, to paraphrase Katherine McBride, Our Work.

Cross Posted at Cliopatria.


jason fossella said...

I'm a PhD student in history, and I've been reading you for a while now without commenting. I wanted to let you know that this series is inspiring me to think about how I can incorporate some of this into my teaching at coed schools (since it's highly unlikely I'll ever be at a women's college), and I'm going to look into doing my school's grad cert in women's studies. Right now I have basically no knowledge of feminist theory or women's history, so at least it wouldn't hurt.

Jane said...

I couldn't help but wonder what the world would be like if sizable numbers of lesbians had a college that was feminist, and that put lesbian nation into play in a large intellectually dynamic way.

Had I to do it all over again, I would have gone to a women's college, and been a lot happier.

I love the idea of a women's gym at Harvard, because all women deserve male free spaces to relax. I never relax if men are around, and still long for more feminist support for a separatist movement, and women's country. I want to think way outside the "gender' "equality" box, and create a world where women can live their entire lives without male interference, the male gaze, or financial connections to men.

Only when this is widely available, and women have true freedom to choose, will women grow.
As long as we battle men, who show zero signs of changing in ways that matter, the more we have to create a radical future.

Thanks for this series. It made me sad for all the battles I had with sexist pigs during my very formative years.

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