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

Trinity University

President’s Blog
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!

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Arrogance, Ignorance, Nonsense
August 21, 2012

Yesterday on this blog I celebrated Trinity’s 115th birthday, remembering the founding of Trinity on August 20, 1897 and saluting the courage and vision of the Sisters of Notre Dame who understood women’s right to education and equality in an age when women were treated as lesser beings, as the property of men, as incapable of great intellectual or physical feats.

We might think the biases against women and social prejudices of the 19th century are long over, completely refuted, buried in the graveyard of obvious historic mistakes.

Think again.

Yesterday’s headlines are a painful reminder that women continue to suffer the most outrageous forms of discrimination, prejudice and downright mean-spirited oppression at the hands of arrogant, ignorant men who still wield considerable power over the lives, health and full human potential of women.

Representative Todd Akin’s comments about rape cannot be dismissed as a mere mistake, a simple slip of the tongue when he really meant to say something else.  He said in a televised news interview in Missouri, where he is running against Claire McKaskill for the U.S. Senate seat, in reference to whether abortion should be permissible for a rape victim, “It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

This was no mere malapropism.  Sometimes people really do say what they really are thinking.  Akin’s comments tore a gaping hole in the veil of deceit and obfuscation that masks so much of the political debates on women’s health issues and women’s rights.   Appalling arrogance skips across oceans of ignorance about women’s physiology, psychology, responsibilities and fundamental liberties.  Should men who apparently know nothing about women’s bodies be allowed to legislate the most intimate details of our physical being?

Even the most ardent pro-life advocates instantly recognized the dangerous nature of Akin’s ignorant remarks.  Ignorance undermines the legislative agenda.  The political quagmire of pro-life v. pro-choice is a struggle for power and control of decisions, a battle about rights and freedoms and who may ultimately exercise moral responsibilities.  The pro-life side says that law should dictate moral choice when it comes to abortion. The pro-choice side says that law must respect the right of women to make the moral choice for themselves.  Many people who are pro-choice still believe ardently that women should never choose abortion, but politicians should stay out of the decision.  Many people who are pro-life reject the extremism that some anti-abortion advocates demonstrate.  People of good will on both sides can find a great deal of common ground in the imperative of teaching about moral responsibility and the protection of life.

People of good will, however, rarely make headlines.  Instead, politicians who have little respect for or understanding of the people for whom they are making decisions wield legislative power in ignorance and with arrogance.  Akin’s comments might be dismissed as sheer nonsense but for the fact that he is standing for election for a U.S. Senate seat that could possibly alter the political balance of Congress for a long time.  His responsibility, like that of all politicians, is to get the facts straight before he makes political decisions.  His comments crystallize Americans’ skepticism about the ability of politicians to get it right.

Meanwhile, to the south, the solons of the Augusta National Golf Club are congratulating themselves mightily over their generosity and sheer modernity in “allowing” two women to join the formerly all-male golf club.  How nice of them!  We gals sure are grateful!  Or are we?

Seriously, ladies, why should we be happy that men deign to “allow” just two carefully chosen women of power and wealth to play golf with them?  Golf, itself, is blissful nonsense, but what goes on out on the links is very serious business.  We should not be so quick to celebrate “victory” for simple justice.  We can be happy and glad for Condoleeza Rice and Darla Moore who are the trailblazers — the first women to wear the green jackets at Augusta.  But let’s not forget that they are only there because men “allowed” them in.

Women still have a long way to go before equal rights are embedded in our culture and men’s consciousness not simply as a privilege to extend but as a fundamental way of life for all people throughout our society.