Gender, Change, and Education

Diana Leonard. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

This chapter reviews the many changes that have taken place in educational theory and practice over the last forty years and discusses the causes and effects of the assimilation of women into both the institutions and values of schools and universities. It notes a recent shift back towards supposedly ‘gender-neutral’ educational policies in richer nations, which frequently overlook the specific interests of girls and women. It argues for resisting this through knowledge of our own educational history and more exchange of ideas between countries of the North and South.


One of the main concerns of feminists in many countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the opening up of education to girls and women—both for personal development, including the reading of sacred texts, and as a means of access to paid employment. Since the education provided for the sons of the upper, middle and poor classes was itself then sharply differentiated, so too was the first education provided for girls. It was also unevenly provided between rural and urban settings. Schools were often single gender, or else boys and girls entered and worked within them separately. But across the board, such education as there was for girls directed them primarily towards a domestic future rather than employment or other forms of public life. The curriculum for girls was more limited and inferior to that provided for boys.

In England in the 1870s, for instance, girls from impoverished families were less likely than their brothers to get any schooling at all, especially if they were needed at home to help domestically or to earn a wage, or if money was not available to pay the costs of education for more than one or two of the siblings in a large family. Girls from ‘respectable’ working-class backgrounds were educated to be, first, servants in the houses of the upper and middle classes and then, later, the non-employed wives and mothers of working-class men and boys. So they learned traditional womanly skills such as sewing and laundry rather than arithmetic, which was seen as an unnecessary skill. Girls from wealthier backgrounds were often educated at home by governesses, with a focus on French, music, and other ‘accomplishments.’

The leaders of the first wave of feminism had to struggle hard to provide academic secondary and boarding schools for girls to match those long available for their brothers. They faced arguments that education might upset not only women’s deferential demeanour but also their reproductive physiology. Lagging behind the United States and parts of the Commonwealth, some UK universities admitted small numbers of women from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries (for example, London in 1878), though others held out much longer—women were only awarded full degrees at the University of Cambridge in 1948—and there were attempts to offer women a different curriculum. They were not allowed to study medicine but offered domestic science.

Feminist history has been important in tracing and rewriting the history of education, including not only girls’ and women’s education generally and the history of particular institutions and the teaching profession, but also the lives, aims and achievements of feminist educational activists and reformers. However, research on educational establishments (whether schools or higher education) and on the teaching profession is not a high-status area within either the academy or feminism (Stone,1994). Education is also a difficult area to cover in a general and brief way because there are several different major systems even within the West, each with national and regional and neo-colonial variants. It is also an arena with frequently changing policies as politicians try to use schools and universities to develop or spread national cultures, and, lately, to improve national economic competitiveness. This chapter will therefore be based primarily on discussion of the UK and the United States over the past forty years, with some information on others for contrast, ending with a brief reference to low-to medium-income countries.

Recent History

In all Western countries, universal basic (primary/elementary) education was established by the time of the First World War, and there were also secondary and boarding schools and colleges available for middle- and upper-rank girls to parallel those for boys. Most children therefore attended school for at least six years, and literacy and numeracy were seen as important skills. Mixed-gender schooling was introduced into many elementary schools at times and places when there would otherwise have been no provision for girls, and it also became seen as ‘progressive’; so new coeducational secondary schools were established in the private sector from the turn of the twentieth century. Coeducation was partly a response to fears of homosexuality in single-gender schools and partly a concern to support and stabilize future roles in the ideal family. However, some private and religious schools and colleges in the United States, UK and Australia continue to be single-gender and this remains a mark of ‘elite’ secondary schooling.

