Stand Strong Girls

Archive for the tag “education”

Expeditions for Erudition

The Warden’s Niece by Gillian Avery (published by Lions) is about a girl named Maria who runs away from school to her uncle who is the Warden of Canterbury College at Oxford. There she is introduced to the ticklish business of original research as she pursues the life story of a young Cavalier boy. She also begins to learn Greek and Latin and displays an aptitude for it which makes it likely that she will one day study at the university.

When The Warden’s Niece is set, in about 1875, Oxford University had just started to admit women the previous year. Five all-male colleges at Oxford: Brasenose, Jesus College, Wadham, Hertford and St Catherine’s became open to female students in 1874 and women’s colleges were later established. In neighbouring and rival Cambridge University, two women’s colleges had been established in 1869 and 1872. These were Girton College and Newnham College respectively.

However, women were not examined or made full members of the university in either Oxford or Cambridge until some years later. Although both universities began to allow female students to sit examinations, they were not given degrees if they passed. In Cambridge, women were examined in 1882 but were not full members of the university until 1948. At Oxford, women could become members of the university from 1920 although women had been passing examinations since the late 1870s.

However, Maria’s ambition goes beyond merely studying at Oxford, she wants to become a professor there too. When Maria first admits to her uncle her ambition of becoming a Professor of Greek he tells her: ‘Now that they are admitting female students into Oxford there is every chance there may be female professors in your lifetime’. Unfortunately, Maria would have had to wait a long time to fulfil her ambition. The first woman to be appointed to a full professorship was Agnes Headlam-Morley. She became Montague Burton Professor of International Relations in October 1948. In Cambridge things moved slightly faster as Dorothy Garrod was made Disney Professor of Archaeology in 1937. As Maria is supposed to be about eleven, she would have been 84 at the earliest possible time of her appointment to professorship at Oxford.

Despite Maria’s enthusiasm for her research, she finds numerous obstacles in her way. As her eccentric tutor, Mr Copplestone, remarks: ‘The pursuit of truth was never an easy task.’ It is even more difficult than usual for Maria, who faces opposition from every quarter because she is a child and a girl. Women have often been hindered in and blamed for their quest for knowledge although it is a worthy pursuit for anyone. It was once believed by educated doctors that too much knowledge could damage a woman’s reproductive system and make her infertile. For this reason, among others, many people looked askance at women’s education.

Maria’s original research sounds much like a (very short) PhD. She wants to discover something entirely new and different. In her quest for knowledge, Maria visits the Bodley Library in Oxford. The head librarian allows her in, against the rules because she was not in the university, because of her uncle’s position. He is firmly against female students and is disgusted that they are permitted in his library, which is very unfair because everyone ought to be helped to learn. Unfortunately, the librarian doesn’t see it this way.

In a similar way to Maria, Eve from the Book of Genesis took a risk in her quest for knowledge, for which endeavour she has been regarded as a villain for centuries. Eve was just the same as Maria in that she wanted to know something but faced heavy opposition.  Maria is in fact compared to Eve by Professor Smith after they make an unaccompanied trip out of Oxford. He says: ‘I don’t know whether you acted as Eve the temptress or whether they [his sons] led you astray.’

The similarity between the stories of Eve and Maria can easily be seen in The Garden by Elsie V. Aidinoff (published by Doubleday). This book is an interesting take on the story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve is depicted as curious, questioning and bright. She explores the world outside the Garden of Eden without God’s knowledge in the company of the Serpent, who is her teacher. When Eve eats of the apple, she does so because she wants to be free and to know more about the world outside. The Garden is a very beautiful and unique re-telling of an old, worn and misunderstood story.

Both books are well worth reading and I hope you’ll leave a comment if you have any other recommendations!

Also, I’m participating in an event for International Women’s Day on much the same theme as these books. See the event’s web page for more information.




Women and STEM

I recently wrote about girls and STEM at school, and this article on the same theme caught my attention. It features a letter written by a male engineering student to the women students studying with him. He very neatly twists a common idea around in this short, but powerful article. Let me know what you think… 

Room to Read

I recently heard about Room to Read, an organisation that works with communities and governments in Asia and Africa to run literacy programmes.  Room to Read operates in 10 countries in Africa and Asia. It builds libraries and schools, hiring local contractors and teachers. In this way money is put back into the community.

Room to Read

Room to Read logo

Room to Read also works with girls at secondary school level to help them reach their full potential. It provides mentors, workshops and camps to help girls in school. Room to Read helps girls who are moving from primary to secondary school as this is when most drop out happen. There are so many long-term advantages to girls’ education. Women often raise healthier families, earn higher wages and teach their own children.

I looked at Room to Read’s work in India, as one of the World Wide Women pages is about it. In India, Room to Read are mostly building libraries. Girls’ education is a large part of its work there, as there is still gender disparity in education. Although all children are entitled to free education in India, many girls drop out before finishing.

