Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Media and Women's Education

The media have the power to either enslave women in ignorance or free them through education. Which will it be? 

Although the media can promote female ignorance, leading to an imbalance of power between the sexes and skewed social expectations, these same media can effectively promote female education, leading to equality between the sexes and empowering women to champion needed social, economic, and political change that benefits nations. The extent to which education prevails against ignorance is directly related to the effectiveness with which society utilizes the media to advocate for the former.

In both the Enlightenment Era and the Digital Age, women have stood up for education and great results have come of it. The difference is that thanks to the mass media and social media of today's society, change can be brought about at a much faster rate, and participation is no longer confined to the select few with professional influence, but has spread to the sphere of the amateur.

The Enlightenment

During the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, many philosophes used the popular press to argue that women should only obtain that education necessary for them to be capable of raising a family and marketable for marriage. However, utilizing this same popular press, forward-thinking men and women countered, arguing that women ought to receive as much education as possible in order to be societies future public teachers and tutors to their children. Although their ideals did not see any effectual change for many decades, the philosophy of these thinkers influenced later generations of activists to further the cause of equality in education. Educated women then paved the way for social reform that promoted equality in all aspects of life and led to improvements in virtually aspect of society.

An Example from the Past

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was born into an era of changing ideologies and rapid social change in Spitalfields, London, England. During her lifetime, she saw the overall transition of Europe from the rationalism of the Enlightenment to the irrationalism of the Romantic Period. This transition is manifest in much of her writing, which possessed both a rational logical and an irrational religious appeal.

When she was 25, Wollstonecraft opened a school with her two sisters Eliza and Everina and her friend Fanny Blood in Islington and then Everina. Unfortunately, due to Fanny's departure to Portugal to marry and her subsequent postpartum death, which Mary attended, Mary was forced to closed the school. At this point, she decided to make her living and change the world by her pen, to be (as she said to her sister Everina), "the first of a new genus" in the literary realm. This statement proved to be prophetic, as Wollstonecraft's pioneering efforts in feminism changed the world.

Towards Activism

At this time, Wollstonecraft became concerned that women of the middle and noble class in England were being pressured by society to receive only the education necessary for them to take care of their children and then spend the rest of their time concerning themselves with frivolous matters that would boost their value in the marriage market. To make matters worse, proponents of educational reform of the time such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were against girls receiving the same general education in both sciences and humanities that boys received. Wrote Rousseau in Emilius and Sophia; or, A New System of Education (also, Émile), "The one [the male sex] should be active and strong, the other [the female sex] passive and weak... To maintain indiscriminately that the two sexes are equal, and that their reciprocal duties and obligations are the same, is to indulge ourselves in idle declamations unworthy of a serious answer" (

Having run a school herself and seen first-hand the value of educating girls with the same education that boys receive, at least in primary school, Wollstonecraft determined to make a stand against these barons of the inequality of women.

Treatise on Women's Education

In her treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Wollstonecraft asserts that true "strength" comes through women exercising the "mind" and "body", while "weakness" is begot of women overly concerning themselves with "susceptibility of heart", "delicacy of sentiment", and "refinement of taste". Cultivating the body and mind, or one's "morality", naturally demands respect and increases one's understanding of God. A strong body and mind are won through hard work and can never be taken away. In contrast, cultivating one's "manners" naturally demands pity, as they are easily learned and easily forgotten, showing no increase in character. Women only appear to be week because they do not receive an education, and it is painfully ironic that they are denied the very thing that would make them strong simply because they are weak.

Wollstonecraft demands equality in education between boys and girls, arguing that men already have access to high-quality, character-building education and that women reserve this right as well--and, in all reality, require such an education if for nothing else than to become better educators and mothers.

(Besides being extremely funny, this video succinctly explains Wollstonecraft's principle arguments for why women needed higher-quality, more extensive education)

Wollstonecraft's Impact

Mary Wollstonecraft's ideals did not have much societal impact during her lifetime because of her husband's memoirs revealing her scandalous lifestyle, but her ideals influenced future generations of reformers of the mid-19th century both directly through her written works and indirectly through the dissemination of her ideas by subsequent authors and adherents. Before her death, she inspired Mary Hays and Amelia Opie to right treatises on the rights of women as she had. Years after her death, her ideas were revived by such authors as Margaret Fuller, Harriet Taylor, and John Stuart Mill. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, both American suffragettes, worked under a portrait of Wollstonecraft, and Stanton's book History of Women's Suffrage. These women won the vote, led to equality, and educated a generation of active citizens and led to the dominance of the British Empire in the early 20th century.

Wollstonecraft's ideals have stood the test of time. The American experiment is a great example of the impact her ideals of education can have on society. Because of movements promoting women's education and coed education in the 19th century, America saw a 20th century packed with important legislation and court cases progressively giving women's the right to vote, financial autonomy, marital rights and rights against abuse, abortion rights, and assurance of post-secondary education and a fair chance in the job market.

I was amazed at how much Wollstonecraft's ideas continue to influence society today. Check out my Pinterest board on her to read some of her most famous quotes and think about their impact today: Women's Education in the Enlightenment [Pinterest Board].

As stated by Wendy Gunther-Canada, "she is the theorist of the education of daughters, giving voice to the unfortunate girl neglected within her household under the codes of primogeniture" (Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft, edited by Maria J. Falco).

The Digital Age 

Since the Enlightenment, education for women in the Occident has improved significantly. In present-day America, nearly 44 years after the passage of Title IX, more women graduate from undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate schools on an annual basis than men. However, conditions are quite different for women in the Middle East.

On a recent flight, I was reading Vindication on the Rights of Women when the man sitting next to me asked what I was reading. When I told him that I was reading a book about on of the first feminists who outright advocated for equality of the sexes and her assertion that true strength for women comes through education, he responded, "You know what? We may have come a far way in the United States in terms of women's rights, but in the Middle East women are still treated like crap."

In the Digital Age of the 21st century, terrorists employ mass and social media and to convince Middle Eastern societies that women ought to be subservient to men, attend to their household duties, and avoid an education. In direct opposition, feminists the world over can utilize these same media to encourage women in Middle Eastern countries to view themselves as man's equal partner, pursue their professional and social interests in addition to looking after their domestic life, and obtain as much education as possible. Modern technology allows the ideas of these Digital Age activists spread like wildfire, providing education for women and improving communities around the world. As Bill Gates said, "The past decade has seen more progress against inequality than any of the previous five" (as quoted in Uprising by Sally Armstrong, 8).

An Example from the Present

Malala Yousafzai (1997-present) was born amidst drastic political turmoil in the Swat Valley in Pakistan and would live through an alternating system of democracies and dictatorships at the national level and an alternating system of military and Taliban control at the level of the valley. 

Malala's father grew up as a militant Islam encouraged by the government to fight jihad ("holy war") against Afghanistan for the US. In contrast, his future wife's family introduced him to the new ideals of secularism and socialism when he began courting her. Because of his sincere education, however, he was able to reject both extremes and instead walk the middle path while remaining an activist for what he felt in his heart to be right. Malala would do the same under his tutelage.

Activism on Behalf of Education

When the Taliban took over the Swat Valley by launching an illegal radio station and gradually destroying CD's, DVD's, and televisions and finally telling girls not to go to school, Malala fought first under the pseudonym Gul Makai, keeping a diary and reporting every week to a BBC correspondent (click here to see the full published text of the Gul Makai diary). She later accepted the opportunity to be interviewed, have radiobroadcast conversations with Taliban, and speak at schools, always writing her own speeches. After placing second in a school speech competition reading a speech her father had written, she says she realized that "sometimes, it's better to tell your own story".

The Taliban Reveals Its Worst Fear

Finally, the military kicked the Taliban out of the Swat Valley, but the ideology continued, and Malala began to receive death threats. Finally, on the way home from school after her final exams, two Taliban stopped her school bus, and one, ironically a college graduate, shot her at point blank range in the head. After miraculously surviving and an operation by the most experienced brain surgeon in Pakistan, Malala was flown to Britain for additional operations and treatment.

Malala later said of the event, "Extremists have shown what frightens them most: a girl with a book."

A Phoenix Is Born

After extensive physical therapy, Malala stood before the UN during the first "UN Youth Takeover" and delivered a moving message advocating education for all boys and girls around the world. "One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world," she said in her concluding remarks, thus prompting a standing ovation from all of the delegates present.

(This is the speech that Malala gave at the first-ever "UN Youth Takeover"
on her 16th birthday shortly after her recovery)

Yousafzai's Impact

Malala and her supporters have inspired girls and boys throughout the Middle East and throughout the world to seek a quality education. Malala's campaign has also inspired parents have joined the cause, choosing to send their children away to school rather than forcing them to work in factories or marry early.

Additional Benefits Resulting from Women's Education

Malala's efforts to educate women leads to several indirect benefits for both women and nations resulting from the increased number educated women. In the book What works in Girls' Education: Evidence for the World's Best Investment, which is dedicated to Malala, authors Sperling and Winthrop note some of these benefits:

Author Sally Armstrong wrote the following in her recent book Uprising: A New Age is Dawning for Every Mother's Daughter:

"The World Bank has issued reports every five years since 1985 to say that if attention is paid to the girl child--educating her, taking care of her health, feeding her--the economy of the village will improve. Why? Because she will marry later and have fewer children, and those children will be healthier. But it's more than that: in many places, women's intelligence is an untapped resource. If you foster it, the benefits spill over from the domestic sphere into public life. Research conducted by Plan International has found that the level of poverty reduction and economic growth in a country is directly correlated to the levels of education attained by the women--more than any other factor. Studies done in 2010 by MIT and Carnegie Mellon University on collective intelligence found that if you add females to a group its collective intelligence improves."

What You Can Do

Early on in my research, I visited early and found a plethora of online resources for volunteers with a desire to get involved in her campaign. I have participated by becoming a member of the movement, posting information to Facebook, and writing letters of support. I hope to use the community available on through the website to plan a 5K next summer to raise awareness and fundraise for her campaign. I also look forward to looking through the many other resources available on this website.

When I created a Pinterest board to guide my search for information (see Women's Education in the Digital Age [Pinterest Board]), I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there is enormous online support for Malala and have already attached dozens of pins to the board.

Last week, I went to visit the Women's Services Center at Brigham Young University and discovered that they highlighted Malala in March during Women's History Month. While there, I met Tiffany, the director of the center, and when I expressed a desire to help, she was delighted! Together, we are thinking about planning a lecture or presentation about Malala for the next Women's History Month.

In the end, the driving force behind Malala's campaign for education is us. When we stand together to utilize the media to advocate for women's education, the dark shroud of ignorance dissipates and the bright beacon of knowledge shines forth. 

Works Cited

1) Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Ed. Deidre Shauna Lynch. A Norton Critical Edition: 3rd Ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. Print. 
2) Falco, Maria J, Ed. Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Print. 
3) Yousafzai, Malala, with Christina Lamb. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. Print. 
4) Sally, Armstrong. Uprising. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2013. Print. 
5) Sperling, Gene B., and Rebecca Winthrop with Christina Kwauk. What works in Girls' Education: Evidence for the World's Best Investment. Washington: The Brookings Institution Press, 2016. 

To learn more about how you can join Noble Peace Prize winner Malala in her campaign for women's education, visit

1 comment:

  1. The first quote that you used really grabbed my attention, and was quite frankly, shocking to think that someone would say that. I found your claim and argument very interesting. I also enjoyed the different media clips that you used to prove your points.