Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 1997 Issue »


    Narratives of Possibility and Impossibility: What Unites Us and What Separates Us

    Eileen de los Reyes
    Defining My Location in the Discourse on Feminist History

    As a feminist researcher, I adopt the posture described in this Symposium by Kathleen Weiler of "mov[ing] uneasily between historical narrative and a self--conscious analysis of texts" (p. 652). This self--conscious analysis requires the researcher to acknowledge and make part of the research her/his race, ethnicity, class, gender, beliefs, assumptions, and ideology. As feminist scientist Sandra Harding explains, the researcher "must be placed within the frame of the picture that she/he attempts to paint" (1987, p. 9). The inclusion of the researcher's biases and experiences relevant to the research is not meant to be a therapeutic or healing device for the researcher, but is included as part of the body of knowledge that the reader must have if she/he is to arrive at "a contrary hypothesis about the influence of the researcher's presence on her/his analysis" (Harding, 1987, p. 9). As I analyze the articles in this Symposium, it is essential for the reader to know what parts of my identity had an impact on my reading of these texts, individually and as a whole, and the ways in which my history and ideology help, hinder, and mediate my analysis.

    This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the colonization of my country, Puerto Rico, by the United States. Together with the previous four hundred years under the Spanish Empire, we have a history of five hundred years of colonial rule. The possibility of our independence disappeared when, in 1898, the United States invaded Puerto Rico. Every day something reminds me of the moment when the colonizers' decision to invade Puerto Rico transformed the life of my country and, through the generations, my own life as well. Through this action against us, I became a colonized woman who, like countless other women around the world, had one of two choices: to accept or to resist. I chose the latter. As I approach these texts, my own location influences how I read the history of women in France and Eritrea, and the history of African American, Native American, and White women in the United States. It is this perspective that allows me to make sense of the readings in this Symposium, both as separate narratives and as a collective effort to name our oppression and celebrate our resistance.

    While I see a clear and shared pattern of patriarchal oppression emerge, linking the narratives of women in France, Eritrea, and the United States, I also see distinct and separate narratives of oppression. These separate narratives speak about colonialism and racism, positioning women on opposite sides. Some of the women in these histories are colonizers, while others are the colonized. Some women are the object of racism while others collaborate in racist practices. The unity among us that results when one views our own oppression as women dissolves when multiple layers of oppression are superimposed on some women but not others. The language and the analysis of these multiple forms of oppression are complex and at times daunting, but this complexity should never hide or diminish the day--to--day reality of those who bear the burden of this oppression. The authors in this Symposium deal with these complexities, while at the same time remaining self--conscious and uncomfortable in the face of oppression in all its manifestations.

    The tension between these various forms of oppression that locate women on opposing sides is problematized by the authors in this Symposium. For example, Linda Perkins points out that, "as many White women sought parity in education and other aspects of American life, they in turn often denied the same to African American women" (p. 719). Kathleen Weiler acknowledges that she "came to see more clearly that the social and cultural world of my mother and other teachers was built on assumptions of White and Protestant hegemony" (p. 636). Dierdre Almeida, quoting Zitkala--sa, presents a particularly poignant example that places White women and Native American girls in opposition:

    A rosy--cheeked paleface woman caught me in her arms. I was both frightened and insulted by such trifling. I stared into her eyes, wishing her to let me stand on my own feet, but she jumped me up and down with increasing enthusiasm. (p. 764)

    The tension between women, evident in these texts, creates a space for a discussion about research agendas. Almeida and Linda Eisenmann help us identify the parameters of the discussion. Eisenmann argues for the need to produce an integration and a synthesis of the history of women in higher education. She argues that

    recent scholarship has begun to disaggregate the groups of women who participated in higher education, examining the specific experiences of racial, ethnic, and religious groups who sometimes formed separate institutions and sometimes pushed for a place within the mainstream. Historians have not yet, however, integrated this work into the overall story of women's higher education, causing it to remain a patchwork of secondary materials awaiting a synthesis or a broader framework or appearing as appendages to wider histories in the way that Solomon wrote. Like the populations it discusses, the scholarship has too frequently been allowed by historians to sit at the periphery of the traditional history. (p. 706)

    While Eisenmann's argument for the need of synthesis and integration refers specifically to higher education, it may also be relevant in other arenas. This move toward integration and synthesis needs to be contrasted with Almeida's statement that, "as a Native American woman, I believe it is our responsibility and right to produce research that specifically relates to us as Native women" (p. 758). The question becomes, Are these mutually exclusive positions, or is there a possible reconciliation? Additional questions may be: Who will produce the synthesis? How will the work of scholars who are working on producing research that relates to a specific community be integrated and synthesized? What is the objective of the synthesis? Are these parallel research agendas or do they intersect? Can this move to produce a synthesis inadvertently re--create another form of oppression? My intention is not to answer these questions, but to present them as unresolved dilemmas that need further discussion among feminist scholars.

