Liberal Education

"I Aim at Being Useful": How Useful Have We Been? What More Must We Do?

What is our work? It is nothing less than the seeking of justice in education and the seeking of justice through education. Indeed, our promise is that the first leads to the second. That is, if we have justice in education, we will create the conditions for the achievement of justice throughout society. If we achieve equity in education, we will radically change, even transform, education. The consequences of this will ripple through and spill over all of society. Educate a girl. You will change her, her family, her village or town, her activities, and her children. In brief, you will change her life and the lives around her. You will have greater stability, well-being, and sustainability. Educate women, and you will achieve such goods as the improvement of health and the reduction of HIV/AIDS.

Our work has deep roots. In 1792, a brilliant young woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, sat down to write. She had been born in 1759, the daughter of a restless ex-weaver who abused his wife. She had little education. She had no money. However, she had brains, talent, and nerve. She made her way as a lady’s companion, school founder, publisher’s assistant, governess, and author. She died young, in 1797, having given birth to two daughters. One of them Mary Shelley, was to become the author of Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft’s 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, is now a landmark in the seeking of justice in education and the seeking of justice through education. Introducing it, Wollstonecraft stated, “I aim at being useful.”

For forty years, the Program on the Status and Education of Women, its friends, and its partners have also aimed at being useful. Retrospectively, I am astonished at the extent and audacity of our goals. For justice in education meant at the very least equity in access, in the allocation of resources, in staff and faculty hiring, and in the curriculum. Tooting one’s own horn is unattractive, but so is false modesty. Hoping to avoid the rock of tooting one’s own horn and the hard place of false modesty, I suggest that we have been of use in four ways: through our accomplishments, through our competencies, through our values, and through our dreams. Let me take them in turn, noting some illustrative examples of each.

Our accomplishments

Sadly, there is no progress without resistance and pain. We learn to cheer and weep at the same moment. The crucial year of 1963 illustrates this truth. It was the setting of the passage of the Equal Pay Act, mandating equal pay for equal work regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex; of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique; and of the issuing of Pauli Murray’s American Women: Report of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, which led to comparable commissions in individual states. In 1963, the black civil rights movement, which helped establish the women’s movement, organized the great March on Washington, DC. In Georgia, Charlayne Hunter became the first black woman to enter the University of Georgia. However, in this same year, bigots bombed a church in Birmingham and murdered four little girls who were at Sunday School. Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten because she sought to register black voters in Mississippi. Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy were assassinated. 

Yet, building on each other, useful accomplishments happened. A primary one was legal. A legislative scaffolding to surround the search for justice in education went up, and has stayed up. In 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in education based on race, color, and national origin, and discrimination in employment based on race, sex, color, national origin, or religion. It is well known that the word “sex” was mischievously added in an attempt to stop the legislation as a whole, but it is even better known that she or he who laughs last laughs best. Then President Lyndon Johnson added affirmative action to the Civil Rights Act. The legal scaffolding went higher in 1970 when Representative Edith Green, a Democrat from Oregon, held the first congressional hearings on women’s education and employment.

Then in 1972, Title IX became law. Let us remember that simple, profound language: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation under any educational program or activity receiving federal assistance.” Two years later, the Women’s Educational Equity Act provided funds for model programs, training, and materials that would support the intent of Title IX. Its administrators created activities for women of color and for women with disabilities. In 1994, still another significant piece of scaffolding was added. The Gender Equity in Education Act asked for the training of teachers in gender equity, the promotion of math and science learning by girls, the giving of advice to pregnant teenagers, and the prevention of sexual harassment.

These useful legislative accomplishments helped to create the conditions for a second great accomplishment: the reconstruction of academic life, its research, teaching, and participants. In 1970, Kate Millett, a doctoral student at Columbia University, published her dissertation under the title of Sexual Politics, a book so influential in its own right and so symbolic of  change that Millett found herself on the cover of Time magazine. San Diego State College opened the first official women’s studies program, a system of courses rather than one or two courses being offered here and there as they were in the 1960s. Globally, there are now thousands and thousands of courses, programs, publications, and research centers.

Conceptually, women’s studies evolved through several phases. The first, seen in Sexual Politics, was to document the bad differences between women and men, the discrimination and inequities. Next, led by Carol Gilligan, the good differences between women and men were explored, along with the possibility that women spoke in a “different” and constructive voice.

Simultaneously encouraged and pushed by women of color, women’s studies engaged with the differences among women, at first those of race and class, but then of sexuality, nationality, and religion. Acknowledging and welcoming diversity became a fundamental, ongoing aim.

By the mid-1980s, the study of gender as a system joined the study of women as a group with many differences among its members. Of course, the inevitable backlash whipped out. In 1987, conservative Christians and state legislators went after the women’s studies program at California State University–Long Beach. It lost its director, courses, and a campus women’s center. However, the great momentum has been with the growth of women’s and gender studies rather than with its grumpy opposition. 

