Related: Civil & Human Rights, Education, In the Media, Political Issues, Social Issues, Trinity, Women, Women's Leadership

Women’s Education: Don’t Take It for Granted!


In this very week when we welcome hundreds of new students to Trinity, and during which we also mark the 115th Anniversary of this great university founded to make a higher education accessible to women, a startling news item from Iran reminds us that we should never take women’s educational opportunities for granted.

On Monday this week, the New York Times reported that 36 Iranian universities have banned women from studying subjects in 77 disciplines on the grounds that, “Some fields are not very suitable for women’s nature” in the words of one Iranian official.  Fields like engineering, urban development, accounting and chemistry, English literature, hotel management, to name just some.

The Iranian news outlet Rooz provided the expanded quotation from the official Seyed Abolfazl Hassani:  “Some fields are not very suitable for women’s nature such as agricultural machinery or mining, partly because of the hard work involved in them. Past experience shows that women do not become professionally active in these fields after they are admitted to these subjects and even after they graduate. This results in unemployment of graduates.”

Hello?  Iran?  It’s not 1897 any more!  In that year, men wrote screeds against the founding of Trinity College on the grounds that higher education for women was dangerous, might cause nervous breakdowns, might lead girls to sass their moms and even — horror of horrors — want to work outside of the home instead of being good wives submissive to their husbands.

Similar denunciations of women’s education appear around the founding of many of the women’s colleges in the U.S. in the 19th Century.  The belief that women could not learn at higher levels, would break down under the stress of rigorous study, or might even develop aspirations beyond those that society permitted kept women uneducated, illiterate, impoverished and unable to rise to positions of power.

We might have thought those days were over.  Think again.  We can look at Iran and scoff.  Or we can look at Atlanta and think about how it is that men are being praised for “allowing” women into a club to play golf.  Yes, today, 2012, in the United States.  Or we can look to Missouri and think about a man making law and policy for women who thinks that women have a mystical power to prevent impregnation after rape.  Or we can look to an astonishing array of cultural, social and political phenomena in which women in the United States in 2012 are objectified, demeaned, discriminated against and told that they should just know their place — sometimes flat on their backs suffering a medical procedure dictated by misogynist politicians who think that humiliating women is a bold exercise in moral courage.

Robert Tait writing in the British newspaper The Telegraph reports the real reasons for the Iranian action:

“It follows years in which Iranian women students have outperformed men, a trend at odds with the traditional male-dominated outlook of the country’s religious leaders. Women outnumbered men by three to two in passing this year’s university entrance exam….Senior clerics in Iran’s theocratic regime have become concerned about the social side-effects of rising educational standards among women, including declining birth and marriage rates.”

He goes on, quoting Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, “Mrs Ebadi, a human rights lawyer exiled in the UK, said the real agenda was to reduce the proportion of female students to below 50% – from around 65% at present – thereby weakening the Iranian feminist movement in its campaign against discriminatory Islamic laws.  “[It] is part of the recent policy of the Islamic Republic, which tries to return women to the private domain inside the home as it cannot tolerate their passionate presence in the public arena,” says the letter, which was also sent to Ahmad Shaheed, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Iran. “The aim is that women will give up their opposition and demands for their own rights.”

Don’t look at Iran and laugh.  Look at Iran and learn.  And then do something about it.  NEVER take your education for granted, ladies!  USE this education to ensure the freedom and security of future generations.  Reach out beyond yourselves to make the change that the world needs so desperately.  Show the world why the Sisters of Notre Dame were absolutely correct when they established Trinity to give women the best opportunity for higher learning.

Along the way, by the way, the SNDs in 1897 had the help of some excellent male co-conspirators, including Cardinal Gibbons and Bishop J.L. Spaulding.  Bishop Spaulding wrote the definitive statement on women’s equality and right to participate in higher education.  Perhaps we can share this with the men in Iran who are banning women from learning, and the people in this country who need re-education on the topic of women:

Bishop Spaulding, on the “Means and Ends of Education”:

“There is not a religion, a philosophy, a science, an art for man and another for woman.  Consequently there is not, in its essential elements at least, an education for man and another for woman.  In souls, in minds, in consciences, in hearts, there is no sex.  What is the best education for woman?  That which will help her to become a perfect human being, wise, loving and strong.  What is her work?  Whatever may help her to become herself.  What is forbidden her?  Nothing but what degrades or narrows or warps.  What has she the right to do?  Any good and beautiful and useful thing she is able to do without hurt to her dignity and worth as a human being.

“….Like man, she exists for herself and God, and in her relations to others, her duties are not to the home alone, but to the whole social body, religious and civil.  Whether man or woman is a minor thing; to be wise and worthy and loving is all in all….There are not two educations, then, one for man and another for woman, but both alike we bid contend to the uttermost for completeness of life…”  (Trinity College catalogue, 1898)

By the way, Forbes magazine is out with its “100 Most Powerful Women in the World” list, and once again, Trinity Women Rule!  Former Speaker of the House and now Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Trinity ’62) is #28, and former Kansas Governor and now Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius (Trinity ’70) is #31.  Our graduates are in remarkable company, sharing the top 50 with women like German Chancellor Angela Merkel (#1), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (#2), and Oprah (#11).

Trinity is one of just a handful of prestigious universities to have more than one graduate on the list.  Harvard claims 3 of the top 50, and Trinity claims 2 graduates in the top 50 along with Wellesley, Penn and Princeton.  Not bad company!  Women’s colleges fare well on this list — in addition to Trinity and Wellesley, the top women leaders of the world include among their alma maters Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Spelman, and the College of New Rochelle.

Women’s education — it really does make a difference!

Follow me on Twitter @TrinityPrez

Also see my blog on the Huffington Post Algebra, Zakaria and Lady Gaga

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