Exploring the History of Women’s Education
March is an important point in the school year. It marks the middle of the second semester, testing season, springtime, the gaining of an hour of daylight, and Women’s History Month!
According to data from the 2017–2018 school year, 76% of public-school teachers in the US were women, which is a slight increase from nearly twenty years earlier. With so many students throughout the country (and world) learning from women educators, it’s important to spend time recognizing and honoring Women’s History Month.
This March, let’s work to honor the women who came before us and worked so hard to give generations of girls and women after them more opportunities to read, learn, and pursue additional learning and vocations of their choice.
One good way to do that is by learning more about the history of women’s education and literacy.
Girls, Women, and Literacy
We know that literacy is the foundation of learning, and for a long time, girls and women were prevented not only from learning how to read, but also from reading what they wanted.
After books became more widely available in the late 1400s thanks to the printing press, more girls and women engaged in reading. Many men were resistant to this at first, but over time, rather than resisting, they began writing and publishing books they believed would have a good influence on women. Even still, women found their way to books that interested and enlightened them.
Why so much resistance to and fear of girls and women reading? In the past, it was believed that reading could pose a danger to women. More reading leads to more independent thinking and exposure to other cultures and ways of life. And if women became aware of other, more desirable ways to live, that could threaten the status quo.
It’s important to note that despite some people’s best efforts, this did happen! Novels, magazines, books of poetry, nonfiction texts, and so much more have been made available over time, and as public libraries popped up throughout the world, girls, women, and everyone else had more access to reading materials than ever before.
A Look Back at Educating Girls and Women
Historically, there has been resistance to girls and women getting a formal education, and many people are still working to expand both girls’ and women’s education rights.
For centuries, learning amongst girls and women was confined to the upper class and nuns. Women and girls who came from more modest backgrounds, like peasants, had very little opportunity to get any sort of education—if they had any opportunity at all.
Those girls and women who could obtain a formal education found it to be tightly controlled and focused mainly on training them to be good wives and mothers.
Girls and women who wanted a more fulsome education found support in convents, where they were encouraged to continue on in their learning to understand biblical teaching—this is why so many of the earliest women intellectuals were nuns!
It is believed that Sister Juliana Morell was the first Western woman to earn a university degree. According to History.com, in 1606, at age twelve, she publicly defended her theses, and two years later, she earned a law doctorate—very impressive for a young woman, even by today’s standards.
Looking Forward and Celebrating Women’s History Month
Efforts to ensure girls and women have access to education continue all over the world. According to the United Nations, in 2015, nearly 800 million people over the age of fifteen were illiterate, and nearly two-thirds of those people—over 500 million—were women.
Literacy is an essential skill for everyone. It is the gateway to education, and helps people establish independence and livelihoods so they can support themselves, both of which are especially critical for girls and women—so much so that during a message to mark International Literacy Day in 2010, then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Every literate woman marks a victory over poverty.”
In the spirit of encouraging literacy, we’ve selected a few empowering books for young students. And when curating your own reading lists, aim for books that showcase diversity, both in terms of cultures and lived experiences. Representation matters, and that starts by offering young children access to appropriately challenging materials that showcase people of all kinds.
- Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai: In this book, Malala shares the story of her childhood to young readers with a focus on how she remains hopeful even in the most difficult of times.
- Older students can instead read: I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafzai: Here, Malala shares how her fight for girls’ right to learn nearly led to her death, and how huge change can start with the actions of just one person.
- Matilda by Roald Dahl: This beloved book shares the story of Matilda, a voracious reader who finds she has telekinetic powers, and encourages individuality and standing up for what you believe in.
- Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison: This book shares the stories of 40 trailblazing Black American women, introducing young students to new heroes, role models, and inspirational figures.
- She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History by Chelsea Clinton: Read the stories of 13 extraordinary women throughout the world who broke barriers, defied limits, and changed history.
In search of more books? A Mighty Girl has put together a list of over 3,000 books to empower your students.
And for the rest of Women’s History Month, remember all the women who came before you, and importantly, the women who work alongside you. With our continued efforts and recognition, we can reach a day where every girl and woman throughout the world has opportunities to learn and build the life they want.
Acocella, J. (2012, October 15). Turning the page. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/10/15/turning-the-page
Hess, A. (2012, October 11). A brief history of the beef against women reading. Slate. https://slate.com/human-interest/2012/10/a-woman-reader-by-belinda-jack…
Literacy has empowering effect on women, UN officials say. (2010, September 8). UN News. https://news.un.org/en/story/2010/09/350122-literacy-has-empowering-eff…
National Center for Education Statistics. (2020, May). The condition of education: Characteristics of public school teachers. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_clr.asp
Pak, E. (2018, September 4). When women became nuns to get a good education. History.com. https://www.history.com/news/women-education-medieval-nuns-church