Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 1997 Issue »


    Sally Schwager
    In reading the articles that comprise this Symposium, one is struck by the range and by the distinctiveness of women's experiences in education across time, across cultures, and even within single institutions. For example, Marilyn Mavrinac reports in her article, "Conflicted Progress: Coeducation and Gender Equity in Twentieth--Century French School Reforms," that girls' schools in early twentieth--century France benefited from republican ideals and reform efforts that invoked education in the service of a national meritocracy. Although such efforts failed to secure women an equitable place in French economic and political life overall, Mavrinac finds that by the 1920s, "a significant cadre" of professional women had been trained in the fields of law, medicine, public administration, and secondary--school teaching.

    This experience contrasts sharply with Deirdre Almeida's observation that educational policies in the United States throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries served to divest one group of women - Native Americans - of their leadership roles. She argues in her article, "The Hidden Half: A History of Native American Women's Education," that federal schools designed to promote assimilation not only distanced Native American girls from their own cultures, where some traditions of female leadership had endured, but also compounded this loss by restricting the education of Native American girls to training for low--status, menial positions outside those communities.

    Yet a different set of dilemmas confounded the experiences of the African American women addressed in Linda Perkins's study, "The African American Female Elite: The Early History of African American Women in the Seven Sister Colleges, 1880-1960." Institutions defined by White privilege might offer Black students opportunities for intellectual advancement, but social equality remained elusive. Subtle and not--so--subtle forms of discrimination were intensified by the fact that the vocational goals held by White administrators on behalf of their Black women students sometimes worked against those students' own professional ambitions. Nevertheless, the majority of the women studied by Perkins credited their alma maters with having been instrumental in their later professional successes. Their experiences, however, differed institution by institution, person by person, and decade by decade.

    These studies and the other articles in this Symposium reveal, however, that despite profound differences across groups and across historical periods, certain fundamental characteristics regarding the history of women in education pertain uniformly. First, the education of women and girls has been defined, almost universally, as a "problem." Questions regarding the nature of women's intellect, the purposes for which girls should be educated, the authority of women in the process of education, and the political implications of women's education all have served to problematize women as a category in relationship to intellectual work. The problem of women and education is rooted, moreover, in the relationship of education to religious teachings that attribute intellectual and spiritual authority exclusively to men. We find, for example, in Asgedet Stefanos's article, "Women and Education in Eritrea: A Historical and Contemporary Analysis," that traditional formal education in Eritrea was religious in nature and the exclusive preserve of men preparing for religious vocations or government posts that required literacy. Nineteenth-- and twentieth--century colonial and missionary schools for the most part perpetuated the exclusion of girls from formal schooling so that, even in urban areas, the majority of Eritrean women were illiterate prior to the 1960s, when the Eritrean People's Liberation Front expanded schooling to include girls as part of their struggle for national liberation. Kathleen Weiler, in her interpretive inquiry "Reflections on Writing a History of Women Teachers," identifies traditional religious conceptions of womanhood in the narrative accounts of rural California teachers as late as the 1950s. Probing beneath the beliefs revealed in these narratives, Weiler attends to embedded themes, omissions, and language patterns and finds, for example, a "convention of moral guardianship" that is reminiscent of religious concepts in the accounts of women teachers a century earlier. Their meanings, however, remain deeply contextualized by place and time and, as Weiler teaches us in her discussion of the nature of evidence, by the conditions under which they were produced.

    The articles in this Symposium demonstrate, secondly, that the history of women in education is linked everywhere to conditions of power and privilege. Linda Eisenmann's study of work on the history of women's higher education in the United States, "Reconsidering a Classic: Assessing the History of Women's Higher Education a Dozen Years after Barbara Solomon," reflects this fundamental political context not only in the individual histories she examines, but also in the very structure and development of the field as a scholarly endeavor. Taking Solomon's now classic study In the Company of Educated Women as her starting point, Eisenmann challenges the status relationships that have defined the history of women's higher education and also those that continue to define the field. She alerts us, for example, to the enduring primacy of the elite women's colleges in discussions of this history, and she warns that the "implicit hierachy" in Solomon's work, in which these colleges serve as the standard, has the potential to dictate the direction of future debate. Eisenmann proposes a new agenda that attends to the central importance of other groups and discourses - an agenda that is advanced by several of the articles in this collection. Stefanos's study of women and education in Eritrea, for example, explores the dynamic nature of education and culture, and it reminds us of the interaction between women's economic empowerment and schooling. Weiler's work on the nature of historical evidence enhances our thinking about discourse generally, while expanding the discussion of privilege to explore the fundamental link between knowledge and power.

    A third characteristic that is fundamental to the history of women in education is that woman's education has been defined by her presumed roles outside the intellectual arena. Eighteenth--century proponents of female education in England, France, and post--Revolutionary America framed the discussion by advocating improved education for free White women to prepare them for their duties as mothers, as companions to their husbands, as cultural conservators, and as guardians of civic virtue - extensions of women's traditional religious duties in accommodation of Enlightenment thought regarding human nature and the polity. As we know from the articles by Eisenmann and Weiler, this ideology was expanded over the course of the nineteenth century to further accommodate women's preparation for teaching. But even as opportunities grew, an anti--intellectualism regarding the education of women was reinforced and preserved well into the twentieth century.

