Education for Women in Comparative Perspective

Candice D Ortbals. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 1: Issues. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


Feminist activists have long fought for the education of women, and in many countries women have gained access to all levels of education. Although women’s ability to read and pursue intellectualism no longer stands at the forefront of Western feminist vindications, historically and globally these goals have been essential to women’s empowerment. Many scholars throughout history have noted that education is a first step toward employment, citizenship, and personal voice. Education is also hailed as “an important marker of national development and modernization” (Mukhopadhyay and Seymour 1994, 1); women’s achievements therein directly affect their own socioeconomic status and that of the nation.

Given the positive contributions of women’s education, critical analyses of women, education, and politics are rare. Nevertheless, education remains controversial because it serves “as a critical nexus” between the private and public realms women inhabit (Ford 2002, 173). Whereas one can argue that education leads women from their private duties to explore new and exciting public identities, a critical analysis uncovers education’s reinforcement of private roles, for “education usually reproduces the status quo, perpetuating social and gender relations as they exist in society” (Stacki and Monkman 2003, 173). As a result, the goal of this essay is to discuss not only historical improvements in women’s access to education but also the transformative and/or traditional content of education policies for women. The essay presents the kind of education scholars believe women should receive in order to lead powerful lives as well as the oft-cited, traditionally gendered reasons for women’s education. The framework of the public-private nexus establishes comparisons and contrasts among three country cases: the United States, Spain, and India. Each case is distinct, demonstrating the various public policies that states can enact to facilitate women’s education; however, all demonstrate how the private sphere motivates public education for women. After an introduction to political theory and history regarding women’s education, education policies for women are presented and examined comparatively.

Women’s Education in a Historical and Theoretical Perspective

Historians have documented an incredibly small number of noblewomen who were formally educated over the ages, and they argue that these exceptional women were not representative of lower-class women or even most upper-class women. Rather than formal training, most women throughout history have received informal education in preparation for managing households. Though housekeeping seems inconsequential in the current age, household management during these eras was complex and significantly tied to the public sphere, particularly for women of wealth. In medieval England, for example, a woman’s household training prepared her to manage her estate’s land and tenants and training in hospitality ensured that kinship and community ties were fostered through her household (Michalove 1999).

That said, most philosophers, from the ancient Greeks through the Enlightenment thinkers, considered women incapable of receiving formal education. Thus, the Western tradition has purported that women’s intellectual capacity did not match men’s, women could become a threat after receiving too much training, and women’s roles in the home only necessitated a very basic education (McClelland 1992). Exceptions to this rule should be noted. Plato claimed that women should be educated in case they became rulers of the state, and upper- and middle-class women during the Renaissance were trained in the classics, allowing them to learn Latin and study the accomplishments of the Greek and Roman civilizations (Blade 1981).

Enlightenment political theory at best conceived of women as complements to men and at worst cemented women’s inferiority for centuries—a disappointment as the era otherwise celebrated human education and accomplishment through rationality. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s formulation of Sophie’s education in Emile, a book widely read and considered in education policy-making, serves as the most influential Enlightenment portrayal of women’s intellectual weaknesses. Rousseau considered women’s character and temperament distinct from men’s. He prescribed rational education in the natural and social sciences for men so that, when educated, they could flourish in society, participate in the social contact, and enjoy freedom. Education for women, on the other hand, taught manners, how to be pleasing to men, and how to serve as competent educators of sons. As a result, Rousseau argued that relevant curricula for women pertain to handicrafts, arts, music, and religion. Religious education became especially significant to women’s education in early modern Europe. Common wisdom at the time dictated that women were more inclined toward religion than men; thus, women should teach morality to children. Therefore, unlike men, who were educated to be citizens and take part in public affairs, women were educated to play a private role.

Early feminists challenged Rousseau’s gendered understanding of women’s education, arguing that keeping women uniformed as mere creatures of pleasure in reality harmed society. Mary Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, explained how rational, enlightened education would benefit women themselves and society as a whole. If girls could receive equal education in mixed-sex classrooms, she explained, women could improve themselves, become independent of men, and participate in social and political activities. Moreover, the two sexes would learn from one another: men would become less selfish and women less vain (Wollstonecraft 2001, 264). John Stuart Mill mirrored Wollstonecraft’s positive opinion of women’s education. He explained that women might have proven themselves ingenious, but because of their lack of education, they had been denied the opportunity to excel in the professions.

Recent scholarship similarly asserts education’s benefits for women themselves and society and politics at large. Personal advantages for women stemming from education include increased self-esteem, job opportunities, income, willingness to challenge patriarchy, and active political citizenship. For example, if a woman becomes educated and gains greater self-esteem, she may have sufficient voice to speak up in community affairs and/or challenge violence at the hands of an abusive husband (Hayes and Flannery 2000). Moreover, women with higher levels of education experience a smaller gender pay gap than women in “pink collar jobs” (Conway et al. 2005; Ford 2002). Finally, research shows that with increased education women identify more strongly with feminism and are more likely to participate in and understand politics (Banaszak and Plutzer 1993; Conway et al. 2005).

The societal advantages of women’s education, extrapolated from the previous discussion, might include the recognition of women’s issues in public policies and/or less societal tolerance for gender violence. Developing world nations particularly stand to gain from women’s education. A compilation of research findings published by the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that women’s education is positively correlated with a country’s level of economic development, less corruption in government, disease prevention, better nutrition, and lower birthrates (Herz and Sperling 2004). Though establishing causation between women’s education and these societal outcomes justifies lengthy discussion, brief examples demonstrate education’s benefits. For example, when women are educated and pursue employment, they are likely to have fewer children, which results in slower population growth and less stress on local environments. Moreover, an educated mother likely understands the nutritional needs of her children and/or the risk of AIDS transmission.

Advantages notwithstanding, constraints still stand in the way of women becoming educated public citizens as envisioned by Wollstonecraft. First, many women do not obtain education because of economic and cultural obstacles. Economic obstacles include the costs of tuition, school lunches, and books as well as “opportunity costs,” which are defined as the resources lost to a family when girls attend school rather than, for example, performing household tasks, caring for siblings, or earning wages. Though cultural constraints vary across countries, men’s education is commonly prioritized over women’s education in traditional societies. Furthermore, in societies in which women’s independence risks a family’s reputation, women may not be able to attend a school with opposite-sex teachers or students and/or travel to school without a chaperone, a scenario that imposes further economic costs. Finally, education can and has been used to socialize women into traditional gender roles that limit them to the private sphere. To counter the latter, many scholars advocate adult literacy campaigns and education for school-aged children that empower women to pursue a variety of roles. Therefore, education with a critical feminist pedagogy is essential, for it can “expand [women’s] consciousness, capacity for voice, and self-esteem” (Hayes and Flannery 2000, 155).

Education Policies and Women’s Statistical Progress in Education

Although the most careful gauge of women’s education is a feminist standard of pedagogy, analysis of simple statistics regarding educational attainment establishes a preliminary, worldwide snapshot of women’s educational achievements. This section first covers literacy rates and school attendance and then discusses education policies that further women’s status, namely literacy programs for adult learners, education for school-aged girls, job training, and preschool education.

The heart of worldwide campaigns for women’s education centers on the topic of female literacy. The 1995 Beijing Declaration petitions governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations to reduce female illiteracy. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), adult literacy is defined as “the ability to read and write with understanding a simple statement related to one’s daily life” by individuals aged 15 years and older. In 2006, adult female literacy worldwide was 77.2 percent and male adult literacy was 87.2 percent (UNESCO 2006). In North America, Western Europe, and the Caribbean, gender parity in adult literacy rates exists. World regions with near gender parity in literacy include Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Pacific Islands. World regions that continue to post lower literacy rates (around 50 percent female literacy) and that lack gender parity are East Asia, the Arab states, South and West Asia, Northern Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa (See Table 1). Though these figures are low, literacy rates in many developing world countries were less than 40 percent in the 1980s (King and Hill 1993).