    The shared experience of oppression and resistance is easily pieced together as the reader moves from one text to the next. All authors contribute memories, experiences, information, and stories that link together, naming and renaming women's oppression around the world and across time. Yet the need for a separate narrative becomes evident as one reads the work of Perkins, Almeida, and Asgedet Stefanos. The need to continue the construction of a shared narrative for and about women may stand in contradiction with the need to create a separate narrative that reconstructs the history of those who, as a result of colonialism and racism, lost the right to name themselves and write their own histories. Reclaiming the right to write about and for ourselves is more than a research agenda; it is an essential tool for survival. How should we approximate this contradiction? What unites us? What divides us? Where do we go from here? Do we move together or separately?

    Constructing a Shared Narrative about Women's Domination

    The oppression of women as described in this Symposium creates a shared narrative. This shared narrative of oppression is countered by a shared narrative of resistance. Patriarchal structures that excluded women from education can be found in Eritrea, France, and the United States. Examples abound in this Symposium. While Stefanos explains that women in Eritrea believe that "the government's predominant focus is on economic modernization and that it has displayed a tendency to regard women's emancipation as a side issue or distraction" (p. 676), Marilyn Mavrinac argues that "the system and personnel [in France], transfixed by class inequities, have done surprisingly little for gender equity" (p. 791). Mavrinac's argument - that "another conundrum, not unique to France, is that teaching is considered an ideal occupation for women, yet education policy debates do not typically involve women's issues, such as gender--equitable appointments in school administration or gender--balanced curriculum materials" (p. 773) - resonates with Weiler's analysis of the experience of teachers in California between 1850 and 1881.

    The use of women around the world and across time to sustain the economy and the livelihood of institutions also becomes evident in this Symposium. Eisenmann gives a clear example: "At Harvard University . . . wartime women students integrated classes with men for the first time; without these female students, numbers would have been too small to continue" (p. 701). Referring to Hunter College, the largest women's college in the world in the 1930s, Eisenmann explains, "Yet, generally, women's high participation as students and their enhanced leadership roles diminished with the influx of male veterans, leading to a decade--long decline in women's participation as both students and faculty" (p. 701). Mavrinac's work further points to the use of girls to sustain boys' colléges. The expansion of French coeducation in 1931 is a case in point:

    This ad hoc secondary coeducation flourished as a quiet convenience in provincial regions. The strategy, justified tacitly as bourgeois gender equity, had a further agenda that Herriot, then Minister of Education, revealed in two 1926 speeches. At one time he recalled his sympathetic response to families requesting coeducation for their daughters. In a different speech the same year, he noted that a significant economic measure in his annual budget proposal was the admission of girls into rural boys' colléges to increase enrollments of these weaker establishments. (p. 781)

    Stefanos also links the role of Eritrean women to a larger political and economic agenda: "Under both Italian (1889-1941) and British (1941-1952) colonialism, there was no effort to educate or develop the skills of women, since it was considered unnecessary to secure political domination and economic exploitation" (p. 662). These articles point to the use of women in the United States, France, and Eritrea as objects used or discarded, depending on the economic and political needs of the moment, adding yet another piece to the construction of a shared narrative of oppression.

    After reading these texts, one can imagine the possibility of a dialogue among women around the world and across time, facilitated by a shared language of oppression. In this instance, the marker for the oppression is simply being a woman. This imaginary dialogue may be facilitated further by a shared narrative of resistance and struggle. These struggles are grounded in the possibility of finding spaces in contradictions and creating opportunities that were not intended for us.

    Stefanos may very well have captured the nature of women's struggles around the world: "Depending on the particular contradictions posed by the changing socioeconomic and political conditions, women created spaces for themselves within the existing structures to gain some degree of cultural and social autonomy and self--determination" (p. 659). The opportunity to create more often than not comes "unexpectedly" and "quietly." Mavrinac makes it eminently clear that the education of French girls is the result of "quiet" reforms not intended for them, and that their education is a "by product," or an opportunity that "came in by the side door." In Eritrea the unexpected opportunity came with men's departure from the village to the city and the plantations. As Stefanos argues, "the contradictions between the traditional and colonial system inadvertently created possibilities for women. In response to their men's departure to plantations and the city, some women left their villages and went to the cities looking for jobs" (p. 664). This and other unexpected turns of events, she says, gave women both the opportunity to gain some autonomy and to "reinvent themselves"(p. 664). Some women, writes Perkins, gained an education "in spite of" the institutions they attended. In some instances, "the presence of one or two women faculty members, joined by the support of a few influential male colleagues, could sustain women's participation in the face of wider university ambivalence" (Eisenmann, quoting Berkeley, p. 704). Almeida's research, citing Green, describes how women turn oppression into a tool for struggle:

    These relocation policies backfired on the U.S. government. Instead of creating a better atmosphere for assimilation, they produced a new population of educated Native American women who turned their newfound skills into tools for political and cultural activism. (p. 767)

    Again, one may imagine a dialogue among women around the world and across time, sharing their struggles against patriarchy and celebrating their courage and resistance. One can also anticipate that this dialogue can only move so far before it faces serious obstacles.

