Saturday, June 14, 2008

Women and Education: Some Bitter Truths

I am doing some in-depth study of the creation of women's history as an academic discipline and force for change in the Western world. One of the "giants" of women's history is Gerda Lerner, an Austrian-born historian, author and teacher. Presently, Lerner is a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a visiting scholar at Duke University.

I understand that reading feminist literature is not at the top of the "To Do" list for most, so in this post I provide some intriguing and challenging excerpts from the first chapter of Lerner's The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. This volume remains a benchmark in the writing of women's history, documenting the twelve-hundred-year struggle of women to free their minds and achieve a feminist consciousness in Western civilization.

("Feminist consciousness" is defined by Lerner as "the awareness of women that they belong to a subordinate group; that they have suffered wrongs as a group; that their condition of subordination is unnatural; that they must join with otherr women to remedy these wrongs; and finally, that they must and can provide an alternate vision of societal organization in which women as well as men will enjoy autonomy and self-determination.")

As you will see, Lerner's focus is upon the educational disadvantaging of women, which has been a major force in determining women's individual and collective consciousness, as well as their political and social behavior. Her description of the predicament of women for the length of recorded history is both jarring to hear and bitter to swallow. I thought it would be beneficial to share these reflections and invite comment. Please read carefully and with a soft heart. (All words in bold are my emphases.)


From the time of the establishment of patriarchy to the present, males of non-elite groups have struggled with increasing success for a share in the power of defining and naming. The history of the Western world can be viewed as the unfolding of that class-based struggle and the story of the process by which more and more non-elite males have gained access to economic and mental resources. But, during this entire period, well into the middle of the 20th century, women have been excluded from all or part of that process and have been unable to gain access to it.

Not only have women been excluded through educational deprivation from the process of making mental constructs, it has also been the case that the mental constructs explaining the world have been androcentric, partial and distorted. Women have been defined out and marginalized in every philosophical system and have therefore had to struggle not only against exclusion but against a content which defines them as subhuman and deviant...

The ultimate consequence of men's power to define--the power to define what is a political issue and what is not--has had a profound effect on women's struggle for their own emancipation. Essentially, it has forced thinking women to waste much time and energy on defensive arguments; it has channeled their thinking into narrow fields; it has retarded their coming into consciousness as a collective entity and has literally aborted and distorted the intellectual talents of women for thousands of years...

The systematic educational disadvantaging of women has affected women's self-perceptions, their ability to conceptualize their own situation and their ability to conceive of societal solutions to improve it... Women, for far longer than any other structured group in society, have lived in a condition of trained ignorance, alienated from their own collective experience through the denial of the existence of Women's History.

Even more important, women have for millennia been forced to prove to themselves and to others their capacity for abstract thought. This has skewed the intellectual development of women as a group, since their major intellectual endeavor had to be to counteract the pervasive patriarchal assumptions of their inferiority and incompleteness as human beings...

The next issue through which women's quest for equality found expression was the struggle for access to education. Here, again, women were forced for hundreds of years not only to argue for their right to equal education, but first to prove their capacity to be educated at all. This exhausted the energies of the most talented women and retarded their intellectual development.

Further, up until the end of the 19th century in Europe and the United States, women in order to be educated had to forego their sexual and reproductive lives--they had to choose between wifehood and motherhood on the one hand and education on the other. No group of men in history ever had to make such a choice or pay such a price for intellectual growth.

For many centuries the talents of women were directed not toward self-development but toward realizing themselves through the development of a man. Women, conditioned for millennia to accept the patriarchal definition of their role, have sexually and emotionally serviced men and nurtured them in a way that allowed men of talent a fuller development and a more intensive degree of specialization than women have ever had.

The sexual division of labor which has allotted to women the major responsibility for domestic services and the nurturance of children has freed men from the cumbersome details of daily survival activities, while it disproportionately has burdened women with them. Women have had less spare time and above all less uninterrupted time in which to reflect, to think and to write...

Why have there been no great women thinkers and system builders? Where are the female Newtons, Kants, Einsteins? Virginia Woolf's brilliant metaphor of Shakespeare's sister who, had she been as talented as her brother, would still not have been able to accomplish what he did due to the constraints of gender definitions, has actual historical precedents. These women existed, women of extraordinary talent, of genius, with the capacity and will to excel, create and define.

Isotta Nogarola, accused of incest with her brother to explain her literary achievements; Sor Juana de la Cruz selling her precious library at the Archbishop's command to show her humility; Elizabeth Estob serving as the governess of the Duke of Portland's children. And that otherwise unknown girl of sixteen, one Lucinda Foote, who was denied the admission she sought to Yale University in 1792 with the comment that she was qualified in all respects "except for her sex."

Lucinda Foote may have been only moderately talented or possibly she may have been gifted with genius. We will never know, for she was female, and that was all that mattered.


traveller said...

If we think things have improved dramatically all we need to do is read this piece from Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times.

We can argue that this happens somewhere else but perhaps the real tragedy is that we are doing little or nothing to prevent this situation.

(Emily, I like the new picture in your sidebar.)

Anonymous said...

And today, a majority of women academics, women who have achieved the highest educational credentials in order to garner a seat in academia, continue to 'voluntarily' choose between an intellectual life and a 'family' life. Count them. The women professors who have remained childless or unmarried. Ask them why. Common answers include difficulties of combining intellectual work with relational and parenting work; difficulties in finding a partner who does not feel emasculated by a woman of strong intellect. Are these 'voluntary' choices, or 'choices' imposed by the less visible power of cultural misogyny?
Go for it my niece. EM-T

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

I think any time women are made to feel as though they must choose between motherhood and intellectual achievement it can be traced to the "power of cultural misogyny."

Thank you for your support, Aunt Ellie. And thanks for being one of many who have "blazed the trails" for the rest of us.