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The Structure and Agency of Womenís Education

reviewed by Alison Mackinnon - April 30, 2008

coverTitle: The Structure and Agency of Womenís Education
Author(s): Mary Ann Maslak (Ed.)
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791472760, Pages: 277, Year: 2007
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Education is widely credited as a transforming element in womens lives as those who fought for womens admission to schools and universities in the nineteenth century knew all too well. There are many in the developing world who resist education for women for precisely that reason, preferring women to fulfil their traditional roles or favoring boys education where resources are scarce. This wide ranging edited collection attempts to shed light on the intimate relationship between education and development in comparative terms (p. xiii). Unusually it does so by focusing on adolescent girls and young women, a group for whom education is by no means a given. Mary Ann Maslak claims that interdisciplinary and comparative approaches to educational policies, programs and practice will reveal the complexities pertaining to this group. Her volume certainly makes that complexity clear as we are drawn into the lives of adolescent girls and young women in countries as diverse as China, Israel and Palestine, many African countries (Kenya, Mali, Sudan and others), and Hispanic women and girls in inner city America.

The work is set in the policy context of clearly defined international goals for womens education such as the 1999 World Declaration on Education for All (EFA) and the UN Millennial Development Goals of 2000 (a handy appendix lists major international policy recommendations). Education is broadly defined, encompassing formal and informal schooling, workplace, and political and adult forms of education.

A key element of the approach is its focus on social theory, particularly on the elements of agency and structure. Maslak argues convincingly the need to go beyond the useful Women in Development (WID) and Gender and Development (GAD) frameworks common to this field to an application of social theory, which integrates the broad themes of agency and structure. Agency is defined here as the action that propels deliberate movement through a structure(s) by an individual(s) and/or collective(s), with the express purpose of achieving a goal (p. xv). Structure refers to a set of interrelated and coexisting frameworks that provide the social conditions for and requirements of action (p. xv). Most of the authors of the thirteen carefully developed research-based chapters that follow take seriously the need to integrate agency and structure. They draw upon the writing of social theorists whose works illuminate their findings and support that integration.

The book is divided into four sections. Part 1 seeks to outline fundamental principles of public policy and their application in education for females (p. xix). An excellent chapter by Nelly Stromquist stresses the importance of the state and of public policy. Her account sets the scene, and the typology of policies as distributive, regulatory or redistributive is helpful. Several of her observations are borne out by later chapters: that there is a tendency towards stability rather than change in education; that the state is not neutral to women, and that as education confers certain benefits it is highly contested. Part 2 focuses on the many international forces impacting womens education in the context of globalization. Cathryn Magnos chapter has an interesting take here. She sees education as the acquisition of information to function as a politically active member of a community (p. xxi), illustrating this with an account of the critical roles played by Israeli and Palestinian NGOs in womens political agency.

Part 3 makes sociocultural forces central to the discussion. Amongst the many challenging aspects of this book, I was surprised (and saddened) to read that male humanitarian workers in refugee camps in West Africa often exploited female students. Of course we do know that the classroom is a gendered space, but it can be a very dangerous one for women in turbulent contexts. An innovative scheme of Classroom Assistants who watched over and advocated for girls made the educational climate safer and ensured some good educational outcomes. Part 4, Women and the Research Setting, examines the ways in which methodologies can themselves empower women participants in research projects. One chapter in particular reminds us of the importance of the social imagination, and of identity. Using Appadurais notion of the emancipatory politics of education, Heidi Ross argues that the ability to imagine ones life differently is at the heart of the educational project. She also starkly points out the problem for girls in rural China:

In this cycle of rural identity making there may be no more contradictory social category than the targeted [for education] girl. She is described simultaneously as the embodiment of feudal ideology and backward cultural beliefs and the mother of development. (p. 242)

Such a focus reminds us that education for young women and adolescent girls involves far more than international good will, and indeed policies. Thus Maslak has succeeded in both complicating and enriching understanding in the field as she set out to do.

The wide range of theorists drawn upon by the authors of individual chapters is both a strength and a weakness here. For those teaching in the field of education and development, or education generally, the chapters provide excellent examples of the ways in which theorists such as Bourdieu, Habermas, Giddens, Fraser, Freire, Benhabib, Appadurai and others can be deployed to illuminate particular bodies of research. From another perspective, more consistency in the use of theoretical frameworks might have led to a more consistent argument overall. I was surprised that Maslaks introduction, for example, relied particularly on the work of Ritzer rather than the more widely known Bourdieu or Giddens, whose works are widely referred to in several other chapters. At times the many frameworks drawn upon and the range of acronyms accompanying them can be overwhelming for the reader (PGNs, SGNs,VEPs, MDGs, etc.). An undoubted strength, however, is the range of methods employed, both quantitative and qualitative, although qualitative studies predominate. As well as broad policy surveys and state of the art country assessments small scale approaches using innovative methods such as foto dialogic method and photo voice deliver unique insights into the ways in which womens lives can be transformed through their own agency and indeed through the research process.

Within much of the literature of the developing world, education for women is frequently seen as instrumental, as Maslak notes. Yet one of its most desired features from an instrumental perspective its links with fertility control - is strangely absent here with the exception of Wisemans chapter (10).

Can we take heart from the findings in this collection? Certainly a vast range of policies and programmes across the globe addresses the issue of womens underrepresentation in education, including those wicked problems identified by Stromquist, those complex, interrelated problems less amenable to & solutions (pp. 15-16). I recommend this book highly both to those who care about the state of womens education in developing countries and to those who are looking for a broad ranging volume which covers a wide theoretical and methodological terrain and is thus an invaluable resource for both teaching and research in education, gender studies and development.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 30, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15244, Date Accessed: 11/18/2021 2:31:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Alison Mackinnon
    University of South Australia
    ALISON MACKINNON is a Professor Emerita of History and Gender Studies at the University of South Australia, Adelaide. Her major interests include the history of womenís education, womenís education in contemporary settings, and the impact of womenís education on their family formation and professional lives. Her 1997 book Love and Freedom: Professional women and the reshaping of personal life (Cambridge University Press) won the New South Wales Premierís Literary award. She is currently writing a history of women graduates of the 1950s and early 1960s in Australia and the US.
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