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Campus Women Lead

Fall 2011

Volume 40
Number 2

Higher Education and Global Gender Equity


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Susan Bourque Rosetta Marantz Cohen
Susan Bourque
Rosetta Marantz Cohen

Collaborating across Disciplines on Global Women’s Education
By Susan Bourque, E. B. Wiley Professor of Government, and Rosetta Marantz Cohen, Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Professor of American Studies, organizing fellows of Smith College’s “Why Educate Women?: Global Perspectives on Equal Opportunity”

Since its founding as a woman’s college in 1871, Smith College has been committed to advancing women’s empowerment and facilitating women’s access to domains traditionally reserved for men. This historical commitment necessarily affects the work of Smith’s faculty across disciplines. Many of us arrive at the college without a specific scholarly interest in women’s education. But as we grapple with the complexities of how best to teach the very bright women students who surround us, we often come to focus our research on problems related to women’s education—historical and contemporary, domestic and international. Drawing that work together and finding ways of sharing, collaborating, and expanding the scope of our scholarship across disciplinary boundaries has been a longstanding goal and challenge for faculty at Smith.

Thanks to Smith’s Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, selected faculty and students were able to address this challenge directly during the 2010–11 academic year with an interdisciplinary, collaborative project titled “Why Educate Women?: Global Perspectives on Equal Opportunity.” Centering its year-long programming on the project, the Kahn Institute granted space, staffing, stipends, and weekly dinners for participants who were interested in sharing their work and deepening their understanding of women’s educational issues across divisions and fields. Participating faculty came from ten different departments: government, education, sociology, French, Spanish, exercise and sport study, mathematics, English, religion, and engineering. These faculty invited exceptional students to apply for the project and selected seven seniors to join the seminar. Together, participants engaged in a bracing series of open-ended, interdisciplinary discussions and debates that gained richness and complexity as the year unfolded.

Participants designed the seminar as a forum for both teaching and learning. Because our individual research projects were so varied, we began by assigning one another a series of summer readings. At the start of the year, we used these readings to initiate discussion and to build familiarity with the vocabulary of our respective disciplines and with the broad boundaries of our various interests. During the rest of the year, we divided our work into three general areas of focus. First, we considered women’s access to education from a historical perspective, with an emphasis on the United States, Mexico, France, and the Middle East. Second, we turned our attention to contemporary issues in women’s education in the United States, including continuing discrepancies in educational access and achievement by race and class, the impact of Title IX on women’s educational and athletic opportunities, and disparities in women’s access and achievements in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. Finally, we considered contemporary challenges to women’s access and achievement in the developing world, including in Africa, South and East Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Drawing on External Expertise

To enrich our conversations, we periodically invited outside experts in historical and contemporary, domestic and international women’s issues to address our weekly meetings. We began our work on the history of women’s education with an overview of women’s higher education in the United States offered by Linda Eisenmann, provost at Wheaton College and historian of American education. Eisenmann’s presentation compared the impact of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique with that of the report of the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, published as American Women. Both The Feminine Mystique and American Women appeared during the early 1960s. But while The Feminine Mystique had lasting effects on American culture, American Women’s policy recommendations (such as federal childcare support for working women) were largely ignored and remain unrealized even today. Visiting scholars also spoke about the history of education in other countries. Nadine Berenguier, a scholar from the University of New Hampshire, introduced us to the culture of women’s conduct books in eighteenth century France, spurring lively discussion about morals and cultural imperatives across time and place. Her research complemented that of our colleague Janie Vanpee of Smith’s department of French Studies.

To initiate our consideration of contemporary issues in girls’ education within the United States, we invited two heads of all-girls private high schools: Jeannie Norris of Miss Hall’s School and Sally Mixsell of Stoneleigh Burnham School. Both women spoke passionately about the importance of developing what they called students’ “resilience,” a quality that protects girls against the cultural assaults that often silence them during the critical years of early puberty.

