08 September 2010

Women Did It Better: Higher Education

By Blythe Gifford

I'm going to approach this subject in a roundabout way. Instead of starting with something that women have done better, I'm going to start with something they were originally not allowed to do at all: go to college.

For most of recorded history, women were excluded from institutions of "higher learning." And when I say excluded, I mean that in the strictest sense. At Cambridge in the 14th century, for example, it was forbidden for a female laundress to even enter the hostels where the young scholars lived. A female student couldn't even be imagined.

The reasons for putting the "No Girls Allowed" sign on the tree house were, on the surface, "logical." The medieval explanation, as Thomas Aquinas stated it, was that women were "deficient," and needed to be ruled by men, who were rational. This was all part of God's plan, particularly at Cambridge, which I researched for IN THE MASTER'S BED. Cambridge did not confer its first degrees on women until 1948.

Nearly 600 years later, little had changed. In the mid-19th century, women-only institutions were created because women were still kept out of the "men-only" schools. The first women allowed to study beside men at a four-year, American college attended Oberlin in Ohio, graduating in 1841. In Britain it wasn't until 1880 that the first women were awarded degrees from a coeducational institution (the University of London), although women were allowed to study at Queen's College as early as 1848.

But even then, "everyone knew" that women were unsuited by nature for the physical and mental rigors of the higher forms of learning. A few unusual women might have been allowed to attend college, but medical school, law school and the like continued to be off limits. By then the reasons were attributed to science, not the Almighty, but the rationale was much the same. Women had measurably smaller brains. Their reproductive organs would draw away blood from the brain, rendering their mental faculties incapable of processing academic information. Not their fault, of course. They were simply, physically incapable of understanding such complex material.

While this may seem like ancient history, it was only within the last 30 years that there was any requirement that men and women be treated equally in higher education. We think of Title IX, passed in 1972, as requiring girls to have the opportunity to play sports, but the language of the act is much broader. Now called the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, it says "No person...shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

What's been the result of this? The number of women in all levels of higher education has grown by leaps and bounds. In 1972, women earned 7% of law degrees and 9% of medical degrees. In 2001, women earned 47% of law degrees and 43% of medical degrees. And in 2006, women earned 58% of the bachelor's degrees and 60% of the master's degrees. Not only do women earn the majority of bachelors and masters degrees, recurring reports indicate that women maintain higher grade point averages than men. (Truman College, for example, reported in 2002 a consistent gap, which that year was between a 2.87 GPA for male freshmen and. a 3.19 GPA for female freshmen.)

We can put forward many arguments as to why women are, arguably, more successful than men in higher education. Explanations have ranged from the earlier onset of maturity in women to a male tendency to party more. (I do not cast aspersions on our brothers. I simply report a hypothesis.) Once again, we look to science for answers. And today's science has discovered that women's brains are larger than men's when it comes to the area governing the verbal skills so helpful to success in the classroom.

Will this look any more rationale in hindsight than the arguments of the 19th and 14th centuries? We'll see. But for now, it appears that women do higher education better.
Makes you wonder if we were excluded all those years because someone had a sneaking suspicion this might happen.