I’ve been thinking a lot about educational rights. The very effective “Because I am a Girl” campaign and the recent events in Nigeria has certainly made me more aware of how important it is for us to understand this issue. The experiences of these Nigerian girls, the tragedy of this is unfathomable. I want to do something but there is a certain powerlessness that comes from watching something like this. But as we know, words can be the most effective tool to bring about change and as a writer it is a way that I can at feel like I’m doing something to bring about change and hopefully bring these girls home.
I always look at the connections of things and history is the best way that I know how to do this. I’m aware that there is a distinct difference between Western history and within that more specific experiences, but I can only speak from what I’ve studied and what I know, from my own experience. I’ve focused my studies on Medieval and Canadian women’s history, so that is where my mind immediately leaps. Some of it is a little dim in my memory but here it is…
I’ve been writing about the issue of women’s education in the context of the 19th century Canadian education and how difficult it was for women to get one, as it wasn’t considered necessary (and sometimes actually harmful to their bodies and minds) for girls to be educated.
What did they need a degree for when their role was to be wife and mother? Only a few colleges would accept women and then there was the matter of paying for it. Of course I go to Montgomery because that is who I’m writing about at the moment and her deep need for education. She had to convince her grandparents that it was okay for her to attend college. Later, when she had saved up enough money to go to university, she wrote in her journal how no one could quite understand why she would even want to go. Hadn’t she had enough education?
This week I’ve been reading a biography by Fiona Maddock about one of my favourite medieval women mystics, Hildegard von Bingen, a women who didn’t step into her voice until she was 40 and, even then, had to circumnavigate the misogyny of her day by proving to the Pope and male colleagues that what she was writing and saying came from her visions, came from God. To go into this in more depth would be the topic of another blog post, but consider for a moment what this means. She was too afraid of what might happened–afraid for her life probably–that she wouldn’t speak up until the words or visions made her so ill that she knew that she had no choice, she had to speak.
Writing today’s blog post made me think of Christine de Pisan. Her book, The Book of the City of Ladies–written in the 14th century– I read in university was a call for women’s education. A response to Jean de Meun’s The Romance of the Rose, de Pisan spoke out against de Meun’s sexist notions by creating a city where women are empowered to be educated and build a productive society. In de Pisan’s world she was specifically thinking of her particular class, but if we strip away those politics for a moment, we will see that at its core is a woman who used her position to write about educational rights for women using the only tool that she had at her disposal.
Even in the last century, it was considered inappropriate for girls to have a post-secondary school education. From what I know, I am the second generation of women to get to post-secondary school and grad school in my family. My grandmother only got to go to half a semester of college in the 1930s because she had to come home and help with the family, allowing funds for her younger brother to go to school. Not begrudging my great-uncle his due to get an education, but it wasn’t questioned that his educational goals were more important than hers. I wonder what my grandmother would have done had she had the opportunity to get her degree?
The events in Nigeria has also brought to mind a tragedy here in Canada. It is also hard not to think about what happened in Montreal in 1989 when Marc Lapine killed fourteen women for being “feminists.” As a teenager, this was probably one of the defining moments where I chose to focus on my education and women’s rights. That is was my right to go out there and learn and think. It took a while for me to feel good about what I have to say and I’m still struggling with that every day.
Contemporary girls and women have a new and stronger voice to look up to. A survivor story. Malala Yousafzai’s experience and work is inspirational for girls and women–and hopefully men, too– of this generation. She survived and has used her story to inspire and bring awareness to the issue of women’s education.
I’m not saying that we don’t have more to do here in North America around gender equality and women’s education. But I will say this. Every class I take more than 3/4 of those in attendance are women. I always look around the room and think about the centuries of women who were silenced or forbidden to be educated. Maybe, just maybe, the paradigm is shifting.
This is my call. Those of us who have had the opportunity to be educated need to remember that we are part of a long history of women who didn’t get the chance. Like I always say, we must vote because those before us (and even some of us around the globe today) didn’t/don’t get the opportunity.
I’m grateful for the freedom to be educated and to have the freedom to even write this post without fear for my life. Now it is time to take this paradigm and make it global. What we do in our lives will connect to others. I’m not sure what the answer is yet. But perhaps writing about it here is a good start.