Saturday, November 20, 2010

In the Company of Educated Women

Copyright © 2007 José Cossa

A Book Review of Solomon, B. M.  (1985).  In the Company of Educated Women:  A History of Women And Higher Education in America.  New Haven, USA:  Yale University.

In the company of educated women is both a descriptive and critical history of women’s struggles in the educational arena.  Solomon paints a picture of a dialectic, somehow in a Hegelian fashion, comprised of three forces, namely, (1) women’s demands for education, (2) the opposition women faced due the characteristics of the social fabric of the time, and (3) the consequent emergence of social consciousness on women’s issues.  According to critics, this is the best history of educated women in America written thus far. 

Solomon advances her thesis of educated women’s struggle for equality by engaging the reader in the socio-political context of the time when certain milestone events happened in the lives of educated women.  Through this historical milieu, She highlights the brave and persistent nature of her heroines in a somewhat-dramatic fashion that makes the reader grasp the situation as if in the actual company of these educated women.  Her scope is purely to tell the story of these women and not of institutions they represented, or were a part of; however, an earnest reader will also grasp the characteristics of institutions and draw inferences that might be useful to understand today’s educational institutions.  For Solomon, apart from being a story of heroism, the battle of the educated women in America is an unfinished revolution with paradoxes that deserve exploration.

The book is divided into four themes:  (a) women’s struggles for access to institutions, (b) the dimensions of collegiate experience, (c) the effects of education upon women’s life choices, and (d) the uneasy connection between feminism and women’s educational advancement.  These themes embody Solomon’s claimed dialectic because on the one hand they present the rational for women’s demands for education and on the other hand the opposition faced by women who recognized education as a vehicle for equality with men.  This opposition, according to Solomon, is still evident today despite the continual struggle for equality.  Solomon posits:

The expanding company of educated women must still contend with the fear and ambivalence implicit in public attitudes and policies toward women’s changing roles.  To maintain and propel a momentum for equality, it is vital to understand the enduring complexities facing women, educated or not.  In the company of educated women aims to illuminate some of those complexities in the belief that the knowledge will strengthen future generations in taking the next steps toward true equality.

The facts presented in the book are supported by a valuable list of primary sources.  I was personally impressed by the presentation of extracts from the primary source materials that Solomon places as an introduction to each chapter.  These extracts are a good summary of the historical context serving as a landmark from which the reader-traveler ought to embark in the journey in time.  This combined literary style enables Solomon to both justify the historicity of her work as well as engage the reader in the emotional life of the time as interpreted by those who lived the experiences first-hand.  The extracts add a personal touch to her research report.

Her discussion sheds light to many issues all of which were linked to the rationales in favor of women such as the fact that women are advantageous to society, play a special role as mothers of male citizens, and have individual rights too.  Some of the articulations by pioneers of women’s higher education reflect these values and enlighten one to understand the challenges and journey faced by women and their institutions.  For example, the following quote of Sophia Smith:

It is my opinion that by the higher and more thoroughly Christian education of women, what are called their ‘wrongs’ will be redressed, their wages will be adjusted, their weight of influence in reforming evils of society will be greatly increased as teachers, as writers, as members of society, their power for good will be incalculably enlarged.

Following this quote Solomon recalls her theme of women’s continual struggle by indicating that Smith College only appointed male presidents for almost a century and it was only in 1975 that a woman president, Jill Ker Conway, was inaugurated.  Also worth noting is the fact that Smith was amongst the prominent schools in promoting women’s freedom and professionalism and has persisted as a symbol of women’s education today. 

As promised in her preface, Solomon sticks to the aim of presenting women as students and graduates rather than on institutional history.  In this history she presents women in institutions as transparent as she can afford by describing their activities, reaching the pick of this revelation in chapter seven, Dimensions of the Collegiate Experience.  The contrast of the three generations is rich in informing the reader about the social dynamics and emotions characteristic of college life in three different eras, an aspect often omitted in literature about women.  Activism of women took various shapes such as academic expression, feminism, socialism, and even sexual preferences such as lesbianism and celibacy.  I was personally informed by Solomon’s findings regarding the rationale for college girls’ engagement in lesbian practices – this, in my opinion, could not be less important since some men’s eyebrows raise when the idea of a women’s college is brought to discussion, unless it is within a religious order.

The chapters in Solomon advance her themes chronologically.  Starting from the colonial period until recent times (even more precisely, today), Solomon describes the nature of the struggle and the reason for labeling the revolution an unfinished task. I concur with Solomon that women still struggle with some of the issues they fought against in the past and one does not have to go far to realize the truthfulness of such struggle.  A book like this raises questions not only to educational inclusion or recognition but also to the total integration and recognition of women in the wider society.  Women in today’s society are still not equal to men.  There is still prejudice as to what professions and offices belong to women and to men.  Women haven’t reached the office of president in democratic America and one may venture to say that it is still early to think of a possibility of a woman US president. 

Solomon’s book is implicitly about the paradoxes of American democracy, and that of other societies.  After a long struggle, Women have received and made use of a great deal of civil rights through the court system, i.e., individual freedom, freedom of speech, equality before the law, freedom of thought, individual right, etc..  Women have also attained a considerable degree of social rights, but they still have a long way to go in order to enjoy fully their political rights.  Without political rights the other rights become a part of an unfinished revolution and such revolution will only be more meaningfully achieved when women attain political rights which are the guarantor of both civil and social rights – although not phrased in these terms, these are the tears poured fourth by Solomon as she engages the reader of her historical dissertation.  Solomon’s is a historical and scholarly book that reads like a novel with chronological accuracy and style – one of the best of its kind and recommendable to any student of history.

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