The Unfinished Agenda: Women’s Education in the 21st Century

Katherine E. McBride, President of Bryn Mawr College, 1942-1970

This essay is an edited version of a talk I gave at Douglass College, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., on April 12 2010.

Picture this. An intelligent and ambitious young woman leaves her home for a women’s college. Upon arrival, she finds a faculty committed to progressive internationalism, free speech, civil rights, feminism and anti-racism. She finds a campus where women are encouraged to pursue careers in the sciences, the arts and to make a difference in public life during a national economic crisis of unprecedented proportions. Encountering the women and men on the faculty over the four years of her education, often in small seminar classes, she comes to understand what it means to dedicate herself to meaningful work. At a women’s college, this student comes to know, as the former President of Mount Holyoke, Joanne Creighton, said to me, “what it means for a woman to have the right to be the center of attention.”

Being the center of attention is hard work. This young woman’s peers and teachers push her to argue her ideas with conviction in class, inthe dorms and in the dining hall. When she joins the student newspaper, she engages forcefully with global politics, the politics of class and race on campus, and with the institutional challenges that an uncertain economy and war present for her generation. Her education will be a platform for her to spend her life in journalism, labor organizing, civil rights, anti-nuclear politics, and feminist institution building, all the while juggling an intense work life with community service and family. But because of this women’s college, the biographer of this woman will write, she and her generation of women will meet their destiny encouraged “to assume leadership positions and…take themselves, their ideas, and their ambition seriously.” On a campus dedicated to women, they will find “a world unavailable in their hometowns…where girls [can] become young women with a sense of independence from reigning social and political norms.”[1]

In fact, that young woman I was describing was Bettye Goldstein – perhaps you know her as Betty Friedan, a founder of the National Organization for Women and a Smith College graduate. But I could have been describing a woman leader from any class or racial background. She could have been Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman to graduate from Yale Law School and also a founder of NOW (Hunter College); Madeleine Albright and Hilary Rodham Clinton, the first and second women to be appointed Secretary of State (Wellesley); chemist Patricia Smith Campbell, inventor of the transdermal patch (Douglass); Drew Gilpin Faust, the first female President of Harvard University (Bryn Mawr); or Marian Wright Edelman, founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund (Spelman).

Or I could have been describing you.

Now, we graduates of women’s schools don’t all win prizes or invent something extraordinary. Most of us try to live life with integrity, write the best book on the history of feminism to appear in a decade, and think about the possibility of an exciting career move. I haven’t won the Pulitzer Prize yet, but having attended the Baldwin School outside Philadelphia, founded in 1888 to prepare women for Bryn Mawr College, let me tell you I was educated to expect prizes. At Baldwin, I had the astonishing good luck to be taught by feminists who never told me that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, do anything because I was a woman. I had science teachers who responded to questions by creating research projects outside class; a Latin teacher who signed us up for citywide translation contests to make us work harder; a chemistry teacher who wouldn’t let us stop working on the problem sets until they were right; and history teachers who expected that all papers would contain primary research.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s being told, as a woman, that anything was within your grasp if you only tried, was a big deal. Part of how the message of gender equality was conveyed was through rigorous competition between women and not being permitted to take refuge in any notion of female inferiority or weakness. I remember one moment, famous at our school, when a parent went to the headmistress to complain about an athletic contest played in the rain – something common for boys did routinely. It is said that this mother was asked firmly and politely in return: “Are you under the impression that young women melt?”

But what I remember most about a single sex education was the assumption that we all would go on to do something significant. The ethic of our school was that women were entitled to labs, and languages, all the spots on the editorial board, all the parts in the play, as much math and science as we could learn, all the class offices and team captaincies, and the best colleges we could get into.

Not just equal opportunity, but every opportunity. This became the foundation for my life. This women’s school, and the education I received there, is why I believe so strongly in myself and why I am where I am today.

One of the ironies of the educational achievements made possible at women’s schools, both private and public, was their demise. In the 1970s, feminists made access to formerly male bastions part of their policy agenda. As women like me entered Yale, Wesleyan, and Rutgers, women’s colleges struggled to recruit, and many women’s colleges closed their doors, became coeducational, or were absorbed by male schools as part of a coeducation project.   That some colleges have survived this historical moment, and are uniquely poised for a new wave of interest in single-sex education, is an achievement in and of itself.

A women’s residential college has some critical tasks, but its greatest commitment is to the success of female undergraduates, to the young woman who will want to have a career, an intimate relationship and often children as well.

