Related: Civil & Human Rights, Politics, Religion, Social Issues, Women, Women's Leadership

Women's Rights and Education


In his speech in Cairo last week, President Obama outlined seven themes that are the bedrock of a peaceful, economically secure society.   The media have highlighted his words on violent extremism and US-Muslim relations, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Nuclear weapons, global democracy, religious freedom, and economic development.   His remarks on women’s rights and education have not received as much press commentary, which is a shame since what he had to say relates directly to the other themes of his speech.   His words, while subtle, were clearly directed at policies and practices in certain nations that deny women fundamental liberties.

President Obama said this about women’s rights and education:

“… a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.  And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

“Now, let me be clear:  Issues of women’s equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam.  In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, we’ve seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead.  Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.

“I am convinced that our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons.  Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity — men and women — to reach their full potential.  I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.  And that is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams.”

News reports indicate that Arab women were delighted with the president’s remarks.

Brookings Institution Fellow David Gartner wrote an excellent analysis of the president’s emphasis on women’s education in the Huffington Post (click here for the full text), in which he states:

“Education, especially for girls and women, is the most highly leveraged investment now available for developing countries. Obama’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, has found that “educating girls yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world.” Women’s education is a key driver for the economic growth of countries around the world. A 100 country study by the World Bank found that every 1 percent increase in the level of women’s education generates .3 percent in additional economic growth. Educating women increases their wages by as much as 20 percent for every additional year of schooling. Women’s education is a key driver for the economic growth of countries around the world.

“Educating women is also essential for ensuring food security and protecting recent gains in global health during the current economic crisis. Educated women use their expanded knowledge and improved financial situation to provide for their children. One study of 63 countries found that women’s education accounted for 43 percent of all progress in reducing child malnutrition. In Africa, the children of mothers who received five years of primary education are 40 percent more likely to live beyond the age of five. Education is a “social vaccine” against AIDS, dramatically reducing the risks of infection, especially for girls.”

Trinity and the other woman-centered academic institutions in the United States were founded because women did not have equal access to higher education in this nation a century ago.   The U.S. has made a good deal of progress in ensuring access to educational opportunities for many citizens, but in fact, genuine equal access remains elusive for too many women in this nation who find barriers of affordability, chilly campus climates for women and even outright sexual harassment at school, many more subtle forms of discrimination that lower educational sights, a lack of encouragement at home, pressure to go to work instead of school, family responsibilities including the need to care for siblings when parents shirk their duties to children.  Many women at Trinity can attest to their own stories about overcoming barriers to achieve their educational goals.

We women’s colleges need to do a lot more to promote the urgent need for improved national and global educational opportunities for girls and women.   Here in the United States, we can start with our own industry in higher education.   In spite of the great work we continue to do in making education possible for thousands of women in our own institutions, we need to call upon the mainstream of American higher education to make all universities more accessible, affordable and effective for women who might not progress through school on traditional timetables.

On this topic, the persistent use of “graduation rates” by media and certain ranking companies does a profound disservice to women, and institutions that serve large numbers of women, since the traditional measurement treats as “dropouts” those women who stop out of school to raise families or work to support children, or who must attend part-time to complete their degrees.   Part-time education often means that the student completes well beyond the traditional 6-year limit on the “graduation rate” calculation, leaving completely outside of the measurement those thousands of success stories of brave women who have completed degrees in their ’30’s and ’40’s while managing families and work responsibilities.  See my 2006 article on this topic in Diverse Education.

We women’s colleges can also take a stronger lead in two other important ways.   First, through our Women’s College Coalition, we can come up with a way to reach out to women in those international locations where collegiate opportunities are scarce.   Surely, we can develop some program to provide gateways for women’s education in targeted location.   Second, we can take a more active role in challenging Schools of Education on our campuses and other university campuses to make gender equity a distinctive topic in teacher training, not just something that is quietly assumed but never verified.

Many other opportunities present themselves for more concerted action on behalf of women’s literacy and education globally.   If we educate the mothers, we will surely educate the children and all of society as a result.   Women’s colleges have known this for more than a century.   Let’s share our secret with the rest of the world.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: