Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Woman's Education, A Woman's Body

Education, being a historically male privilege, had its bouts of serving women's fortunes: the 1500-1600's in Europe were a fruitful time for women, where the renaissance meant women could seize different powers in the forms of knowledge of the arts and sciences, literature and politics. The era brought with it a great many female rulers and a decline in mass violence, where kingdoms sought reforms of justice and increased education as higher goals. In this time, it was written, in The Instruction of a Christian Woman by Juan Vives in 1520:

"But she shall leave all such light and trifling pleasures, wherein the light fantasies of maids have delight, as songs, dances and other such wanton and peevish plays. A woman, saith Plutarch, given unto learning, will never delight in dancing. 

But here peradventure a man would ask, what learning a woman should be set unto, and what she shall study? I have told you: the study of wisdom, the which doth instruct their manners and inform their living, and teacheth them the way of good and holy life. As for eloquence, I have no great care, nor a woman needith it not, but she needeth goodness and wisdom.”

The 1600's in Western Europe saw the downfall of women's education and women's rule: violence accrued and royalty pushed their troops into battle. Military leaders were now only male, and as women were forced out of the public realms that previous education had enabled them access, they were now seen as unfit to rule over wars - quite the opposite of the previous century's powerful commanders including Mary Queen of Scots or Catherine de' Medici.

Reflecting on the degradation of female royalty in this era, it was Mary Wollstonecraft that wrote, in 1792, in A Vindication of the Rights of Women

"Women are in this deplorable state everywhere, because truth is hidden from them so as to preserve their ‘innocence’ (the polite name for ignorance), and they are made to take on an artificial character before their faculties have acquired any strength. Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around in its gilt cage it only seeks to adorn its prison.

Men have various employments and pursuits that engage their attention, and give a character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one pursuit and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their view beyond the triumph of the hour. But if their understanding were emancipated from the slavery to which the pride and sensuality of man and their short sighted desire... has subjected them, we would probably read of their weaknesses with surprise."

The downfall of a woman's education has continued into our modern era, where although some countries are privileged in the number of women who obtain higher education, at times surpassing their male counterparts, most of the world values a woman's strength within specific and historically traditional roles: the private sphere of carer and mother. From a girl-child through to her adult years, a woman is expected to take on the burden of care of her children, the sick, the poor, the elderly - shutting her mouth, knowing her place (or being ignorant of other possibilities).

The formal sector is most valued and recognized in society, the tip of the iceberg of economy, yet a woman's work in reproduction and care, subsistence and the informal sector are the submerged building blocks for the formal sector, negated financially and undervalued by society and public policy. A woman stands by her man (or men, in polygamous regions) - despite his indiscretions, his falls from grace, his violence and betrayals. Any other display of strength is traditionally viewed as male and reviled or met with suspicion in the female form: financial, public, political, physical.

This is undoubtedly why a girl's education has been widely touted as the key to the elimination of poverty. When girls and women are educated, they marry later in life and have fewer children, thus able to have a say over their life choices (preventing early pregnancies, understanding health risks) and the prosperity of their family (fewer mouths to feed). Increasing literacy and math skills in girls and women provides for economic benefits: women become wage earners, increasing wealth in their community and passing this along to their families, growing local economies into viable trade sectors. Closing the gender gap is a major development priority, as women take part of the mass migration from farm to city, their education, security and growth within this new landscape is a priority for developing world governments. Education is also highly correlated to better health: child mortality rates drop when mothers are educated, as does malnutrition and immunization rates rise. Perhaps most importantly, women and girl's empowerment increases with education, as they believe and can actionably have an impact over the big decisions that affect their lives.

In the West, Mary Wollstonecraft's words still resonate: although we may outpace our male colleagues in some fields of higher education, we are still paid wildly disproportionate wages, more unequal still if you are a woman of color, viewed as suspect and denied promotions in sectors that are not traditionally female-centric (education, nursing, administrative) and continue to take on the major part of child rearing and domestic work. We are also persistently plagued with an overwhelming misogyny through media representation and content and within a patriarchal society on the increasingly heightened value of female beauty over female mind or voice.

Susan Bordo, in Unbearable Weight, 1993, states: "The situation is one in which a constellation of social, economic, and psychological factors have combined to produce a generation of women who feel deeply flawed, ashamed of their needs, and not entitled to exist unless they transform themselves into worthy new selves (read: without need, without want, without body)."

In this, Bordo describes women as unable to live inside this body of endless scrutiny, one where, despite her emancipation through education, her financial means, and her own enlightenment, she cannot escape the pressures and binds that are attached to her physical self. Much like Foucault, she saw the body as a landscape on which history and culture tempted their swords - but Bordo emphasized the gendered nature: the gilded cage from which a woman's self could not be free and would always seek to adorn. In the very natural extension of this, women disproportionately have more eating disorders, seek plastic surgery and spend billions each year on beautifying products to 'correct' and 'improve' their bodies - not to stand out but, as Bordo suggests, to disappear altogether under or from the weight of the impossible standard of perfection.

If, in 1792, we could identify the cage, we are still struggling to free ourselves from its trappings - that key locked within like the bird. Charlotte Gilman wrote of a different world in Herland, (1999) where men have been absent for two thousand years, and women are thriving in a peaceful and conscious country. Education is prioritized according to each individual's need, and bodies are never up for dissection.

This is not a reality I can encourage, given that women's issues are men's issues. It is one, however, that can teach us the importance of a society truly progressing beyond it's impulse tendencies, and engaging in the development of all human beings through education, empathy and conscious progression.

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