This mix of career and family is one of our modern feminist dilemmas, and it requires that we re-think the original women’s private college project to meet 21st century public challenges. In the 19th century, education for women was a privilege, but it assumed class and racial privilege as well. Women’s colleges were mostly white, middle-class spaces, and it was assumed that educated women would not need to seek the financial security of marriage: M. Carey Thomas, the founding president of Bryn Mawr College and one of the first women in the United States to take the Ph.D., was famous for having supposedly pronounced that “only our failures marry.”

It would take over half a century and two world wars for married women to break the barrier of professional work. On Drew Faust’s first day at Bryn Mawr College in 1963, President Katherine E. McBride welcomed the incoming class at convocation with a lecture about “their work.” As Drew recounted this experience in 2001, she recalled:

“I will never forget Miss McBride up on the stage telling us to be humble in face of Our Work. I had not before realized that I had Work. I had thought I did assignments and took tests and wrote papers. But Miss McBride’s address instilled in me a newfound reverence for learning and scholarship. My awe at being invited to play even a small part within that sacred and timeless world has never left me.”

I mention this because it is a good example of how, through language, women leaders transform familiar and daily acts into ambitions and goals. Women also need female heroes. One of mine is my godmother, Mary Maples Dunn, who was probably at the convocation for Drew Faust’s class in 1963 as an assistant professor in United States colonial history (and in fact, became one of Drew’s mentors, as Drew later became one of mine.) Subsequently, Mary became a dean at Bryn Mawr and the President of Smith College.

Mary has shown me by example and by instruction how to be a woman historian, something there were very few of when she took up her first job at Bryn Mawr; how to be a tough and competitive academic in universities that are still more of a man’s world than anyone wants to admit; and later, how to be a fair-minded administrator. When I asked her prior to this interview at Douglass what the role of a women’s college was in today’s world, she gave me two thoughts. “A women’s college is the place a woman can learn what gender equality really looks like,” she said, and then she paused. “Women’s education is really feminism’s unfinished agenda,” she said.

So what is this unfinished agenda?

By creating an undergraduate environment where all women can take gender equality for granted, we prepare each woman to put herself and her talents first. But for reasons we don’t understand, it doesn’t always work. In the academy, although I have quite a lot to say about the failure of the social sciences to achieve gender parity, or to recruit sufficient numbers of faculty of color to their ranks, it is the persistently small numbers of women in science careers that will have the greatest impact on our competitiveness as a nation.

Yet, we should also ask why talented women are underrepresented in so many fields, and whether the sciences are the extreme end of a larger problem. We all remember, of course, the storm that was unleashed in 2005 at Harvard when then – President Larry Summers, in a few ill-chosen words, left the misimpression that innate biological differences between men and women accounted for the small numbers of women in science. Yet it is also the case that women are not hired for tenure stream jobs in the humanities and social sciences in proportion to their numbers, and they are not promoted as quickly when they are hired. A GAO report issued in 2004 echoed Summers’ unfortunate comments with an argument familiar to those of us who have taught EEOC v. Sears (1986): women, the Bush administration explained, choose less demanding careers than men do. Other studies, similar to those that explore the racial “testing gap,” argue that women in science are sent explicit or implicit messages that they are unlikely to succeed and simply stop trying.

I want to come back to these questions in a minute, but first want to make the point that our failure to promote science careers for women a clear example of a policy question that requires not just intervention, but ongoing public conversation among women in education. In 2010, the American Association of University Women issued a report titled “Why So Few?” detailing women’s under representation in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) Of industrial workers with doctorates in computer and information sciences, 17% are women, compared with 33% in the life sciences. The numbers are even worse in the university: 7% of tenured faculty in the physical sciences are women, compared to 22% in the life sciences. Harvard has just tenured its first female math professor – ever.

So what is our role as feminist academics in this project? How do we use conversations about women’s careers in science to imagine promoting women’s careers in other fields as well?

One of the things we can do is not only to teach women to compete aggressively, but to support and encourage their work with concrete resources and mentoring that are exclusively dedicated to them. This may be, in some cases, a project of helping a young woman recover, or discover, her confidence. The AAUW report I have been citing places some emphasis on early cultural biases that might be preventing girls from imagining themselves as scientists, even when opportunities are presented. Transitional moments, as girls assume the additional pressures attendant to becoming adult women, seem to be points of vulnerability: as girls graduate high school and choose first year college courses; as they complete introductory science courses and choose a major; as they complete a science major and choose a graduate or professional school. Even the women in STEM fields who are admitted to graduate school are less likely to complete degrees or, if they do, to enter a scientific career where ongoing research will be at the center of their work.

