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Colección: La Educación
Número: (120) I
Año: 1995

12. Nelly P. STROMQUIST. Women and Education in Latin America. Knowledge, Power and Change. Boulder & London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1992, 310 p., notes, tables, bibliography, index, Cloth: $42.00.

The struggle for women’s equality has a complex history that assumes critical importance in the sphere of education. It is through educational processes that society reproduces itself by transmitting knowledge, customs and values from one generation to the next. Nonetheless, as Nelly Stromquist points out in this anthology, the question of equal participation for women in this sphere of social life is often ignored in studies of access, quality, or relevance of educational programs. In compiling this collection of articles on the subject of women, learning, and social participation, Ms. Stromquist begins to address this oversight.

The topic is an important one. In theories of oppression and liberation, it is widely observed that the most effective forms of subordination are those which a subject social group imposes on itself because its members believe themselves inferior and deserving of no better. These beliefs are learned through the assimilation of both implicit and explicit messages. Some things are said and done; others are simply felt. Girls do not, after all, come into the world knowing that they are subordinate. They are taught this in the process of socialization through powerful institutions: the family, the church, and the school. A number of articles in this collection document the extent to which the school conveys and strengthens the message of women’s inferiority and prescribed secondary place in Latin American society. The collection demonstrates, through examples from various countries of curriculum content, hierarchical practices and the informal methods of channelling girls into “female” disciplines and occupations, the extent to which gender inequality is reproduced and taught in schools. This is not done, however, so much through the establishment of explicit policies designed to have such an effect as it is accomplished through simple omission. The school allows social norms and expectations about the roles of girls and boys, women and men to go unchallenged. Moreover, by providing equal access to education and not discriminating overtly, while presenting sexual stereotypes in the curriculum and in daily practice, the school often appears gender neutral while actually promoting inequality. Dr. Stromquist describes the subtlety of this process: “In education, the most effective method of transimission of gender relations is not through explicit reference to the prescribed conditions for men and women but through the avoidance of these issues, while in practice—through everyday discourse and ordinary events building gender assymetries. In other words, by making the curriculum officially gender-neutral while genderizing the social practices of the school (e.g. through the presence of sexual stereotypes in textbooks, the presence of men in authority positions, and the higher occupational expectations toward boys that teachers often hold), the school conveys the message that gender does make a difference and that this social marker is to be accepted as a given. By being a non-issue, the question of gender is neither examined nor changed.”

Much of the research presented here analyzes the experience of girls and women in the formal educational system, but broader implications are also drawn. A section of the collection explores the ways in which the subordination of girls and women in schools has larger economic and political effects, and the ways in which the state, as the proprietor of the educational system, perpetuates the oppression of women.

At the same time that the collection illuminates both the subtle and not-so-subtle operations of ideology and gender inequality in the formal school system, it also documents selected experiences in nonformal—or “popular”—education, which have had liberating effects on their clientele. The research presented finds, in fact, that gender-related challenges to ideas or customs often originate outside of the formal school system in adult education programs directed by women themselves. One suspects that this point could be documented more convincingly still, as many such popular education projects have been developed and implemented since the collection was compiled.

The cumulative effect of the book is significant for students of social processes for it reveals the manner in which private lives and public spaces intersect to reproduce social inequality consistently and seamlessly over time. One author points out that the oppression of women has its origins in private life, in the home and the family where, traditionally, social practices tend to favor adult males. By the time the woman enters the workplace—the public sphere—where she is to earn less than her male counterpart, the objective justification for this differential is already in place: she has less valuable academic credentials, she is skilled only in a low-wage occupation, she is unable to work full time because of family-related responsibilities. The social space, however, where the private life and training for the public sphere come together is the school. It is there that knowledge may be used to transform expectations and practices in order to promote more democratic processes and greater social equality. This opportunity is only potential, however, and it has a structural resistance of its own. The collection shows that the most promising sources of social change for women are the nonformal educational programs they design for themselves; top-down educational systems controlled by the state still tend to be authoritarian and oppressive for women despite the democratization of political processes that have taken hold in Latin America at the electoral level. This is an important point and the book illuminates it well.

Beatrice E. Edwards