    Constructing a Separate Narrative of Oppression and Resistance

    The violence perpetuated through the continuation of colonialism, postcolonialism, and racism challenges the notion of a dialogue among women that does not take into account their separate yet interlocking histories and memories. Relations of power and powerlessness among women constitute a major obstacle to the dialogue and consequently must be addressed. The authors in this Symposium tackle the issue with courage and determination.

    For Native American and African American women in the United States, and for women in Eritrea, the ability to write their own history becomes a contested terrain where their own self--definitions are captured and reinvented by the dominant power. Almeida explains these constructions: "In their research, European Americans have continually portrayed Native Americans as a vanishing race" (p. 758). Weiler gives a graphic example of the construction of an African American woman by a White male journalist and concludes, "it is almost as though she represents to him a White woman trapped inside a Black body" (p. 645). Perkins adds to the argument of the invisibility of African American women, stating that, "although many histories and studies have been done on the Seven Sister colleges, none focuses on the presence (or absence) of African American women attending them" (p. 719). When reclaimed, the history of these women involves a description of multiple layers of oppression, including being oppressed by other women who carry with them the power vested in them by the patriarchal system of domination. Being a woman, then, constitutes only one of these layers of oppression.

    Stefanos describes the layering of oppressions: "Thus, conservative Western conceptions of gender roles and capitalism's sexual division of labor were grafted onto existing traditional features of Eritrean women's subordination" (p. 663). As described, the colonial oppression of women is superimposed on their already existing subordination, constituting one more layer of oppression. The multi--layering of colonial oppression moves through education and into the families. Almeida explains how "this formal education system contributed enormously to the breakdown of Native families, including women's traditional roles" (p. 762). Stefanos adds how "a major component of missionary schools for girls was the promotion of converts and implanting religious principles in Eritrean families by turning girls into Christian wives and mothers" (p. 663). Perkins describes the humiliation and exclusion of African American women as they were barred from some White women's campus organizations and activities, and denied on--campus housing and financial support if they managed to get into the institutions by "passing" for White. These constructions of oppression involve, then, an additional set of markers such as ethnicity, race, and culture, as well as gender.

    Resistance also comes in distinct forms that help create separate narratives of struggle. Revolution becomes the option for women in Eritrea, and in the mid--1970s they engage in the liberation struggle. They participate in the fight as soldiers in the field and collaborate in winning their independence. They win the right to work in all economic sectors, get equal pay for equal work, own and work the land, and own animal herds. However, at the end and almost in a circular motion, they find that their process of liberation is incomplete and that the marker of oppression is once again being a woman. Their struggle against multiple layers of oppression creates a separate narrative for and about women in Eritrea.

    Almeida builds a narrative of resistance grounded on oral traditions and histories about Native Americans. Her focus on education seeks to describe how it was used as a tool to destroy and divide Native Americans. By focusing on education, Almeida also identifies the opportunities for resistance even within the boarding schools: "Some Native American women used their boarding school education to help them lead their people from extinction. Armed with knowledge of European American ways and values, these women were among the central figures in the reform and resistance movements" (p. 766). Almeida's narrative constitutes yet another attempt to reclaim the right to self--definition and the responsibility to write her own history.


    Constructing and telling our own stories is a fundamental part of our liberation. The need to continue the construction of a shared narrative for and about women may stand in contradiction with the need to create a separate narrative that reconstructs the history of those who, as a result of colonialism and racism, lost the right to name themselves and write their own histories. In the haste to integrate and produce a synthesis, we may find that the right to self--definition and authorship of our histories are inadvertently lost once more and that the patchwork or pieces of history that are still in the periphery may need to remain out there.

    How then should we approximate this contradiction? This contradiction is not to be ignored, but recognized and embraced. Women seem to know how to inhabit and create spaces of possibility within spaces riddled with contradictions. What is essential, however, is that the space for women like Almeida, who recognize the right and responsibility to produce research that specifically relates to Native women, be protected. Other women must take it upon themselves to protect this space for and about Native American women, as well as for other women who similarly must reclaim and reconstruct their own stories. It is not necessary for this research to be incorporated or integrated into any research other than that for and about these women. The struggle has been precisely for the right to exist as independent subjects. This research must consequently stand independently as a coherent and integrated body of work. Only then can we create the possibility of a dialogue with other women's stories. Let us remain vigilant so that we do not re--create the spaces and the conditions of impossibility and invisibility in which so many women have lived for so long.

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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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