A Meditation on Women’s Education

She was shot in the head.  Malala Yousafzai, a fourteen year old girl desiring an education in Pakistan’s north-west, was shot in the head.  She survived.  My heart sank as I read “The World This Week” in The Economist.

Last week I presented a lecture on Mary Wollstonecraft’s argument for the education of women.  In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she outlines the reasons blocking equality and dismantles them.  Among the reasons preventing equal education is tradition: “Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives.”  She argues that this type of “education” fosters a character of weakness and ignorance.  Women are taught to observe effects and to not think about causes.

Another premise undercutting the possibility for equal education stems from the story of Adam and Eve.  She writes: “Probably the prevailing opinion, that woman was created for man, may have taken its rise from Moses’s poetical story; yet, as very few, it is presumed, who have bestowed any serious thought on the subject, ever supposed that Eve as, literally speaking, one of Adam’s ribs, the deduction must be allowed to fall to the ground; or, only be so far admitted as it proves that man, from the remotest antiquity, found it convenient to exert his strength to subjugate his companion, and his invention to shew that she ought to have her neck bent under the yoke, because the whole creation was only created for his convenience or pleasure.” The reason for the assault on Malala, secularism by way of education, echoes Wollstonecraft’s problem with pitting fundamentalism against teaching women.

Championing the notion of Virtue Ethics, Wollstonecraft challenges the notion that, due to physical differences between men and women, women cannot develop reason.  But the soul, home to reason and thought, is by defintion gender-less. Therefore, one could not point to the body as a foundation for hindering the cultivation of reason in women. To be virtuous, one must choose to be so, and such choices garner the promise for excellence.  To deny education, then, is to deny the possibility of virtue.

This theoretical presentation engenders some head nods in the classroom.  Driving home after lecture I hope that the arguments sink in for my students.   “She’s so hard to read,” a few chant.  Sometimes I suspect that the derogatory way in which the term “feminism” has leaked into culture makes teaching this argument an uphill battle.  Wollstonecraft’s work is over a century old, after all.  And to some, what are women fussing about anyway?  Isn’t everything equal? However, given the recent news of Malala we can see that train of thought is terribly impoverished and narrow.

The incredibly disturbing story of Malala’s “crime” reinforced for me the importance of visiting arguments for equality.  I brought the news to the class and read out loud what I had read from The Economist.  The students were stunned.  I delayed the following lecture to allow for discussion, and this time I got more than head nods out of my students.

About unsolicitedtidbits

Philosophy, books, coffee, Mexican food enthusiast. View all posts by unsolicitedtidbits

One response to “A Meditation on Women’s Education

  • Michael LaBossiere

    I include a selection from Vindication in my ethics class and always ask the students if the work is still relevant today. When they just go by the date, they tend to say “no”, but when we go through the content, they change their minds.

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