After the Second World War, in democratic Western countries, the focus was on socioeconomic differences in education—how schools reproduced social class inequalities by streaming by ‘ability’ and through having differences in the types (academic and vocational) and quality of schools. (In countries such as Spain and Greece, which were dictatorships in the 1950s and 1960s, attention to socioeconomic issues occurred only later.) Education reformers also wanted to change the continuing elitist nature of higher education so as to ‘tap the pool of ability’ in the population as a whole. The concerns of politicians and the focus of research therefore became the widening of what had previously been a ‘ladder’ for able working-class children into a wide ‘staircase’ of progress into secondary schooling, through the raising of the school-leaving age from 12 years to 14 and then 16 and the provision of both more vocational colleges and more free or affordable university places.

When all state-provided elementary/primary schools and most state/public secondary schools were coeducational, any issues of girls’ continuing disadvantage were thought to have been resolved. Girls and young women were seen as having access to substantially the same educational institutions and the same curricula as boys and men. Any differences which remained, for instance in subject choice or the very gender-segregated nature of vocational training, were seen as due to ‘natural’ interests and abilities and to be generally appropriate for the different future lives of men and women.

Teaching as a Gendered Occupation

School teaching itself is an interesting occupation from a gender perspective. The teaching labour force in primary/elementary schools in most countries consists mainly of women and that of higher education predominantly of men, but there are national differences in whether secondary school teaching is largely a woman’s occupation (as in the United States and Israel) or one which also attracts a sizeable proportion of men (as in Germany and Greece). However, both men and women teachers have been seen as needed in mixed primary/elementary schools, to meet the specific needs of both boy and girl pupils. Consequently, so-called ‘sex antagonisms’ dominated teaching in the first half of the twentieth century. They split the occupation and its trade unions and prevented it from attaining full professional status. Many agreed that school principals/heads, like heads of families, should generally be men and that ‘a man teacher should not have to serve under a woman.’ But there were also single-gender unions in several countries (for example, Canada and the UK). The men’s unions argued that men should get more money than women because it was harder to attract men into teaching. Those men already in the job were known to be less well qualified than women teachers, but it was felt that the situation would get worse if women were given equal pay. There have also been marriage bars on women in teaching and amazing arguments as to the sorts of women who were appropriate for the job—young, attractive women, who would in due course get married and stop teaching to raise a family—and worries about the warping effects of spinster teachers on boys.

Over time, however, women acquired formally equal access to school teaching and headship/administration, and by the 1960s had formally equal pay and opportunities for promotion, though in practice men still enjoyed more senior positions with higher incomes. Colleges and universities were especially slow to allow women to teach, and certain subjects were deemed ‘not proper for women to know about’ until the 1930s and 1940s. There were also far fewer women students in universities in many countries until the 1970s—and many who might have gone to university went instead to colleges for teacher or nurse training.

The Re-Emergence of Concern with Feminism and Education

Into the consensus that gender equality had been achieved in schools in the West, even if boys and girls still had different interests and chose different subjects and careers, there erupted the new social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s. These were notably concerned with racism (in countries where there was a heterogeneous population) and sexism. Many European countries were considerably influenced by writings from the United States, where the women’s liberation movement drew on ideas and organizing strategies from the civil rights and Black Power movements, though there was also a long tradition of Scandinavian work on equal opportunities in education. In some countries, the women’s movement was never very strong, and many relied on translations of English or French work, which were slow in coming. But in all cases, activism on schooling, and even for greater access to higher education, lagged somewhat behind demands for equal rights in employment and for more equitable family division of labour, contraception and abortion, and efforts to get women’s issues taken seriously by political parties. However, by the mid 1970s, second-wave feminist work on education was well underway, stressing continuing inequalities and that so-called ‘natural’ interests were socially constructed and constrained.

For English-speakers concerned with early childhood and schooling, the new concept of gender was key. But wherever one deems the balance lies (whether it is mainly a question of nature or, as most feminists claimed, 99 per cent nurture), education involves a political choice socially either to encourage or to minimize ‘natural’ potentials. That is to say, it can seek either to stress and encourage differences and divisions between boys and girls or to minimize them, and early second-wave feminists sought to minimize gender differences, arguing that men and women have equal intellectual capacities and rights to education. Teachers should provide the same knowledge, skills and experience to girls and boys and have the same expectations of them. However, because of historical inequalities, it was argued that there was a need to increase the importance of currently devalued ‘feminine’ subject areas and attributes (which include valuing teaching itself and childcare generally) and to direct more teacher time and attention to girls to even out the balance. Binary division of skills inhibits everyone, and it is as bad for boys not to engage in art, languages and dance in school as it is for girls to be kept out of (or to develop a dislike for) technical subjects and science. But in a gender-divided society, where masculine attributes are more rewarded, the employment and social costs for girls are greater.

The mid 1970s to the mid 1980s were exciting times in schools, colleges, and universities in the United States and the UK. Feminist activists formed women’s groups for support and consciousness-raising and to discover and explore new issues. Their concerns were, first, to put gender (back) onto the educational map, and then to explore its parameters, stressing ideology and the power of ideas: how schools and universities reproduce not only the economic, social and cultural capital of class relations but also those of gender, race and ethnicity.

Feminists questioned the content of what was taught and learned formally and informally in schools and investigated educational progression and occupational outcomes, producing very creative work in curriculum development, classroom management, and school policies. New empirical, ethnographic or action research was undertaken involving teacher-researchers and school inspectors as well as academics. The problems investigated included how much more teacher attention was given to boys, the continuing differences in the curriculum offered to boys and girls, and career consequences. Feminists noted that even when girls had access to the same curriculum as boys, the content was weighted towards boys’ interests, including what books were read. In examinations, having a female (or a foreign) name at the top of an exam paper affected judgements of its worth. Such studies were often quite basic and positivistic, and ‘race’ and gender issues were initially often considered separately, and also separately from social class. But the work did serve to map the field and had ‘street credibility.’

This grassroots activity was assisted by the enactment of new racial and gender anti-discrimination legislation which covered educational institutions, and new equal opportunities commissions with responsibilities for enforcing the law. In addition, the US and UK governments were particularly concerned with attracting more women into science and engineering, and so they cooperated with feminists in pioneering a number of research projects and action initiatives. Some sought to change the focus of school science in order to interest girls, and there were also efforts to ensure girls got access to resources in schools and to encourage them to continue with science at university.

Coeducation Debates Revisited

The question of girls’ disadvantages in science courses reopened the issue of the merits of coeducation in the UK. A report from the school inspectorate in 1975 had pointed out that girls were less likely to take physics in coeducational than in single-gender schools and boys were less likely to take history and languages. This came as a surprise. Many girls-only schools in the 1950s had not had appropriate laboratories and it was thought that it was this that held girls back. But even when there were facilities available to girls, as when a boys and a girls school amalgamated, girls were still under-represented in science. Since feminists themselves seemed to have disproportionately attended single-gender schools, there was a resurgence of the belief that girls did better in single-gender schools (Spender, 1982; Spender et al., 1980), even if boys did better in mixed schools. Some subsequent research has suggested that it is more a matter of the type of school—most selective schools were single-gender—but the issue remains open.

At the same time, adult education classes also began to provide women-only women’s studies courses in response to staff and students’ interests, and higher education saw the start of courses, again attended almost exclusively by women students, which not only added women to course material but also focused centrally on them and/or drew on feminist theory. These courses often encountered considerable opposition. The history of the establishment of full degrees in women’s studies of necessity differed by country, given the variety of educational systems. They were established at undergraduate level in the United States earlier than in Europe, but options within mainstream degrees were common by 1980 in, for instance, Denmark, France, Germany, and the UK.

At this point, ‘woman-friendly’ pedagogy and women-oriented curricula began to be explored. The move into higher education, and the entry of women into knowledge-producing posts in universities (‘the storming of the ivory tower’), were important because the women’s movement as a whole required the production of new knowledge from a radical, feminist perspective. Women were entering the universities as undergraduates in greater numbers, but only a low proportion, around 15-17 per cent, of those doing PhDs were women in the early 1970s (Leonard, 1997). This meant not only poor career prospects for women as faculty in colleges and universities, but also that women made relatively little contribution to creating valued and legitimized knowledge.

The 1980s: Diversities and Complexities

By the mid 1980s, feminism had achieved great success in raising awareness of girls’ situations in schools in the United States and the UK (though less so in France, Japan, or Israel) and in persuading teachers, principals, local state/government employees, and some politicians of the need to appoint specialists to give advice on whole-school policies to tackle discrimination. The Australians coined the word ‘femocrat’ for the increasing number of women who worked in bureaucracies but were appointed because of their feminist knowledge and practical experience. Staff in schools, and more rarely in colleges and universities, were given time out to attend meetings to discuss the issue of girls’ education, and one or more teachers per school or college were given responsibility for coordinating work and to plan and evaluate their own small-scale projects. Women’s studies was fully established as a separate, though under-funded, field of study at postgraduate and undergraduate level in universities, and women’s centres were established in colleges, especially in the United States, giving advice and campaigning for safety on campus, childcare provision, and women’s sports.

As in the women’s movement as a whole, there were sometimes heated debates as to the causes of women’s subordination/oppression and what was primarily in need of change in education. Some teachers, advisers and researchers involved in gender work in schools, the equal opportunities commissions, and various established women’s organizations argued a liberal, individualized account. They saw the issue as one of adjusting a (physically based) binary relationship which was socially out of balance and inequitable. They spoke of sex-role stereotyping and role models, and stressed trying to change attitudes, in particular the attitudes of senior people such as headteachers and principals. For them, education was a privileged site for instigating social change. Gender discrimination was declared inefficient, and examples were given of better, more effective practice. If that did not work, they would use the law to require equal treatment.

Others, mostly grassroots feminist organizations and social researchers, took a more structural and conflictual approach, claiming that education contributed to the social reproduction of an exploitative patriarchal system. Education was a difficult tool to use for change since it had been established for the opposite purpose—maintaining social continuity and dominant class structures. But for those who worked within schools and colleges, it was certainly a site where men’s power had to be contested.

This latter group was, however, itself divided between those who stressed the advantages of gender (and racial) divisions to capitalism and those who saw primarily men as being advantaged by a patriarchal system which existed alongside capitalism. The former critiqued ‘classic’ Marxist and neoMarxist sociologists of education, showing that schools reproduced not only gender but also class (and other) inequalities; while the latter stressed the ways in which boys physically dominated classrooms and playgrounds and harassed girls and certain other boys and women teachers, both verbally and physically. Both critiqued the bias towards boys’ and men’s interests in education, including which knowledge and skills were valued and which areas (including sports) were seen as the source of schools’ and colleges’ prestige.

The middle-class and White focus of earlier work on education was contested from the start by Black feminists, but by the 1980s, more accounts of the educational experiences of working-class and disadvantaged ethnic women existed and there was more recognition of student differences. Similarly, from the mid 1980s, there was pressure to recognize the experiences of gay and lesbian young people growing up and ‘coming out’ in schools and their difficult experiences as adolescents: one in five had seriously considered or attempted suicide. There was increased awareness that many children were not raised by heterosexual couples, but by single and lesbian or gay parents. Various groups started to produce resources to give more diverse and ‘positive images’ of minority ethnic households and homosexual lifestyles. This included stocking and indexing books showing diverse lives in school libraries and discussing homosexual cultures in history and English literature classes as well as in strictly defined ‘sex education’ lessons. There were also efforts to recruit more Black staff, particularly in nursery schools, and to prevent openly homosexual staff from being dismissed from teaching jobs in schools, though this was the least acceptable face of feminism and suffered substantial backlash.

With increasing numbers of higher education faculty interested in feminist research, postgraduate work in women’s studies expanded rapidly and associated research challenged the very nature of the disciplines—in many cases, such as sociology, political studies, and geography, revitalizing them. Similarly challenging work also emerged in the field of education—for instance, Jane Rowland Martin’s critique of the classic philosophers of education (1985), and the problematizing of the ‘boy as norm’ standards of developmental psychology (Chodorow, 1978; Gilligan, 1977; Walkerdine, 1984). There was also a particular focus, including from pro-feminist men, on gender and teaching as a gender-segregated labour market (Apple, 1986), and how this affected the nature of teachers’ work and its maternal subtext (Grumet, 1988) and men’s and women’s moral orientation to caring and institutional practices (Noddings, 1984; 1992). Feminist educational theory also developed a particular focus on diversity and identity, including Queer and postcolonial arguments.

The 1990s: Deconstruction and Some Reconstruction

Feminist (and other) attempts at critical educational reform have subsequently been overtaken and undermined by political conservatism. Major changes were swiftly put in place across many educational systems from the late 1980s and, despite a rhetoric of enhanced teacher power and professionalism, in the United States and the UK, teachers’ daily lives in school and college classrooms have became more controlled. Centralized direction and standardization of the curriculum and pedagogy have been instigated where not already present, with reductive accountability through various evaluation or ‘quality assurance’ schemes. The central purpose of education has become to improve the levels of student achievement and students’ future employability, so as to ensure national development and competitiveness, rather than for broader personal development or as a means of social engineering—to redistribute resources towards disadvantaged groups. Education is certainly not currently encouraged to be a source of social critique, much less of resistance to the powerful.

Adapting to rapid change has occupied much of teachers’ and lecturers’ time and attention and greatly increased their work load. Combined with job insecurity for many, it has left little time for activism or even reflection. Instead, there has arisen a trust in managed change—in school improvement and ‘evidence-based practice’—and a stress on the potential of management and leadership. Both have received a mixed response from feminists. It has been noted that the overall concern with improved standards and effectiveness and efficiency in education tends to homogenize students and to be antipathetic to work on equity. A commitment to evidence-based practice sits ill with the general lack of monitoring of the effects of recent changes and often includes a dismissal of qualitative feminist research data. But feminists do mostly remain committed to getting more women into school and university administration, and they are hopeful that their values and styles will improve education (Blackmore, 1999). Relative success has been claimed by a number of women who have attained senior positions and then reflected on their careers, looking at how they position themselves and are positioned in their efforts to make a difference (David and Woodward, 1998; Kolodny, 1998).

Whether due to the general decline in the women’s movement and an associated decline of most grassroots feminist activism in schools and colleges, or the dwindling of government support for equal opportunities work, the 1990s have seen a return to the view that the problem of girls’ education has been solved, and a resurgence of focus on boys. However, this is no longer based simply on an assumption of boys’ greater importance, or rationalized as their mattering more because they will be the mainstay of the labour market and the breadwinners for households, as in the 1950s. Instead, it is based principally on concern for boys’ ‘underachievement’ in tests and examinations: that is to say, on their not doing at least as well as girls. Academic results are improving across the board in many industrialized countries, but girls are improving their test results faster and are seen to be now substantially outperforming boys. Moreover, women now comprise a majority of the undergraduates—and in the United States this is described as a ‘feminization’ of the universities. It is therefore being argued that there is a need to put in place some sort of special provision for boys, such as special reading support. It is even being argued that girls have been unfairly advantaged by one or other recent changes—feminist initiatives to make the curriculum or pedagogy more girl-friendly, evaluation of students on their coursework rather than exams—and that these changes should be reversed.