Inseparable from the developments in teaching, learning, research, and theory has been the creation of academic advocacy groups and infrastructure. For example, in 1971, the Association for Women in Science was started. The sciences remain the most difficult field for women. In that same year, women in Asian studies at the University of California–Berkeley started the journal Asian Women, part of an explosion of journals and other publications. To add to the accomplishments, women have won more and more leadership positions. In 1994, Judith Rodin was appointed the first permanent woman president of the University of Pennsylvania—and the first woman president in the Ivy League. In 2001, Ruth Simmons took up the presidency of Brown, becoming the first African American woman to assume an Ivy League presidency.

Education takes place both inside and outside of formal schools. A third primary accomplishment has been to begin to change the institutions that educate men and women outside of the “official classroom.” Change entails new thinking as well as the release of women’s energies and talents. The media are among the most powerful of these institutions. In 1971, Gloria Steinem and an intrepid band started Ms. magazine. We can appreciate one of Steinem’s succinct comments about education, “The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.”  The world of arts and letters, often intersecting with the media, has also battled for equity. In 1985, for example, the Guerilla Girls, a group of New York artists, started their raucous productions of street theater with the serious purpose of protesting women’s exclusion from galleries and museums. Finally, the world of religion is a significant, complicated educational force, which both helps and hampers the quest for justice in education. It is heartening to remember that in 1970, two Lutheran denominations approved the ordination of women. Two years after that, Sally Preisand became the first woman rabbi. Five years after that, in 1977, Pauli Murray was the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest.

Our competencies

The usefulness of competencies is that nothing gets accomplished without them. One central competency is just getting the darned job done—no matter how much persistence it might take, how much resilience, how much courage, how much ability to cradle both a child and a cell phone, and how much withstanding of frustration and fools. The supporters of justice in education are multitasking maniacs.

In the midst of busyness and demands, another competency that has necessarily been nurtured is the ability to balance the claims of the self and the claims of community. A particular psychological and moral process lends to the growth of this competency. It cautions us that we cannot really be of use unless we know ourselves and are aware of our own needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Socrates, that iconic educator, did correctly urge us to “know thyself.” Then, we move out to recognize the otherness of others, to see how the shadows fall with a difference from someone other than one’s paltry self. Only after we are capable of these respectful recognitions can we negotiate and form useful networks, affinity groups, and communities.

Still another competency is the ability to speak well both within these groups and to outsiders. Like Mary Wollstonecraft and so many others, the supporters of justice in education need to communicate, to state clearly and persuasively what is unjust and what is just. We have been competent at getting at the facts, at understanding them, and then getting them out in helpful, responsible ways. We may live in a twenty-four-hour news cycle, but we believe in a twenty-four-hour truth cycle.

To live in a truth cycle involves, of course, being able to admit mistakes. “Second-wave” feminists, and I am one, initially did overgeneralize about women, papering over and erasing differences among us. In addition, some of us “second wavers” may also have wanted too much explicit gratitude from “third-wave” feminists and misunderstood their strengths. I admire “third wavers” for several reasons. Intellectually, they explore theory with agility and poise. Culturally, they are brilliantly adept at managing the new technologies of communication. They are human spiders at work on their websites. Psychologically, they seem at ease with diversity. They also seem to appreciate style and beauty in ways that some of us second wavers could not, fearful as we might have been of being caught in the beauty trap and reduced to our physical appearances.

Our values

The use of values is that they sustain, guide, and inform us in the exercise of our competencies. They provide what is called our “moral compass.” A basic principle has been simply to value women and girls as much as men and boys. We urgently reject the devaluing of women and girls to the status of the second, the inferior, the subordinate sex. No man—by divine right or custom—is inherently superior to a woman. This has meant that we argue for literacy and education as a way of releasing each woman’s voice and talents. Some of these voices will turn out to be disagreeable; others murderous. But we will not know unless education enables women to shape who they might be. Our fundamental value is inseparable from our commitment to human rights, our belief in the irreducible core of each person that cannot be violated. No woman—by divine right or custom—is inherently superior to a man. Such beliefs are compatible with our support of diversity. Each person can accept or shape an identity around that core.

Viscerally, we are sickened by violence against women and children. We abhor the beatings and the rapes, the battery and the assaults, the cruelties and the tyrannies. We value their opposite: kindness, compassion, empathy.

Our dreams

The use of dreams is that they console and inspire us. They picture a different world to which we might aspire and for which we might work. The supporters of justice in education have a magnificent legacy of dreamers. Think of Emma Willard and Mary Woolley and M. Carey Thomas. Think of the dreams of the three hundred people in that chapel in Seneca Falls in 1848. Think of Harriet Jacobs, born a slave in 1818. In 1861 she published a book under the name of Linda Brent, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. She hid from a rapacious slave owner in an attic, stifling in summer, bone-chilling in winter, until she fled in 1842. She dreamt of literacy, of escape, of being reunited with her two children. Think, too, of Eleanor Roosevelt, dreaming and then helping to write a United Nations “Declaration of Human Rights.” Passed in 1948, it asserts all our rights to security, food, shelter, and education.