Room to Read sounds like a wonderful programme that is making a lot of difference and I hope it will continue its work for a long time.


Women-only universities

I recently read an article from THE which sparked my interest in women’s universities. The article was about women’s universities decreasing in popularity in the West and their increase in the developing world.

All-female institutions are often seen as out-dated in the West, now that there are co-educational universities available and places once only for men, are now accessible for women as well. Since these co-educational opportunities are available, very few women now consider attending women-only universities. In the UK, the number of women’s colleges has shrunk from 10 to three.

In sharp contrast to this is the all-female Princess Nora bint Abdulraham University in Riyadh, which has 52,000 students. It is the largest women-only university in the world. Another example is the Lady Shri Ram College for Women in New Delhi which had 120,000 applicants this year, for 600 places.

The difference is understandable, although striking. According to Kristen Renn (author of Women’s Colleges and Universities in a Global Context), ‘Young women now believe the playing field is more than level’, because of this they see no need for women-only institutions. However, when Mursal Hamraz was leaving her home in Afghanistan to go to university in Bangladesh, the loudest protests came from the other women in the town. She said that on hearing that the university admitted women only, ‘that gave them a little bit of comfort’.

Unfortunately, many women’s colleges focus on traditionally ‘female careers’, such as teaching and nursing. In this way, they are reinforcing out-dated values and not encouraging women to pursue careers in other areas, such as science or engineering.

Women’s colleges do have a unique role though, they are spaces where women realise that they are equal to men, and should have an education to match. Places where women can find their voice are very important for women who are used to male-dominated societies.

All-female institutions face a paradox which seems unsolvable; ‘single-sex universities give women the tools they need to help reverse the cultural forces that put them there in the first place’, as neatly phrased by Jon Marcus. In principle, I am opposed to women-only universities, and yet they can and do play an important role in the education of many women. Women from families who are not very supportive of their education, may only have the opportunity of attending women’s universities. I’m not really sure what to think about this paradox but I think this blog post has been long enough.

Do you support women-only universities? The comment box is open…


The fuel to empower a woman

I found it tricky to think of a blog post topic this week, I wanted something fresh, and then it struck me, a phrase we hear so often but that I, for one, couldn’t define. Empowering women, these words are used by activists, charities and governments around the world. To me, it seems a strange phrase, how do you empower a woman, what kind of fuel do you use?

I started my research in a dictionary. According to Collins English Dictionary, to empower means ‘to enable or authorise’. Next, I moved to the web. On, I found a different kind of definition. Apparently, to empower women means: ‘liberty and power, knowledge and capacity for taking decisions and the opportunity for fulfilling them’. That sounds great to me, a perfect recipe for development.

How is it actually done though? So many charities say one of their targets is to empower women, or that such-and-such an amount goes to schemes to empower women. The way I see it, to achieve ‘knowledge and capacity for taking decisions’, education is key. Although there is a great quote:

There are lots of things that never go by rule,
There’s a powerful pile o’ knowledge      
That you never get at college,
There are heaps of things you never learn at school.

Which really means, education isn’t the only way to learn, but it’s a good place to start.   

Oxfam seem to look at empowering women from a more businesslike perspective. On their website, they have the story of a woman called Girijar Panchal, from India. Oxfam worked to set up women’s groups in her village, to help women to support themselves financially. Panchal went from poverty to owning a field of cotton and a shop.

I have read quite a bit about charities setting up women’s groups or co-operatives. It seems to be the best way of giving women more financial independence by teaching them new skills and giving them help to sell their goods. So, we have empowering women through education and through work. These both fit in with our original definition, to enable. Oxfam and many other charities, both big and small, enable women to reach their potential and become more independent.

Empowering women is also a Millennium Goal, one of eight goals supposed to be reached by 2015.

Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women

Work to make sure that girls can go to school and that women have the opportunity to make decisions in their lives. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that Millennium Goal will be met, as we are already in 2014 and one year just isn’t long enough. The work of organisations such as UNICEF helps to get us closer to achieving these goals, but let’s face it, we’re a long way off still. It is sad to look at all the ways to empower women and at the goals that are supposed to get us there, when we’re so far behind. Still, at least it shows we’re thinking, and that’s a start.

If you know anything about empowering women, the comment box is open…

International Day of the Girl Child 2013

On the 19th of December 2011, the United Nations General Assembly declared the 11th of October to be International Day of the Girl Child. They did this to recognize the rights of girls and the challenges faced by girls around the world. One of these challenges is the battle many girls face to get an education. This is what the theme for this year is focusing on, the right of every girl to have an education. This theme has been chosen because lack of education is the root of many problems for girls such as poverty and mortality.  Lots of organizations and communities are marking the International Day of the Girl Child with events and campaigns. The official website for the International Day of the Girl Child is here. Why don’t you get involved with the International Day of the Girl Child by supporting them on Facebook or Twitter?

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: