Conference 2011 Keynote Address: Gender and Education, History and Progress (Carol Dyhouse)

Carol’s keynote opened the conference by taking stock of girls and women’s position in education for “without the past we can’t understand the present”. She began by troubling the idea of progress for in the history of girls education, things do not only get better.

“History is always a dialogue so, it depends where you stand, what you see”. Carol chose to look from three UK viewponts: the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s. She recalled that the 1960s were the moment when she became conscious of gender inequality. In this decade, the proportion of women in universities was lower than in the 1930s. And most girls, even those in academic schools, were channelled into a less demanding curriculum than that taken by those destined for university, a curriculum that would equip them only for teacher training. It was a time of generational conflict: an older generation of feminists felt that the fight for equality was won while among younger women, it saw the beginnings of  second wave feminism.

In the 1970s this generational conflict became more pronounced. There was a blossoming of scholarship on gender and education and Carol happily recalled her role in this. This was facilitated by crucial shifts in how schooling was seen: children became viewed as active rather than passive learners and this brought a new interest on classrooms and playgrounds as sites of gendered interactions. The understanding of  gender as relational brought new critical work on masculinity. For example, feminists critiqued medical schools’ refusals to accept women on the grounds that they would dilute the sports teams. Disturbingly, Carol recalled that one such interview procedure began by rejecting any candidate who failed to catch a rugby ball chucked at him as he walked through the door.

By contrast, the 1990s were marked theoretically by the linguistic turn. This, for Carol, brought a useful focus on how gender is continually reconstituted through language but, less usefully, brought an impenetrable theoretical language and a rejection of the irreducible materiality of human life. I guess some other poststructuralists in the audience, like me, would want to take issue with this and insist on the inevitable role of the discursive in constructing the materiality even of death in childbirth.

Practically, in the 1990s, girls’ educational performance and participation increased as the artificial restrictions that had held them back were swept away. This left some feminists looking like “beached whales” as public discussion asked: Is schooling too girl friendly? and blamed girls and women for boys’ ‘failure’. Madeleine Arnot, Miriam David and Gaby Weiner’s book Closing the Gender Gap published at the end of this decade, was a key feminist attempt to remap the terrain.

Re/turning to the contemporary, Carol reflected that there remains no consensus on where girls are in education. Parenthood is still a much more difficult time for women than for men. And troubling old stories re-emerge. For example, Will Hutton’s recent claim that at times of economic downturn girls keep trying (even harder) and boys just kick the wall, echoes arguments from a century ago that examinations are bad for girls because they take them too seriously. And, if we go outside of the global North we get a more complicated picture than the Western narrative of female triumphalism.

But there are reasons to be cheerful, Carol feels, and she tentatively asserted that “progress has been made”. After all dismissal of girls’ intellectual capacity is no longer part of the scientific mainstream, girls and women now have access to the same examinations and institutions as boys and men, there’s less formal gender segregation of the curriculum and there has been a closing of the gender gap in educational achievement and an opening up of the employment market to women.

Theoretically significant moves include: the division between sex and gender, the demolition of a simple idea of history as progress, the exploration of how gender inter-relates with social class and ethnicity and the linguistic turn. The Gender and Education Conference itself attests to progress in the field. Such an event would have been unimaginable in the 1970s when you could count gender and education researchers on your fingers and toes and their work brought ridicule from their peers.

Carol left us with two images: of a kaleidoscope and a virus. With a kaleidoscope, each time you shake it you get a new pattern. It takes a while to make sense of the pattern and then you shake it up again. Doing history is pattern making but there are constants. A pertinent one of these is patriarchy. Since patriarchy keeps shifting we need to respond to it by acting like a virus: keep adapting until we find its weak points.

Interestingly responses to Carol’s talk focused on her vivid discussion of generational conflicts within feminism. For, now, feminists of her generation, who had rejected their own feminist ‘mothers’, found themselves rejected in turn by a younger generation of women. I found it disturbing that Carol’s historical intervention suggested to one feminist of Carol’s generation that young women should learn to appreciate the contributions of their ‘mothers’. In contrast, to me it suggested that she and other ‘older’ feminists should understand the necessity for the next generation to reject what has gone before.

(Heather Mendick, Goldsmiths, University of London)

Other conference keynotes that may be of interest:Gender and education in the twenty-first century: engendering debate (Becky Francis); Educating desire (Davina Cooper) 

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