What about Women?

We just wrapped up women’s history month in March. You might not think there is much connection to public education, but I spent a good portion of the month giving talks on our grassroots movement. I spoke at a women’s history conference at Sarah Lawrence College in New York; gave the keynote for a women’s history month symposium at Bowling Green State University in Ohio; and participated in a panel on our state budget sponsored by the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest PA. So what was I talking about?

First, we don’t have to look far to see that women really matter in the movement for public education: they make up the solid majority of activists and scholars, both locally and nationally. Second, over three-quarters of all public school teachers are women. [National Center for Education Statistics, 2011] For this reason alone, we might view current attacks on teachers and their unions as particularly anti-women. This is especially a concern given the persistent wage gap in this country, with women still earning only 77 cents on every dollar earned by men. In fact, just this week we “celebrated” Pay Equity Day, the day that represents how far into 2013 women had to work to reach what men earned in 2012.

Third, we have talked a lot about the ways in which race and class impact our public schools and students’ access to education – but gender also matters. (Want a big word to impress your friends? In women’s studies we call this intersectionality.) The crucial issue here is the feminization of poverty – the way that women are disproportionately represented among the poor. This is particularly important when you are talking about school-aged children because of the prevalence of poverty among single mothers.

And here is where gender intersects with race and class: compared to the top 40 largest metropolitan areas in the country, the Pittsburgh region has among the highest poverty rates for working-age African Americans. In 2008 we were actually #1, with over 28% of African Americans aged 18-64 in Southwest PA living in poverty. That same year we also ranked first in the nation for the poverty rate of black children under the age of five. These are horrific statistics and they only get bleaker when you factor in gender. Women comprise almost two-thirds (64%) of poor African Americans in our region. [Post-Gazette, 7-4-10]

So poverty is both feminized and racialized in our area. And we know that poverty has a great deal to do with student performance. What is often called a “racial achievement gap” is really an income gap. Kids who are growing up without enough to eat, without warm clothes to wear, sleeping on the floor, with instability in their lives and violence in their neighborhoods are often the ones having trouble learning in school. Yet corporate-style reforms – privatization, school closure, high-stakes-testing – are having negative impacts on these very kids and their families.

Finally, I’ve been talking about my own disciplinary fields of women’s history and women’s studies, which were founded on the tradition of activism. In fact, I’ve been describing my work lately as “scholactivism,” combining scholarship and activism. And our movement for public education has solid feminist roots. Some of my students think feminism is the “f-word,” but you can see feminist theories and methods at work in the way we strive to be inclusive, in our efforts to educate ourselves and learn from each other, and in our focus on equity (as opposed to equality). Ours is a progressive vision for the future of public education that challenges the status quo, while invoking a very old notion of the common good. And it turns out that women and questions of gender are central to that vision.

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