This is all occurring in an atmosphere 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 the New York Times noted in its 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 best young female mathematicians. Hence, as the Times concluded, “girls’ lesser belief in their own skills may partly explain why fewer women go into scientific careers.”[2]

So to return to the question I asked in a different way — what is the role for feminism in creating gender equality? First and foremost, we must find and connect to women want to be found. Second, feminists have an obligation to articulate all institutional issues – scientific, commercial, political –as women’s issues. That is, to paraphrase Drew Faust, Our Work. All feminist academics have a civic obligation to be leaders in the debate over gender equality, wherever we are situated. We should not only be striving for our own success in this task, but we should be holding conferences, creating forums, and generating policy papers that to build on and reproduce our own successes.

Science is just one important example of why institutional locations for feminism matters, in private or public education. 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 Rutgers historian Nancy Hewitt has 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 as a collective, feminists assume that the health of any social order can be measured by the status of women within it. Bettye Goldstein, for example, was an old Popular Front feminist who saw coalition as essential, even though she wasn’t always capable of achieving it. 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 advancing women in higher education, 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.

A feminist agenda for higher education should recognize a woman’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 the Douglass 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.

A feminist agenda for higher education should view 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. We would raise money dedicated to funding any woman student to take a semester abroad and develop international literacy. We would endow student exchanges that would bring women from the global south to the United States and send American women to Mumbai, Johannesburg, Beijing and Sao Paolo. These exchanges would emphasize feminist dialogue with counterparts in new and emerging democracies, in countries in crisis (many because of destructive U.S. Policies); and in urban centers around the globe where formal democracy is undermined by limited access to quality education, health care, food and consumer goods.

A feminist higher education agenda would reach out to women veterans, many of whom will leave the service deeply traumatized by their experiences in and around combat zones. As Mike Rose, a scholar who has devoted his career to making public universities truly accessible, pointed out recently in Inside Higher Education, returning veterans will increasingly pose a challenge to higher education. While G.I. Bill funding often makes it possible for demobilized soldiers to return to school, ongoing anxiety, depression, isolation and other forms of psychological damage can often impair their ability to learn and, on some days, even show up.

I could not feel more strongly about this task. In no American conflict other has the trauma suffered by service women been fully recognized; and in no conflict, other than the so-called War on Terror, will so many women have served in a theater of war where the line between combat and non-combat service has so thoroughly dissolved.   Intellectual work may be critical to that road back to health, Rose argues, but faces significant barriers: “some social and psychological problems – inability to concentrate, feelings of intellectual inadequacy – don’t fully manifest themselves unless one is in a classroom, immersed in English or math or poli sci.”[3] Let me add to this that for many women, military service has been a strategy for navigating single motherhood as well: women struggling to return to civilian life and jump start their education will also be coping with family and economic burdens that have become more complex in their absence.

And finally, a feminist higher education agenda would support these women – and all students who wish to take a college degree – by raising private and foundation money to create small seminar classes. This is the kind of work – small classes, close attention to the individual student – that a residential college can do best: it is the kind of work a feminist residential college can do better. Such a space must be inclusive, a place where feminists of many kinds can make arguments on behalf of women’s right to have access to everything. While the support of a like-minded community is important, 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 remain physically healthy like other women. It might mean a veterans’ center, where women from around the university 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.

This brings me to my final point: as women’s aspirations and achievements change, so do their needs. A vibrant, forward-looking feminist higher education agenda is critical to the project of meeting educational needs that are foundation to women’s citizenship. And while a women’s residential 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 women’s education, as I do, 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 continue to re-imagine and re-invent themselves to meet the challenges of their own generation. That is, to paraphrase Katherine McBride, Our Work

Picture this. An intelligent and ambitious young woman left her home — in Newark, Baghdad, San Bernadino, Mexico City, Kandahar, Oklahoma City, Flint, Mumbai, Durban, Moscow – for a campus that valued and cherished her.

That woman is you.

[1] Daniel Horowitz, Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 35-6.

[2] Tamar Lewin, “Bias Called Persistent Hurdle For Women in Sciences,” The New York Times, March 22 2010, A14.

[3] Mike Rose, “Soldiers in the Classroom,” Inside Higher Ed, March 19, 2010. Last accessed April 10 2010.

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