The worldwide state of primary education may be demonstrated with school enrollment figures from UNESCO. Paralleling low adult literacy rates, the world regions with the fewest girls attending primary schools are South Asia and Africa. In South Asia, 29.9 percent of girls (and 22.3 percent of boys) are not attending primary schools, whereas in East and South Africa and West and Central Africa, respectively, 39.1 percent and 49.3 percent of girls (and 37.8 percent and 41.3 percent of boys) do not attend primary schools. This stands in stark contrast to industrialized countries, in which only 3.4 percent of girls (and 4.0 percent of boys) do not attend primary schools (UNESCO 2005).

Table 1. Comparison of 2006 percentage Female Adult Literacy Rates from EFA World Regions*
Region Total Adult Literacy Male Adult Literacy Female Adult Literacy
*Data from UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
Arab States 69.7 80.2 58.9
Central/Eastern Europe 97.1 98.7 95.8
Central Asia 99.3 99.6 99.0
East Asia 91.7 95.2 88.1
The Pacific 93.3 94.2 92.5
Caribbean 70.1 70.1 70.2
Latin America 90.3 91.1 89.5
North America/Western Europe 98.9 99.2 98.7
South/West Asia 58.7 70.5 46.3
Sub-Saharan Africa 61.2 69.5 53.3

Low literacy rates in given regions necessitate adult literacy programs, yet, unfortunately, such programs do not always follow a feminist pedagogy. Literacy programs, though seemingly straightforward in teaching the ability to read, are often thematically tailored to men and their role in agriculture (Sachs 1996) and/or promote women’s “practical interests” over “strategic interests,” that is, needs related to the home sphere over needs related to economic, political, and personal empowerment (See Molyneux 1985; Walter 2004). One should note that meeting “practical” needs is essential because women often value programs that ease their private responsibilities—whether related to children, nutrition, or sewing (Walter 2004). However, because some women desire to learn academic subjects, adult literacy programs should stress “strategic” needs (Walter 2004). Nelly Stromquist (2006) advocates “critical literacy” programs that teach adult women equal citizenship, reproductive rights, and income-generating skills in autonomous spaces that facilitate conversations among women. Obstacles for adult women—whether pursuing basic reading skills or empowerment—remain strong. When women have frequent pregnancies and/or are caregivers, they cannot easily participate in literacy programs. Moreover, men sometimes “feel threatened” by women’s education and use “intimidation and even violence” to stop their participation (Walter 2004, 425).

Education for school-aged girls is an incredibly complex policy area, because policy makers must consider, among other things, whether women and men will attend classes together—that is, coeducation—and how the curriculum represents the roles of women and men. Many feminist educators, particularly liberal feminists, argue that women and men should be educated in classrooms together to promote equal opportunity. However, radical feminists have advocated separate classrooms for women because they view domination by men as an obstacle to women’s learning (See Acker 1994). Although mixed-sex classrooms are now prevalent in Western cultures, this is not a feasible policy choice in societies that enforce strict physical separation of men and women. Scholars also emphasize the need for coeducation to be gender fair, meaning that a proactive stance is taken against sexism in the classroom. Ways to ensure a gender-fair classroom include using gender-inclusive language and removing traditional sex stereotyping in the classroom and textbooks; incorporating sensitive curricula that promote women in history, nonviolence in gender relations, and women’s various professional options; and providing teacher training to raise awareness about gender and sexism.