Countering such knee-jerk reactions is complex. We can question the quality of the tests themselves and point out that some statistically significant gender differences may not be socially significant. We can also point out that the visibility of differences between girls’ and boys’ performance today is partly due to the greater stress on schools’ results, and that such differences have existed for some time. We can also point to the longevity of explanations which see boys as having potential and girls as only doing well because of luck or the way they are taught. We can also stress that, while gender differences are discussed in terms of (all) boys and (all) girls, in fact the patterns vary by racial and ethnic group, and socioeconomic background remains a more critical differentiator of school performance than gender. But this does not make the perception that boys are losing out disappear. It is not surprising that there has been considerable writing in this field that stresses the interplay of multiple factors and the difficulty of disentangling causes (Arnot, David and Weiner, 1999; Salisbury and Riddell, 2000).

To the extent that girls in many industrial countries are now getting better exam results than boys at 16 and 18, after being behind in previous decades (and this is the case only in certain subjects), the difference is certainly partly due to most girls now foreseeing a very different future from their grandmothers, and so looking to obtain different things from their education. From the 1970s to 1990s there were radical changes in women’s participation in Western labour markets (although of course there had long been differences between, say, Finland and the Netherlands, between different regions within one country, between ethnic groups, and migrants and indigenous populations). Women have also wanted to reduce their economic dependency when given the opportunity, and, with a reduced stability of marriage, have seen it as likely that they might need to be self-supporting for some if not all of their lives. Even if women do marry, all households now need two incomes, and middle-class men breadwinners (where present) can experience periods of unemployment, as working-class and Black men have for many years. Employment opportunities are also now greater for women due to the decline in the birth rate. Finally, some of the changes in educational performance may be due to feminist and government interventions to prevent pupils making early gender-stereotyped subject choices, and to it having become more socially acceptable for girls to be competitive.

However, it is the simple statement that ‘girls are doing better,’ or that their school behaviour is more appropriate than boys’ anti-school ‘laddishness,’ which provides headlines; and the public stress on gender differences is having consequences for how young people see themselves. Pupils, too, read newspapers and make identifications based on the accounts of gender proclaimed within them. Meanwhile, some teachers and parents continue to discipline (have resumed disciplining?) boys with threats about how it is shameful not to do as well as girls and exposing boys’ poorer reading performance. The result is a resurrection of ‘gender antagonisms’ in education, including the aforementioned concern to shift resources to boys, combined with calls to repeal equity legislation in the United States and the re-emergence of biologistic explanations for differences between (all) boys and (all) girls.

While some of the concern with boys’ performance is perhaps misplaced and certainly over-simplified, there is, however, legitimate cause for concern with some of the educational problems of certain groups of boys in Western societies, as well as their contribution to, and their being the main victims of, violence and crime in and out of schools. There are worryingly high rates of male adolescent suicide—though girls also self-harm, often through eating disorders, while not directly killing themselves. These issues for boys and young men led to a surge of research on masculinity/ies, including work on masculinity and education, in the 1990s. Some took a ‘pity the poor boys’ line and reasserted men’s rights, but a larger and more significant group of feminists and pro-feminist men pioneered a raft of work stressing how hegemonic forms of masculinity in every setting involve assertions of heterosexuality and the sexual harassment of women and non-hegemonic men. These performances, based on popularity, physicality, toughness, skill, speed, and interest in sports and sexual prowess, express and reconfirm hierarchical power relations within groups of men and boys, inside and outside educational institutions.

Much of this work, along with parallel work on femininities since the early 1990s, has drawn on post-structuralist and sometimes psychoanalytic theory. These perspectives stress the fluidity and constant reconstruction of gender: how social differences and inequalities are constantly reconstructed and performed in micro interactions in schools. That is to say, authors argue that educational systems do not simply act upon pre-existing social differences which are brought into schools, colleges, and universities, but rather that teachers, pupils, and others in educational institutions actively re-construct and constantly modify gender and their own identities. They also insist that while there are always gender dimensions to any educational social interaction, it is never just a question of gender, but of other social differences too (including class, racial and ethnic hierarchies, sexuality, ability, and physical size), all interacting in constant flux. Unlike the first work on gender in children’s books in the 1970s, which used content analysis and influenced authors to produce non-sexist alternative books, recent work stresses that texts have no stable meanings and can be read in a variety of ways, though too great a departure from expectations will provoke resistance. Thus, authority has been shifted from the text to the interpretation of the text and to analysis in terms of discourses and relativized ‘regimes of truth.’ There are undoubted strengths to such modes of analysis, but there are also drawbacks in terms of political mobilization and as guides to future practice because accounts are being based on very specific local events.

