Sunday, March 21, 2010

Beware the backlash

The Sexes and the Sciences
Sheilla Jones, Literary Review of Canada: Author and engineering professor Monique Frize raises a startling proposition in The Bold and the Brave: A History of Women in Science and Engineering. It is, she notes, a myth that women's advancement in education and societal roles is a progression that is irreversible... Throughout recorded history, women have made considerable gains in gender parity with men, only to have those gains abruptly terminated or to see them slowly dissipate through societal change...

Women and men in Europe enjoyed relatively equal access to education in the 7th and 8th centuries because both had access to monasteries... The domination of Charlemagne, who wanted education only for men, as well as other upheavals, radically reduced the number of such monasteries...

Women's education in Europe saw another renaissance during the 12th and 13th centuries. Women educated at convents had considerable clout in society. Some wrote medical texts and performed surgery; others were ordained as deaconesses and bishops by the Catholic church and heard confession. Islamic women of the time had no limits on their access to education (except, perhaps, lack of money, but that was no different from European women), and women were actively involved in both funding and teaching at madrassas and mosques.

In Europe, the advancement and education of women ended in the 13th century, with the growth of universities such as those at Oxford and Paris, which restricted access to men only. The lot of European women took a further turn for the worse in the 14th century, as the intensifying panic over witchcraft meant many women became scapegoats for everything from the plague pandemic to local crop failures...

Initially, science and mathematics were considered vulgar and beneath the purview of learned men... It was not until educational reform in Europe in the 18th century that science and mathematics became the sole purview of men and off limits to women... Girls were deemed to require only the kind of education that was suitable to the private sphere of home and husband... Too much education was against their feminine 'nature' and would lead to mental impairment and damage their reproductive organs.

So, here we are in 2010, and it does, indeed, seem like a preposterous idea to imagine that the daughters or great-granddaughters of women who are fully engaged today in a modern and accommodating society such as Canada's might someday be relegated once again to domestic life and denied an education. But it should be remembered that it is not all that long ago that women in the modern western world gained access to high education and were allowed to participate in the public sphere.
Image source here.