Two further education policies improve women’s status. Job training offers programs that teach employment skills to post-school-age students (Mazur 2001). Feminists view job training as a key to women’s empowerment because employment itself is highly gendered. On average, men earn higher wages than women in the same career paths, yet women with higher education attainments experience smaller pay gaps. It therefore behooves women to improve their skill sets and seek employment outside women’s traditional careers. Similar to previously discussed policies, job training benefits women the most when “dominant notions of gender in society” do not “underpin … programs” (Mazur 2001, 8). If job training leads women into traditionally female niches in the job market, it likely leads them to jobs with lower pay.

Second, preschool and child care programs constitute education policies that improve the lives of working women and/or women pursuing further education. Extending public education to younger children provides a jump start to scholastic achievement and a child care option. The 1995 Beijing Declaration states that women with flexible child care arrangements are better able to meet their professional potential, and it also petitions countries to provide child care for young mothers seeking formal education. In this way, preschool and child care become essential keys to adult education for women.

Women, Education, and Politics in Comparative Perspective

The preceding review of education policies establishes the first goal of the comparative analysis here—namely, to describe the kinds of policies in countries around the world. A second, related goal is to explore whether such policies encourage empowerment or enforce traditional gender roles. An examination of the United States, Spain, and India demonstrates that countries seek women’s empowerment in education; however, in each case, women’s education began as a means to enhance the home, nation, men, and/or children. Because cultural, economic, and political contexts vary, the cases also demonstrate the diversity of education policy controversies in the world today.

The United States

Women in the United States have had relatively early access to education. Moreover, women currently outnumber men as students in U.S. colleges and universities. Although American women have access to education, the achievement of full access was not without a struggle and the generally higher education attainments of men and the status of female professors are still of great concern.

The education of women in the United States was first embedded in the concept of republican motherhood, defined as moral and virtuous motherhood capable of inspiring future generations of citizens. Similar to Rousseau’s philosophy, the early American republic considered a woman’s education critical to the education of her sons. In this way, education was viewed as an avenue for preparing women for private responsibilities; however, the educated, republican mother was more empowered than Rousseau’s Sophie. Whereas women were previously considered incapable of education, republican motherhood assumed a rational and assertive woman who could play an essential role in the young republic (Kerber 2004).

Educational benefits were available to women soon after American independence. Free public education was available to girls in parts of the country as early as the 1830s and 1840s. In this same period, some higher education institutions became coeducational, such as Oberlin College in 1833, and women’s colleges were established in the late 1800s. During the 19th century, schools were coeducational because of the predominance of one-room schoolhouses. It is estimated that 60 percent of secondary schools had mixed-sex classes by 1873 (Ford 2002). Nonetheless, it was not uncommon for the sexes to be assigned different areas of one-room schoolhouses and to be taught different subject matters. During the 1800s, class identity also determined women’s access to schooling, for “millions of girls in the 19th century received little formal schooling, and went, instead, to work on farms and in cotton mills and other industries” (McClelland 1992, 40).

Because the 19th century did not garner ideal educational access for women, suffrage activists in the United States considered women’s education an important political issue. In 1848, the Declaration of the Rights and Sentiments declared that men’s “absolute tyranny over” women was established by, among other things, denying her “a thorough education.” Later in the century, Susan B. Anthony vocalized the plight of female school teachers. Though female teachers outnumbered male teachers, they received lower salaries and were expected to quit teaching upon marriage.

At the turn of the 20th century, women’s education in the United States received a boost via child labor laws and technological innovations. Because of child labor laws, more girls and boys began attending schools. Home economics as a field flourished as a result of the era’s many technological innovations. Educators surmised that if women were equipped with science in the home—namely, home economics skills—they could complete their household tasks more efficiently (McClelland 1992). In the early 20th century, more women completed higher education than ever before: 40 percent of college graduates were female in the 1930s compared with 19 percent in the 1900s.