    Marilyn Mavrinac's work is instructive in this regard. For most of the twentieth century, the majority of girls in France were educated for domestic roles or, in the case of working--class adolescents who completed higher primary schools, for jobs in the civil service. Although girls from the middle class and from more elite families might prepare to become teachers, the curricula in girls' secondary lycées and collèges perpetuated the "bourgeois educational traditions" of sewing lessons, charitable projects, and other useful, but clearly non--intellectual, activities. Similarly, Eisenmann points to initiatives such as the Smith--Hughes Act, which, during the interwar years, led to the expansion of vocational education in the United States and pushed both working-- and middle--class White women into commercial education programs. Almeida's work reveals the caste system that functioned along racial lines within such federal largesse. The domestic training that typified vocational programs for Native American girls in off--reservation boarding schools was unambiguous in its social purpose. Almeida reports that the girls' curriculum at Hampton Institute, which was promoted as one of the most advanced schools, included washing, ironing, mending, sewing, knitting and crocheting, waitressing, and housekeeping duties, along with religious studies and rudimentary instruction in English.

    Linda Perkins's study, however, provides dramatic counter--evidence to the notion that intellectual work, particularly that of women of color, always was proscribed. African American graduates of the elite women's colleges, while very small in number, appear to have experienced no restrictions on their courses of study, and many pursued careers as scientists, physicians, literary scholars, judges, lawyers, and distinguished teachers at a time when most African American women who received advanced educations, usually at Black colleges in the South, were, as Perkins reminds us, "channeled into teacher--training, vocational, or home--economics programs." Still, Perkins suggests that even for this elite group of scholars, the colleges' expectation was that African American graduates would serve as teachers. The graduates, however, frequently defied these expectations.

    Finally, it is often economic forces, rather than either educational or social considerations, that drive practices regarding the education of women and girls. We know from Marilyn Mavrinac's study, for example, that the push for educational reform for girls in early twentieth--century France resulted from the economic and social dislocations caused by World War I. The nation's massive need for women workers led to the first meaningful expansion of schooling for girls in France's history. Linda Eisenmann's work also directs our attention to the impact of major government programs on the behavior of institutions that educate women. Her discussion of the complex influences of the G.I. Bill, federal research support, and financial aid policies on women, particularly during the latter half of this century, leads us not only to redefine the key issues in the history of women and higher education, but also to redirect our thinking to the ways in which women's participation has altered the course of that history.

    This last point carries us to the most promising lesson that we might take from this Symposium - and from the scholarship on the history of women in education of the past twenty--five years. Historian Geraldine Jonçich Clifford, whose compelling insights into the history of women, teaching, and schools have enlivened the thinking of a generation of scholars, puts it most succinctly: "How did the presence of women make a difference?"

    We might elaborate by asking not only how women's presence (or absence) influenced institutions, but also how women's presence may have transformed thinking about teaching and learning, about the political context of schooling, and about the social ideas that have informed education generally. We might also respond by examining the ways in which women have resisted injustice and obstacles to their full participation in intellectual and social life and, as Almeida suggests, explore the ways in which women have sometimes subverted the intentions of their schooling. We might look more closely at women's participation in social movements and reform efforts outside the specific arena of schooling and, following Stefanos, address the systemic interconnections between political activism, education, economic justice, and social equality for women. And we might turn, finally, to the lives of women teachers and women students, guided by the rich historical work in this Symposium, in an effort to understand the meaning of teaching - and the meaning of learning - in the lives of women, individually and collectively.
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    Winter 1997 Issue


    The History of Women in Education
    Christine A. Woyshner, Bonnie Hao Kuo Tai
    Reflections on Writing a History of Women Teachers
    Kathleen Weiler
    Women and Education in Eritrea
    A Historical and Contemporary Analysis
    Asgedet Stefanos
    Reconsidering a Classic
    Assessing the History of Women's Higher Education a Dozen Years after Barbara Solomon
    Linda Eisenmann
    The African American Female Elite
    The Early History of African American Women in the Seven Sister Colleges, 1880-1960
    Linda M. Perkins
    The Hidden Half
    A History of Native American Women's Education
    Deirdre A. Almeida
    Conflicted Progress
    Coeducation and Gender Equityin Twentieth-Century French School Reforms
    Marilyn Mavrinac
    The Road to College
    Hmong American Women's Pursuit of Higher Education
    Stacey J. Lee

    Book Notes

    We Can't Eat Prestige
    By John Hoerr

    The Seed Is Mine
    By Charles van Onselen

    The Essential Piaget
    Edited by Howard E. Gruber and J. Jacques Vonëche

    Journey With Children
    By Frances P. Lothrop Hawkins

    Guided Reading
    By Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell

    One Child, Two Languages
    By Patton O. Tabors

    Taking Note
    By Brenda Miller Power

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