The Contradiction and the Challenge of the Educated Woman – Martin

This engaging and thought provoking article begins with a description by John Stuart Mill of the educated woman as a walking contradiction. “Women who read, much more women who write, are, in the existing constitution of things, a contradiction and a disturbing element.” (p. 6) Martin goes on to explore Woolf’s picture of the educated woman, and difficulties they face in society.

Martin makes a number of valuable points throughout the article. Due to the brevity required of this reflection, I will explore a few key ideas.

Society values the “’manly’ qualities of rationality, critical thinking, and autonomous action … the function our culture attributes to education [is the] carrying out society’s ‘productive’ processes … not just its economic but its political, social, and cultural ones as well” (p. 23)

Because the qualities outlined above are generally attributed to men, it is difficult for women to break from the cultural impositions present since birth and define themselves through a masculine lens. “Treated differently almost from birth and with different expectations held up to them within the family and in the early years of schooling, children become aware at an early age of their culture’s distinctions between masculine and feminine roles …” (p. 11)

During my undergraduate I remember being thoroughly engaged Simone DeBeauvoir’s The Second Sex. In it she outlines a historical foundation for the separation between men and women. That the physical strength of man was necessary for defense and conquest, and so woman was relegated to the social/domestic sphere. While my memory might somewhat fail me, it is an interesting concept to jump off from.

If we consider our society in its present form to be an expansion of colonialist conquest (being a British-European colonialism), we can draw some interesting conclusions.

First of all, the aforementioned qualities of rationality, critical thinking, autonomous action as well as “abstract analytic thought, self-government, and independence” (p. 9) can all be seen as mechanisms towards intellectual domination and conquest. What I mean by this is, a properly substantiated and rational conception of the world helps to define the constructs that exist within it. One of the ways that Anglo-males have been able to maintain their position of authority for so many centuries is through the deliberate construction of a reality that defines them as the authorities.

Defining Martin’s ‘productive processes’ as processes that seek to extend control is natural, especially because of the strong relation she draws between these masculine processes and tendencies for war. After all, war is conquest and a desire to extend ones’ control, whether through the claiming of lands, the spread of ideology, or the declaration of a society’s antithesis as a defined evil.

As DeBeauvior and other thinkers have emphasized. The establishment of woman as a socially subordinate class also serves to establish a foundation to society. Traditionally, men could go out and work, because the domestic issues were relegated to women. Extending this idea, that a dominant class is dependent upon a subordinate class, we can look at the great wealth disparity existing in our modern world.

Taking a wider view than just our developed countries, we can find countless examples of exploited populations that sustain our existing lifestyles. These can be easily defined as the low dip on the smiley face curve (the smiley face curve is an economic model for technology that says design and retail are expensive, production is cheap).

Embedded in our current societal configuration is the necessity for a subordinate class. This is by no means an ideal situation, but it does permeate the very social fabric of our current existence.

I argue that Martin’s viewpoint regarding women could easily be extended to all minority groups, something that she too supports. (p. 23)

Although our society depends on an established inequality, no alternative can be found unless we confront this. “Let us fill our classrooms with Nightingale and her sisters” as well as a wide variety of other minority figures “both historical and contemporary, not in the capacity of role models or exemplars but as examples of [people] who in their lives and work have brought together and in process transmuted the [white Anglo-male’s] “manly” qualities of rationality, critical thinking, and autonomous action and the “womanly” ones of car, concern, connection, nurturance, and love” (p. 23) as well as the “minorities’” qualities of exoticism, creativity, dynamism, spiritualism and inspiration.

By validating all aspects of a person’s character, and in our 21st century, we can all be considered social amalgams, and much less type-differentiated, can we truly do justice to our young learners.

During my teacher’s practicum, I worked with a predominantly aboriginal community in North-Western Ontario, as well as a refugee Ahmadiyya Muslim community near Toronto. Between these two groups, one dramatic difference stood out. The refugee community believed in the Canadian dream, and all the students therein wished to one day attend University and become successful – they could define themselves as successful archetypes within the Toronto-social paradigm. However, none of my student in North-Western Ontario saw themselves as ever attending a university. They did not see themselves defined in that construct.

The classroom must be an open place, where students are able to define themselves individually, based on constructs that they respond to. It is the duty of the educational institution to confront relegations of race, sex, and other minority divisions to certain social institutions. The ideal classroom would be one where students learn to positively define their traits as is meaningful to them, while confronting learned social normatives so as to free themselves. A mechanism for such a process is briefly explored in my outline of a “sharing community.”

  • Martin, J. R. (1991). The contradiction and the challenge of the educated woman. Women’s Studies Quarterly [Special Issue on Women, Girls, and the Culture of Education], 19(1/2), 6–27.

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