Nonetheless, women’s attainment of higher education fluctuated from the 1930s through the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, low female enrollment in colleges caught the attention of feminists and government officials alike. The President’s Commission on the Status of Women, established by John F. Kennedy in 1961, noted that women outnumbered men at the high school level, but at the college level girls fell behind, for “in 1962 [women] constituted only 42 percent of the entering [college] class” (American Women 1963, 11). The committee’s suggestions for improving women’s status focused on continuing education efforts, specifically providing job training and employment counseling to women. Second-wave, equal-opportunity feminists recognized sexism in the U.S. education system. In fact, the National Organization for Women, announced in its 1967 Bill of Rights for Women that all discrimination based on sex in U.S. schools, whether in colleges, universities, or training programs, must be eliminated.

The following decades yielded numerous federal, legislative successes for women. First, Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex “under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Though Title IX is most commonly associated with the promotion of women’s university sports, its implications were far reaching. For example, before Title IX, women were prohibited from entering some professional programs, and pregnant students were often dismissed from school. Title IX also affected counseling within schools, for advisers could no longer suggest that women exclusively take home economics. Second, legislation in the 1970s prioritized the job training needs of displaced homemakers and eliminated sex bias in vocational education, whereas in the 1960s, jobtraining legislation focused on industrial growth and “training for male breadwinners” (Mazur 2001, 22). The Women’s Educational Equity Act (WEEA) of 1974 is yet another success of this era. The WEEA provided federal funds to foster the development of gender-fair curricula and the promotion of women in nontraditionally female careers.

Changes in women’s higher education enrollments over the past decades are remarkable, but challenges remain. First, scholars note that most universities are not in complete compliance with Title IX’s requirements for women’s sports (Priest 2003). Moreover, Title IX faces challenges from conservatives who argue that the prioritization of women’s sports crowds out such minor men’s sports as wrestling. In fact, the George W. Bush administration’s Commission on Opportunities in Athletics is seen by some as a “ploy … to weaken Title IX” (Priest 2003). The WEEA has also been susceptible to partisan critique. In the 1980s, Republican administrations ignored the WEEA and the Bush administration did not fund it, resulting in the closure of the WEEA Equity Resource Center, which had provided nonsexist education resources to educators. The United States also faces the challenge of addressing men’s educational needs. Even though women were only 42 percent of full-time college students in 1970, they constituted a majority of students by 1985 (see Table 2). Women have remained the majority ever since, making up 57 percent of college students in 2005, thus begging the question of why men are not pursuing higher education in similar numbers. Explanations for this trend include men’s ability to pursue nondegree careers requiring physical strength, too much attention paid to women’s education in recent decades, and strong cultural messages that counter-situate masculinity to intellectualism (Flood et al. 2000). Finally, women face challenges in the U.S. professoriate. As of 2003, “38 percent of all [college and university] faculty … were female compared to 62 percent male” (Glazer-Raymo 2007, 167).

Table 2. Percentage of undergraduate enrollment in United States, by sex: 1970-2010*
Year Men Women
*Data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
**Projection based on past data.
1970 57.7 42.3
1975 54.3 45.7
1980 47.7 52.3
1985 46.8 53.2
1990 45.0 55.0
1995 44.2 55.8
2000 43.9 56.1
2005 42.8 57.2
2010** 42.1 57.9


In Europe, Spain has been a laggard state regarding women’s (and men’s) education. Valiente (2003, 289) explains that Spanish political parties, when comparing Spain to its European neighbors, have attributed the “backwardness of Spain” to an “education deficit.” Compared with France, which began promoting public education for women in the late 19th century, Spain maintained a very traditionally gendered education system until its democratic transition in the late 1970s. This section explains the long-term religious nature of women’s education in Spain and the country’s remarkable trajectory since the late 1970s.

