Feminism’s Unfinished Agenda: If Women Have Equal Opportunity, Why Are The Outcomes So Very Unequal?

October 9, 2010, 6:51 pm

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This is Part II of a three-part polemic about the need to sustain and expand women’s education in the 21st century.  Read Part I here.

First and foremost, a women’s single-sex college — whether it is a private institution or a residential college lodged in a large public university or university system — is about an institutional commitment to the success of female undergraduates. It is about a commitment to the young woman who will want to have a career, an intimate relationship and often children as well. This is feminism’s unfinished agenda.

How to mix of career and family is one of our modern feminist dilemmas, one that extends to lesbians as well as heterosexual women as parenting has become legally and medically available to women who choose intimacy without men. This requires that those of us who are committed to creating spaces that privilege female intellects re-think the original women’s private college project to meet 21st century public challenges. In the 19th century, as many of us know, 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 to take the PH.D., was famous for having pronounced that “our failures only 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 new found 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 where does the women’s college fit in this agenda?

We can point to the academy itself, where women are under-appointed, under-tenured, under-promoted, and underpaid. 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, and women of color, in science careers that will have the greatest impact on our competitiveness as a nation. Science is also a good place to look since most colleges and graduate schools have undertaken programs of various kinds, ones that often emphasize mentoring, to address gender disparities that are far more extreme than in other fields.

And yet, the need for such programs raises much bigger questions about why talented women are underrepresented in so many fields, and whether the sciences are the extreme end of a much 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 false impression that innate biological differences between men and women accounted for the small numbers of women in science. A GAO report issued in 2004 further confused this issue 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 are sent explicit or implicit messages that they are unlikely to succeed in science and simply stop trying.

This is a clear example of a policy question that requires not just intervention, but ongoing public conversation. Colleges and institutions that devote themselves exclusively to women are key participants in such discussions. For example, 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.) Here are a few things they discovered: 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 the role of women’s intellectual communities (whether colleges or learning communities within colleges or universities) in creating equality, other than simply supplying a stream of educated and ambitious women? We will discuss this tomorrow in the third, and final section, of this extended post.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

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