Feminization of Education – A Historical Perspective

The following was inspired by reading this Guardian article on the number of women in higher education.

The feminization of higher education is following the same trends and patterns that were at play in the feminization of general education fields at the beginning of the twentieth century. What I mean by “feminization” is the dual effect that occurs when women begin to outnumber men in a particular discourse or activity in a patriarchal society such as our own.

First, the activity or discourse becomes less valued by the culture in measurable terms – lower wages, longer hours, more responsibility, increased precarity of employment. Second, the activity or discourse becomes a site upon which masculine identity can be asserted through recognition of difference. For example, take a feminized discipline like nursing; hegemonic masculinity constructs itself in opposition to the characteristics associated with nursing.

Throughout the nineteenth century, education at all levels was largely (if not wholly) a masculine discipline. As universal education legislation became standard across Great Britain, the US, Canada and so forth, more young women were educated because, by law, they had to be. As these young women grew up in the system, they began to move into the position of teacher. By the turn of the twentieth century and the rise of the High School movement in the US and Canada, more women were educators than ever before in history.

By the mid-twentieth century, elementary and high school teaching was largely a feminized occupation. More women than men were enrolling in Teacher’s Colleges and Normal Schools, while at the same time, the job was becoming almost laughably precarious. The radio and TV show Our Miss Brooks, though in no way a documentary of the lived conditions of women in education at the time, is one of my personal favourite representations of education in the period. Constantly impoverished, working with an uncaring and blustering (yet impotent) administration, and cutting corners on assessment whenever she was told to, Connie Brooks’ position is startlingly familiar to any adjunct professor now-a-days.

Teachers unions come under particular fire from social and fiscal conservatives and I think part of the reason for this is that the unions are trying to work against this feminization of the discipline by ensuring that pay structures, work hours, and so forth are at least somewhat regulated. Further, educational theory since the mid-twentieth century has tended to focus on the development of feminized characteristics (e.g. social skills) and feminized social qualities (e.g. “togetherness” over “competition”).

At the same time, by the mid-twentieth century, young women were outstripping young men in terms of high school graduation rates. Indeed, since 1970, graduation rates in the US have stagnated and this is in part due to the fact that young men opt out of the education system.

Young men are being told by their patriarchal culture that to be an adult man is to have access to special privileges and that to be a man one must perform that masculinity. At the same time, they are told to go through an education system that the patriarchal culture tells them is feminized and which itself values feminized characteristics. It isn’t surprising that those young men then see the easiest avenue to perform adult masculinity is to stop their education.

Please note, I’m not suggesting that we import more traditionally masculine forms into education specifically to appeal to young boys, as some schools have done. I’m not suggesting we import, say, competition or gender-based clothing regulations into the system just because it is traditionally masculine and therefore will keep boys in school longer. Doing that would only reify the gender roles that we are trying to undermine as good feminist thinkers.

I do, however, believe that something is going to give, but not for the right reasons. That is, the system that has developed in the West over the course of the twentieth century has it that that young men perform their patriarchal privilege by opting out of education, at the high school level and in higher education. Education, however, by its very nature, is a system of training individuals into social privilege insofar as education encourages and allows those individuals to access higher status, wealth, participation in the political system.

Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think the patriarchy is going anywhere anytime soon. It’s proven itself too resilient over the millennia for that to be believable to me.

Instead, what I think is going to happen is one of two possibilities:

  1. The Know-Nothing form of masculine performance will cease to exert its influence and the education system will be re-masculinized. There are cases throughout history of disciplines being masculinized; most notably, medicine in the Renaissance and Enlightenment moved from the practice of midwives and wise women to a masculine discipline. It seems perfectly possible to me that the education system will be taken over by men again as a way of re-asserting masculine privilege.
  2. If education is, at present, the key to gaining social status, privilege, and participation in the political system, then that will cease to be the case as other qualities will become more important to gaining that status. This too has happened in the past. In Imperial Rome, education ceased to be an avenue for social advancement. It just stopped figuring anywhere on the cursus honorum. Other qualities – whose family you were born into, where you were born, what religion you subscribed to – simply mattered more to your social position and access to power than your knowledge or training. The late Romans, especially the land-owning “nobility,” were suspicious of education and anyone who was too damned crafty for their own good. In that way, they remind me of Donald Trump supporters.

Now, I’d be overjoyed if I thought for an instant that what is happening in higher education and education more generally were a fundamental shift away from patriarchal systems of control, but I simply don’t see that happening. A masculine-figured administration has neutered and rendered impotent a feminine-figured faculty. Patriarchy isn’t being dismantled, it is being reasserted in a different form than the one that existed at the end of the nineteenth-century. After all, Victorian laws on universal education were, in part, a way of dismantling a pernicious and toxic form of patriarchal control. What we are seeing now is just another head of the hydra of patriarchy.

Do I have any solutions for this? No. Not a clue.

I do however think that both of the two scenarios that I just laid out are so horrific in their consequences that we have to find an alternative.

Of course – I could be completely wrong. Let me know in the comments.

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One thought on “Feminization of Education – A Historical Perspective

  1. At this point, I can find more than a few examples of the second case being the dominant mode of how the way privilege is transferred will change. You’re right, an alternative is imperative… Especially considering the current indentured servant system that has been proliferating for the last generation in universities when it comes to teaching courses.

    Liked by 1 person

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