Women’s education in Spain, as in the United States, was influenced by Enlightenment thought. A limited number of aristocratic women received education in the 18th century; however, bourgeois sentiment emerging in the 19th century, though encouraging greater education opportunities at large, directed women’s education toward the service of God, men, and family. In 1857, the Spanish state reiterated its 1814 goal of universal public education and, in doing so, obliged itself to establish schools for boys and girls. However, equal education for women did not become a reality at this point (Ballarín Domingo 2001). Women and men were educated separately; women were trained for domestic duties and were taught the Catholic female virtues of silence, submission, and sacrifice. Literacy was low during this era: 70 percent of women and 55 percent of men were illiterate as of 1900.

At the start of the 20th century, the Spanish worker’s movement became vocal about public education, arguing that women needed education in preparation for a worker’s revolution. The Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) championed public education and permitted the education of girls and boys in mixed-sex classrooms. However, the right-wing, authoritarian regime of Francisco Franco established after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) unseated the Second Republic and favored an education system built on religious principles. The regime revoked coeducation, claiming that it was improper to place girls and boys together in schools because the sexes were of different characters and had different life purposes. School curricula at this time reflected Francoist propaganda, which championed the housewife identity and women’s submissiveness, and as of the late 1950s only 38.5 percent of high school students were women.

Economic growth in the 1960s and the Spanish transition to democracy hastened improvements in women’s education. In the 1960s, the Franco regime realized the need for an educational system that could stimulate industrialization, economic development, and new professions therein. The subsequent 1970 General Education Law made education free and compulsory for children between 6 and 14 years old and allowed mixed classroom settings and the same curricula for women and men. The democratic constitution of 1978, passed after the death of Franco in 1975, affirmed equal rights of women as well as the fundamental right of all Spaniards to receive education. Nevertheless, given the conservative and long-lasting nature of the Franco regime, the feminist movement had many educational goals to address during and after the democratic transition (1976-1978). Feminists, along with many administrative officials, agreed that education curricula must be made nonsexist and that literacy should be promoted.

Policy changes related to women’s education during the 1980s and 1990s can be largely attributed to the earnest work of the Spanish women’s policy agency, the Women’s Institute (WI), and international pressure. In 1984, the WI held a conference with feminist academics and activists about how to fully implement gender-fair coeducation. At the 1985 United Nations Conference for Women, Spain announced educational equality as a top priority, explaining that the WI and the Ministry of Education and Culture intended to address adult women’s education and to create a network for sharing good coeducation practices. The European Community played a significant role in this period by inspiring Spain, a new member as of 1986, to follow its 1985 resolution regarding gender equality in education. Accordingly, in the late 1980s, the WI established a schoolteacher’s training program in nonsexist practices and an annual award recognizing notable nonsexist teaching materials. Finally, the WI participated in debates about educational reforms during the late 1980s. The resultant 1990 Law on the General Organization of the Education System stresses the importance of equality between the sexes. Statistics demonstrate great change in the Spanish case, for 97.2 percent of the female population is literate, and they currently make up the majority of Spain’s undergraduate university population (compared with a 42.7 percent university presence in 1977-1978).

Although dedication to gender-fair coeducation held steady throughout Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español—PSOE) governance (1983-1996), controversy over women’s education emerged during the years of conservative party governance by the Popular Party (Partido Popular—PP) during 1996-2004. The conservative PP passed a new education law in 2002, which unlike the 1990 law did not prioritize gender-fair principles. Socialist politicians, after being elected to government in March 2004, began discussing how to dismantle conservative educational reforms. Therefore, recent women’s education goals in Spain relate to reestablishing good gender practices introduced in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, in the early 1990s, the WI began a program to regulate textbooks, and current WI officials and education scholars worry that textbooks still do not give equal treatment to women (Morán 2004).