Our interest in women’s education internationally provided the seminar’s central comparative focus and compelled us to invite experts in several different regions. Professor Hoon Eng Khoo, former vice chancellor and provost of the Asian University for Women and current deputy director of international relations at the National University of Singapore, described the challenges of creating a women’s university in the developing world. Professor Elizabeth Bressan from Stellenbosch University in South Africa spoke about Project Hope, a university-wide effort to reach out to underserved girls in South Africa’s townships. (Future collaborations between Smith and the University of Stellenbosch are in the planning stages.) Irshad Manji, founder of the Moral Courage Project and producer of the Emmy-nominated documentary Faith Without Fear, discussed how the tenets of Islam can support the education of girls and women in the Middle East. And Smith’s president emerita Jill Ker Conway, a noted scholar of women’s history and a leader in girls’ and women’s education in Vietnam and China, led a lively discussion of Leslie Chang’s book Factory Girls: From Village to City in Changing China and reported on the Nike Corporation’s global efforts to improve conditions for girls.

During spring 2011, we extended these conversations to the entire Smith and Five Colleges communities with two mini-conferences (each a day and a half long) on girls’ and women’s education in the Middle East and Latin America. These mini-conferences included scholars such as Isobel Coleman, author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East, and Stacey Philbrick Yadav, an expert on politics in Yemen; political leaders such as Cecilia Blondet, Peru’s former minister of women and development; and program directors from CARE’s regional offices in Egypt (Areeg Hegazi) and Central America (Karen Mejia Burgos), as well as CARE USA’s director of basic and girls’ education (Sara Bouchie). A broad audience of students and faculty benefited from these events, widening the impact of the Kahn seminar.

Mining Faculty Resources

In addition to inviting outside speakers, the project mined Smith’s own faculty for its expertise in particular topics. This year’s faculty Fulbright Scholar from Saudia Arabia, Mohammed al-Shagawi, visited the seminar to lecture on the challenges of teaching women in a sex-segregated environment. Project fellows also presented on their own areas of research. Religion professor Suleiman Mourad helped us understand the complexity of using either the Quran or the Hadith as a source for expanding women’s educational opportunities in the Middle East. Christine Shelton, professor of exercise and sports studies, presented on efforts to expand women’s opportunities in sports. She emphasized Islamic women’s use of sport as an example illustrating the range of actors in this effort and the progress that has been made in identifying health, well-being, and physical activity as human rights.

Faculty also brought general expertise in their disciplines to our discussions across subjects. Nick Horton, professor of mathematics, and Suzannah Howe, senior lecturer in engineering, offered critical interpretations of statistical analyses found in the literature, helping us interpret the variety of claims that have been made regarding women’s abilities in math and science orthe optimal environment for girls’ educational achievements. Likewise, Tina Wildhagen, assistant professor of sociology, offered expertise on the gender gap between social classes and racial or ethnic groups. Literary perspectives were represented by the work of Patricia Gonzalez, senior lecturer in Spanish whose research focuses on seventeenth-century Mexican poet and author Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, and Patricia Skarda, professor of English language and literature, who examines nineteenth-century British literary depictions of women’s education.

Discovering Critical Insights

Among the many insights that emerged from our year-long project, several were especially notable and surprising. A number of fellows’ historically-oriented research projects reinforced the nonlinear nature of women’s access to and experiences in education. It became clear that the gains of one era do not necessarily carry over to the next: movement forward can be extinguished by shifting political forces or by changes in the economy, demography, or cultural norms. Another insight that emerged concerned apparent similarities across different countries in the evolution of attitudes about women’s access to education. Fears about women’s education in contemporary emerging democracies bear interesting resemblances to historical attitudes that served to thwart or slow the emergence of women’s access in the United States. Across locations and historical moments—whether in eighteenth-century France, nineteenth-century America, early-twentieth-century Mexico, or twenty-first-century Saudi Arabia—concerns about religion and culture, economics and family hierarchies, have asserted themselves in familiar ways.

