If you read nothing else today, please take a few minutes to click on this link to Mary Jordan’s report, “This is the Destiny of Girls” in the December 13 Washington Post. Then try to imagine, if you can, the days and years stretching ahead for Jyotsna Patadia, 15 years old, the latest protagonist in the ancient tragedy of women’s impoverishment and illiteracy in our global village.
The story is often-told, but not often enough; close to 1 billion people around the world are illiterate, and more than two thirds of those are women. Women in sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia, and the Middle East have the highest rates of illiteracy in the world, a product not only of poverty but also cultural attitudes that devalue women. While a case can certainly be made that Jyostsna’s father as well as her mother are equally victims of poverty, the stark fact remains that when the time came to choose which child could go to school and who would stay home to do the menial labor, the boy went to school, the girl stayed home. This story is repeated hundreds of millions of times over throughout the world, despite so much evidence that educating girls and women is one of the most effective weapons available in the war against poverty.
Recently, I’ve been having a running discussion with other women’s college presidents about the role of our institutions in contemporary American higher education and the larger society. We continue to confront skeptics who claim that gender no longer matters in education, that women in this have equal access to higher education, and indeed, women are now the majority in American higher education. “Progress” is rampant in the eyes of those who measure gender progress by the achievements of a very narrow tranche of the world’s women — predominantly White middle-and-upper-middle class women in the United States and other major western nations. Even for that demographic, complete success remains elusive. But beyond traditional educational elites, both here in the U.S. and around the world, women continue to suffer intellectual impoverishment along with material poverty, gross discrimination and frequent physical oppression.
Women’s colleges today have a clear opportunity, as well as responsibility, to take up the global challenge of women’s education. In remarks for the inaugural conference of Women’s Education Worldwide, the organization she founded, Mt. Holyoke College President Joanne Creighton stated the challenge this way: “…the agenda of women’s education is far from complete. Indeed, taking the long view of women throughout history, women’s education is in its infancy….While, to be sure, tremendous progress has been made in the 167 years since Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1837, still advancing educational opportunity for women across all ethnic, racial, age, and socio-economic groups within each of our countries and across the world continues to be the great unfinished agenda of the 21st century..”
Women’s colleges in the United States were founded in times and places when women were barred from men’s educational institutions and opportunities. In so many cases, the establishment of a women’s college was considered revolutionary, even dangerously radical — consider the founding story of Trinity, rife with opposition from conservative clerics in 1897 who considered women’s higher education to be the equivalent of a heresy. Along the way, we developed progams and pedagogies that serve women particularly well, emphasizing development of leadership skills and competencies, placing a high value on collaborative learning, infusing the campus culture with a profound sense of respect for women as a matter of social justice.
These sound educational qualities that nurtured some of America’s most successful women leaders in the 20th century must remain available and accessible to women who still live on the margins — women in this nation, and around the world, who continue to suffer grave discrimination and the impoverishment borne of racism and low expectations, women who are disproportionately low income women of color in urban centers, women whose immigration status keeps them in the shadows, women whose lack of English language fluency keeps them in minimum wage service jobs, women whose experience of education has largely been in failing public schools, women who are held back from greater intellectual achievement by men who disdain education because the prospect of an education woman might be so threatening to them.
To serve such women well and far into the future, women’s colleges must rediscover that revolutionary, indeed, radical impulse from our founding days to give us the courage and sustain our commitment to embrace the global challenge of women’s education. The revolution has barely begun; there’s little time to waste for the young women like Jyotsna all over the world. Educating Jyotsna will transform lives well beyond her own.