Two further policy challenges face Spain. First, the education of immigrant women, whether from Latin America or North Africa, concerns Spanish officials. Preliminary evidence shows that immigrant women drop out of the Spanish school system before immigrant men. The WI and academic conferences have addressed these themes; simple answers, however, do not abound. The education of North African immigrant women requires Spain to weigh religion in public education with its post-Franco, secular state. In 2002, a school dismissed a Moroccan girl for wearing a headscarf, and though the girl maintained that she voluntarily wore the headscarf and should not be dismissed on account of it, many feminists and politicians argued against the headscarf, claiming that “Spain is a nondenominational state and that schools should be secular, defenders of democracy and … rights, like equality” (“Las organizaciones feministas” 2002). Second, the Spanish education system lacks adequate preschools and childcare. Since the Franco regime, during which women were “literally bombarded with the idea of mothering,” Spanish feminists have avoided policy conversations about childcare (Valiente 2003, 288). Public preschool programs for three- to five-year-olds have become more prevalent since the democratic transition, yet the state does not provide care for infants and toddlers younger than three years old. As a result, women with young children are not afforded freedom in the labor force, thus partially explaining the low female employment rates in Spain (34 percent in 2002) (Valiente 2003).


India is distinct from the United States and Spain because of its religious diversity—it includes Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian (Parsi) adherents—and because of its colonial background. India became independent from the United Kingdom in 1947, and its 1950 constitution prohibits discrimination based on sex. Nonetheless, Indian women face great challenges acquiring education, and female adult illiteracy is 47.8 percent (compared with 73.4 percent male adult literacy). Like Spain, however, the Indian government has pursued many strategies to promote women’s education.

The first proponents of women’s education in India in modern times were Christian missionaries, the British, and Indian social reformers (Mukhopadhayay and Seymour 1994; Misra 1992). The former, establishing schools in the 19th century, sought to evangelize female students while providing home education. To counter the missionary schools’ Christian influence, Muslim and Hindu religious leaders set up schools that educated women in preparation for becoming wives. Social reformers, along with the English, established schools for girls to challenge traditional cultures, arguing that education could improve the lives of women while promoting social progress. Educated women could foment progress by complementing high-status men and by educating children about new social values.

At the turn of the 20th century, only 0.6 percent of women were literate (compared with 9.83 percent of men). Thus, it comes as no surprise that the early Indian women’s movement insisted on greater educational access for women (Patel 1998). The early women’s movement played an important role in the nationalist struggle for independence in the early 20th century, and the nationalist movement provided a window of opportunity for women’s education. The nationalist leadership declared equality for all citizens in 1931, and equality was later embodied in the Indian Constitution of 1950. Moreover, Mahatma Gandhi championed women in the nationalist movement and in public service, and he demanded that primary education be provided for all Indian children. To this end, the Indian Constitution states that the government will provide children with free schooling until they are 14 years old.

After independence, the Indian state’s commitment to women’s education continued through national development plans, special commissions, and educational policy reforms. In 1958, the Indian government established the National Committee on Women’s Education, which during the 1960s recommended that girls be taught the same curriculum as boys—not just housewife training—and investigated why the rural public did not support women’s education. Moreover, in 1977, the National Plan of Action for Women declared that gender equality “should be woven into the fabric of the educational system” (Department of Social Welfare 1977, iii). The state’s attention to women’s educational needs continued during the 1980s and 1990s. The National Policy on Education, passed by Parliament in 1986 and revised in 1992, sought textbook revisions that reflect gender equality. Furthermore, the National Perspective Plan for Women (1998-2000) purported, among other things, the need for universal primary education and informal job training for women, increased enrollment of women in professional degree programs, revised school curricula, and reduced distances between schools and villages (Misra 1992). The national government also promoted the Total Literacy Campaign beginning in the early 1990s, which stood to benefit many illiterate women.

Literacy programs aside, Indian women lack complete access to education. First, economic realities prevent women from pursuing education and challenge the state’s ability to improve the education system. An individual woman, though provided with free public education by the government, incurs costs for her family by not working. Furthermore, the Indian state must devote a lot of money to education expenditures to educate all children in the vast country in quality educational environments. Functional schools with nonabsent teachers cannot be assumed in the Indian case. Teacher absenteeism is a common reality in many rural areas. Moreover, the teacher-to-student ratio in India was 1:40 during the early 1990s. Unfortunately, when single-teacher schools at this time could not accommodate more students, poor female students were persuaded not to attend class (United Nations 2000).