Current Trends

Because gender is now firmly tied to boys’ academic performance, it has been possible to get funding to do research on gender in the English-speaking West, and such projects, together with doctoral theses and the wide-ranging interests of individual academics, have provided increasingly sophisticated (often ethnographic) research on girls and boys and young men and women’s identities, and the interconnections of gender, racial ethnicity, class, and education. The academic field is therefore flourishing, though there is a tightening government grip on what counts as ‘good’ research to guide policy. ‘Systematic reviews,’ overviews of ‘what works’ (see Archer, 2003), and a preference for ‘scientific,’ randomized control testing are being promoted. Meanwhile the academic field of gender and education is separated from grassroots feminist activism. Hence there is currently little practical concern with improving girls’ and women’s school and college experience, at least in the UK.

But if we look only at gender in educational studies, the future looks exciting, as we can see new avenues being opened up. To take just a few examples: with increased education taking place outside of schools, there is important work being done on the effects of media and marketing on gender (and age) segmentation in children’s and youth culture (Kenway and Bullen, 2001). With globalization, there are renewed cross-national studies of the role of education in nation-building and citizenship (Arnot and Dillabough, 2000); and there is, finally, the beginnings of a dialogue between debates on gender and education in the West and those on gender and development in low- to medium-income countries (Unterhalter, 2003).

Feminists have sought to stress the importance of including women in development planning since the 1970s. They first stressed the importance of investing in women’s education because it would help lower fertility rates, reduce infant morality, increase efficiency, and improve per capita GDP, but this ‘women and development’ (WID) concern progressed into a more politically oppositional ‘gender and development’ (GAD) argument in the 1980s. The latter stresses the effects of structured gender inequalities on women and the need for both immediate and practical effects and improvements and longer-term, strategic changes. The longer-term aims include challenges to discrimination entrenched in law and around sexuality, the consequences of lack of political representation, and discrimination in the workplace. But GAD demands have seldom included reference to formal education—according to Nelly Stromquist (1995), because the state was seen as such an ambiguous partner when seeking to transform gendered social relations.

However, GAD-influenced projects did often include efforts to improve women’s literacy because NGOs and new social movements usually included adult basic literacy as part of their mobilization strategies. This was especially the case in Latin America, where they were influenced by Paulo Freire’s radical pedagogy (2000).

By the 1990s, the concept of ‘empowerment’ was widely used in critiques of the WID/human capital/World Bank approach; and even though the term was loosely formulated, Naila Kabeer (1999) did manage to develop proposals for ways in which the various elements of ‘empowerment’ might be measured. She included consideration of the effects of education on women and the consequences of not taking inequalities in the state distribution of education seriously. So, by the time of the key UNESCO conference in Jomtien in 1990, which proposed the Millennium Development Goal of Education for All by 2005, girls’ education had become a key concern, and the proportion of girls who have access to at least primary education became a key performance indicator.

As a consequence, the large numbers of children and especially girls who are not in school, and of women who are illiterate, continue to be an important object of research for many ministries of education and for large development agencies and their consultants and associated academics, working in (generally Western) universities. The official approach remains statistical and focused on problems of access and retention, but there is now some focus on what goes on inside poor schools and on the lives and values of teachers and of what is transmitted by teacher-educators. That is to say, there are now the beginnings of qualitative research and some ethnography of gender in small NGOs and individual schools and districts in low- to medium-income countries. There are also accounts of gender and learning and of gender and educational management and administration, so we have a better idea of what happens once girls and women do have ‘access’ to education.