A new aim: To continue to be of use

How, then, do we take our accomplishments, competencies, values, and dreams and plan how to be of use in the next forty years? Any answer must recognize what is now a truism: we live in a global society. We are interdependent and interconnected. I often use this metaphor for our situation: We are travelling together in a big Boeing 777 or one of those new, huge Airbuses with hundreds of passengers.  Some of us are first class, on the glamorous top floor of that Airbus; some of us are in the main cabin. But we are together. We literally breathe each other’s air. We will land safely together, or we will crash together.

Globality increases the recognition of our differences. If recognizing national differences has been tough enough, recognizing them on a global scale is an even greater order of magnitude. We now live with immense gaps between haves and the have-nots; racial and ethnic diversities; tensions within and among nations; and disagreements about religion and faith and the role of theology in our societies and laws. We have no single conviction about America’s place in the world. Will the twenty-first century be, not an American Century, but an Asian Century or a Brazilian Century? The competences we have developed for negotiation and translations will be tested, applied, retested, and reapplied. Fortunately, our new technologies of communication—the Internet—can help us create new coalitions and communities.

What the Program on the Status and Education of Women, its friends, and its partners bring to globalization is that passionate but now well-honed belief in justice—justice in education, and justice through education. This means access to education, beginning with the literacies (written, numerical, computer), going on to primary and secondary and tertiary education, and then progressing further to lifelong learning. People thirst for education—for themselves and for their children. They know it is the guide to the future.

As evidence, let me turn to another voice. Hoon Eng Khoo recently stepped down as the acting vice chancellor and provost of the new Asian University for Women in Bangladesh.  She is an associate professor of biochemistry at the National University of Singapore. Her birthplace was an island in Malaysia—without a telephone, electricity, or running water. She had a dream: to study science and medicine abroad. But she was from a Chinese family. After riots in Malaysia, strict affirmative action plans had been implemented—for native Malays. She knew her chances of a government-sponsored scholarship were few and far between.

This determined girl got on her bicycle and rode to the United States Information Service and talked to a college counselor. Today, if she had access to a computer, she could go on the Internet. She learned about Smith College. She applied. In 1970, she enrolled and began the process of becoming Professor Koo. She now instructs us as to what girls need during their education. They are often considered “disrespectful” if they speak up in the classroom. They need to thrive in a climate in which they can exert their voices and exercise “creativity and critical thinking.” Women’s rights have to be modeled throughout their schools.

But, I have heard Professor Koo say, our students will often come from places where water is drawn from a well, light shines from a kerosene lamp, the roads are unpaved, and rickshaws are still a common mode of transportation. Reach out, Professor Koo urges, reach out. Make education a possibility, but help as well with clean water, a light by which to study, and a school building that protects as well as provides a setting for education.

During the next forty years, there is still work to be done in the United States. We have not yet achieved equity in higher education. Look, for example, at women faculty. In 2007, women composed 41.8 percent of our full-time faculty and men 58.2 percent. Of part-time faculty 50.1 percent were women, 49.9 percent were men.

That last figure points to complications that were not present forty years ago. We are close to equity, but in the often tenuous part-time faculty positions. Moreover, in 1978, for the first time, more women than men entered

college. Perhaps this is a landmark, but we never wanted to play a zero-sum game in which women might be winners but men might be undeserving losers. We should worry if the happy fact that more women are entering higher education is accompanied by the unhappy fact that more men are either not entering or dropping out. Equity never meant women soaring and boys falling behind. For both women and men, there is an even larger scandal and tragedy: the growing conviction that education is not a public good, but a private benefit.  This has helped to bring about a withdrawal of support from our great public institutions. I often quote a bitter joke I heard at a meeting of graduate deans: “Higher education in California used to be highway to opportunity. Now it is the toll road.” For forty years, we sought equity in education, largely and spaciously defined. Now, we must seek widespread support of education, largely and spaciously defined, for girls and boys, women and men.

We cannot forget the horrors of 1963. But I also think of that Stephen Sondheim song, “Still here, still here.” We are still here. We carry our competencies, our values, and our dreams in our hearts, minds, wheelies, and backpacks. Let our usefulness continue in our global, wired world. The Program on the Status and Education of Women, it friends, and its partners have done work that is real. There is more justice in education and more justice through education. May this program now lead our dreaming about new realities and show us how to stumble, grumble, sing, converse, and toil so that we may usefully create them.


1. I met Hoon Eng Khoo at the Bryn Mawr College conference “Heritage and Hope: Women’s Education in a Global Context,” which was held September 23 to 25, 2010. My paraphrases of her remarks are taken from my notes and from the November 2010 edition of Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin.

Catharine R. Stimpson is university professor and dean emerita at New York University. This article was adapted from an address to the Women’s Networking Breakfast at the 2011 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). The event marked the fortieth anniversary of the AAC&U Program on the Status and Education of Women.

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