Cultural practices also obstruct women’s education. The example of marriage serves as one illustration of cultural constraints, though culture certainly varies widely across India. Because marriages in India cement family status and community relations, Indian fathers have a large stake in their daughters’ marriages. Moreover, though dowry is outlawed, many grooms’ families continue to require it from the bridal family. Indian tradition dictates that husbands should be older and more educated than their wives; as a result, if a woman pursues secondary or higher education, her marriage will be delayed, a suitable marriage partner will be more difficult to identify, and her family will pay a higher dowry to match her with an educated man. Finally, because of married women’s domestic responsibilities, the pursuit of literacy, job training, or higher education is constrained after marriage.

Third, the large-scale nature of India and its federal structure inhibits women’s education. Scholars note that Indian bureaucrats “at the top” truly champion women’s education, but policy implementation is strained because of the lower bureaucracy, in which gender consultants become “the butt of jokes” (United Nations 2000 11). A United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) committee expressed concern about regional disparities in women’s education opportunities in 2000. For example, free school lunch schemes, which are believed to encourage female school attendance, have been implemented by some Indian states but not others.

Two innovative education policies enacted during the 1990s demonstrate recent strategies to boost education access. First, the Shiksha Karmi Project in the state of Rajasthan uses “para-teachers” to counter teacher absenteeism and promote school attendance in rural areas. Para-teachers are trained, substitute workers who, for example, host night classes to cater to working girls (and boys) and offer classes in homes to reduce the distance girls have to travel to school. Second, Mahila Samakhya programs, joint endeavors between the Dutch government and several Indian states, stress empowerment for adult women (United Nations 2000). Women in Mahila Samakhya programs gain literacy and organize for other purposes, such as obtaining clean drinking water, child care, and improved working conditions (Patel 1998).

Future of Women and Education

Policy challenges that are key to the future politics of women and education emerge from the preceding cases. The country cases certainly vary: the educational struggles of Spain relate to its right-wing past and current immigration, whereas India must grapple with training enough teachers to provide education to all the country’s children. Nevertheless, two goals are relevant in all three cases and are likely to dominate the future of women’s education worldwide.

First, countries continue to struggle with fully implementing gender-fair education policies. Because education itself is gendered, as has been shown historically in all three cases, educating women will be met with limitations if societies do not gauge how gender roles color policy outcomes. For this reason, the Spanish government’s attention to gender-fair education practices is illustrative. To change gender expectations after the Franco regime, the WI emphasized school curricula that promoted women’s professional and societal potential. Moreover, Spanish officials understand that education policy outcomes for women depend on the education of women and men, and they continue to stress, for example, that gender violence cannot be stopped without teaching all students ways to fight patriarchy. True gender role transformation on account of education, therefore, depends on gender-fair strategies that teach women and men about the variety of identities and professions they both can pursue. An emphasis on new gender role expectations pertains to the United States and Indian cases as well. New expectations about masculinity and women’s private responsibilities could, respectively, help alleviate male underachievement in the United States and offer Indian women greater access to education.

Second, many countries must pay greater attention to the diversity of women pursuing education. Immigration compels the United States, as well as European countries like Spain, to reconsider education policy, and countries with linguistically diverse populations are similarly challenged. For instance, many illiterate women in Latin America are indigenous and rural, and they speak a language other than Spanish (King and Hill 1993); thus, they need education curricula that recognize their ethnicity, language, and gender. Rural identity itself constitutes a major concern for women’s education, as illustrated by the examples of Latin America and India. Because literacy and school attendance are lower for rural women than for urban women, the education of rural women should stand at the forefront of women’s political concerns.