However, such qualitative research in Southern countries is still only tenuously tied into theoretical debates in Western sociology, cultural studies, and women’s studies, and it is barely influenced by Western feminist methodological discussions. Conversely, the concept of ‘empowerment’ has had little influence on Western feminist educational thinking. It has anyway now been somewhat superseded in development circles by Amartya Sen’s capability approach, developed in relation to education by Martha Nussbaum (2000) and practically by UNICEF in its rights-based programming. But this approach is also little used in the West (Sen, 1999).

Most low- to medium-income countries lack the large base of educated women who have been so important to Western feminism and women’s studies, so they have little research based on reflection by teachers (or by former teachers who are now educators in universities and colleges). They are also as yet little influenced by postmodern thinking on development (i.e. by postcolonial or post-development theory and its critiques of development practice and methodologies for thinking about the ‘Third World’) or by this approach to research on schooling. In return, the North could learn a lot from the literature in the South on the importance of not restricting one’s view of education to a single country (or district or a few schools) and the educational implications of wider political, economic, and social changes, including the role of major inter-governmental organizations, and especially of global dialogues and international connections.


Women’s movements have always recognized the importance of writing women’s history, and not only to record events and give credit to past activists, but, more importantly, to try to analyse recent events and evaluate causal interconnections. We need currently to know much more about the relationship between education and the labour market, family relationships, changing social policies, and social movements. While there have been some moves in this direction, including autobiographies (e.g. David, 2003; Weiner, 1994), there remain many gaps and a general lack of a comparative perspective which would note differences and similarities between countries and regions.

We still need to evaluate fully how the women’s liberation movement came to develop in Western countries, especially given the conservative cultural practices and stated policy aims of the curriculum and pedagogy of their schools in the 1950s and 1960s (Middleton, 1988). We need to look at what was achieved in the 1980s and to determine how much was due to changes in central government policy and how much to now-disparaged social movements and local institutions. In the UK, the 1980s’ initiatives were ended abruptly, and so few evaluations were made of such equity projects (see Leonard, 2000), but feminists world-wide can learn from the work conducted in Australia (Kenway, Willis, Blackmore, and Rennie, 1997).

For policy-makers, contemporary history has several drawbacks. It is retrospective when they want information on what to change for the future. It shows the complexity of social structures and processes and how policies directed at one area can have unintended consequences elsewhere, rather than providing simple answers. It also clarifies how the implementation of educational policy is diverted by the imperatives of politicians who make short-term decisions to get themselves re-elected, the media seeking sensational stories, and individual litigation by parents and students, especially in the United States in regard to sexual harassment (Stein, 1999).

Writing our own history is, however, important to feminists in education because we need to let newcomers to the field, including new recruits to teaching, know about past gender politics. Most do not know what has been tried in the past and the reason why some initiatives succeeded and others failed. Changes in women’s position in society, and especially in education, are often presented as having ‘just happened’ as society ‘moves forward,’ rather than being the fruit of struggles. Moreover, girls still feel alienated from traditionally male subjects and have gendered career expectations, while a minority of boys still dominate the classroom environment and may impede girls’ learning. Teachers still have lower expectations of girls than boys, and find boys more stimulating to teach. Equity issues may have been largely buried by the recent focus on the importance of education to national competitiveness, the stress on supposedly gender-neutral efficiency and effectiveness, and the potential of new management systems to spearhead change. New rigid curricula may have undermined the spaces boys and girls used to have to discuss and explore issues of gender and sexuality, and the teacher-training courses today may not deal with gender (either not at all or not in any detail) or be taught by people who have no specialist knowledge in this field. But writing our own history can renew our reflexivity about our changing conditions, our possibilities as researchers, and how political concerns and theory and research interact, and so encourage us to keep putting gender and girls’ issues back onto the table.