Like our historical inquiries, our comparisons of contemporary rationales for expanding women’s access to education revealed striking similarities across countries. Proponents of expanded educational opportunity for girls and women often stress the positive effects education can have on families: smaller family size, decreased infant mortality, and increased probability that children (especially girls) will be educated. We were particularly struck by the tendency of arguments for expanding women’s educational opportunities to stress the impact of women’s education on others—whether their families or the community at large—as opposed to the effects on women themselves. Such justifications are generally absent from conversations about the need to educate men. Noting this, the group engaged in several discussions about the politics (both historical and contemporary) of developing public policies that support expanded educational opportunities for women. Our exploration of such questions was enhanced by the insights of Judith Helzner, director of the International Program on Population and Reproductive Health at the MacArthur Foundation, and Marysa Navarro, Charles Collis Professor of History at Dartmouth College, both of whom visited the seminar over the course of the year.

A number of fascinating observations also emerged with regard to the study of women’s access to education in the contemporary developing world. Several of these derived from student research. A project conducted by biochemistry major Chi Gao, for example, showed an unforeseen benefit of China’s one-child policy: when a girl was the single child within a family, greater educational opportunities were made available to her than might have been without the policy. Surprising findings also emerged from economics major Samra Nadeem’s project on Pakistani soap operas, which indicated that images of enlightened gender roles in contemporary soap operas have had a measurable impact on viewer attitudes. This work seemed to suggest new avenues for delivering educational messages to women and men in developing countries.

Our ongoing consideration of the impact of education in the developing world additionally led to further discussion of the positive effects of literacy, formal and informal education, and school attendance for girls. Most notable in this regard was research by Cristine Smith, seminar fellow from the University of Massachusetts. Drawing from a broad international sample, Cristine found that regardless of the quality of education delivered or of the school attended, the singular act of attending school elicits positive results for girls, including later marriage and lower birth rates. Clearly, much remains to be learned about the mechanisms that prompt these positive outcomes, as well as the ways in which these results can be enhanced and extended to more women. While it is clear that making schools safe and protecting girls from sexual violence are critical components, significant unanswered questions remain about what additional factors might further enhance girls’ attendance and persistence.

Looking toward the Future

The seminar ended with participants committing to a series of group projects intended to keep our cross-disciplinary work alive over the next few years. First, we plan to tap into the group’s rich intellectual resources to offer an informal lecture series for new faculty members on “what it means to teach at a woman’s college.” We envision this series as a mechanism for sharing insights about Smith’s history and for introducing new faculty to neurological, psychological, and pedagogical understandings about how girls and women learn. In the past, such information has not been immediately accessible to new hires, and we lamented that each of us had to find our own way of learning about the rich history of our institution. Second, we intend to develop a new curricular concentration at Smith that focuses on women’s education. By pooling our intellectual resources and drawing on courses that already exist across the Smith and Five College curricula, we will build a sequenced cluster (consisting of required and elective courses, independent study opportunities and internships, and a capstone course or project) that will allow interested students to pursue women’s education as a coherent field of study. Finally, several seminar participants helped to plan and host “Teaching Globally,” the first faculty conference of the international network of women’s colleges, Women’s Education Worldwide (WEW). Conference attendees will continue to share curricular and pedagogical materials across the WEW network. Information about the network and conference outcomes can be found at

These ongoing projects are sure to have great effects at Smith and beyond. But the seminar’s greatest impact was on our own individual work, as many of us feel a new sense of urgency for finding solutions to entrenched problems. Indeed, scholarship in women’s colleges has an important role to play in the larger project of educating women across the world, whether it involves bringing equality to girls in Afghanistan, literacy training to women in rural Kenya, or effective high-level math instruction to female students in American cities. Those of us working on this scholarship need to be able to gather and share data with the widest possible audience about the most effective means to improve access and retention for girls and women, strengthen the connections between informal and formal systems of education, and identify additional levers for expanding equity. Such an ambitious agenda must be grounded in the highest quality research, and the ongoing work of fellows from the “Why Educate Women” project will be directed to that end.

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