Women overcoming disadvantage through education

We are launching our “WEA Women overcoming disadvantage through education” campaign with a conference in Nottingham this Wednesday, 4 June. It’s at the ICCA, Hucknall Road, Nottingham, NG5 1QZ, with registration at 10.00 am for a 10.30 start and a 4.00 pm finish.

WOD

As well as our own General Secretary and CEO, Ruth Spellman and WEA colleagues, speakers will include:

  • Dr Finn Mackay, feminist activist and WEA Ambassador
  • Dr Anita Franklin from the University of Sheffield
  • Cheryl Turner of NIACE
  • Baroness Frances D’Souza, the Lord Speaker House of Lords

You can find more about the conference here.

The WEA has recognised, included and valued women’s contributions and has improved women’s lives through education for over 110 years, so the campaign is a continuation of a long tradition.

Albert Mansbidge established “An Association to promote the Higher Education of Working Men” in 1903 with his wife Frances, using two shillings and sixpence (12½ pence) from her housekeeping money, but the organisation changed its name to become the “Workers’ Educational Association” in 1905 in response to women’s demands for inclusion. This was before the fight for female suffrage was won. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Emily Wilding Davison was an early WEA activist. She was the suffragette campaigner who died after King George V’s horse trampled over her at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

Writing in the same year as the tragic event at Epsom, Ida Hony, the second WEA’s women’s officer, said,

“Of all the special efforts the WEA is making today, perhaps none is more important than the special effort it is making on behalf of women.”

Mel Lenehan, Regional Education Manager for the WEA in the East Midlands. has shared this short video giving an overview of our women’s education from the Association’s early days to today’s ‘Women Leading Learning’ and ‘Women into Politics’ projects.

 

We are inspired by our past and can learn from it but too much nostalgia can seem indulgent when inequality is still rife and there is so much work to do, so we’re focusing on current and future priorities.

Wednesday’s conference aims to:

  • Define the skills and knowledge needed by learning practitioners to deliver the women’s learning programme model;
  • Identify what difference the women’s learning programme model makes to students and society;
  • Share and consider ways to embed equality, diversity and social purpose education within women’s learning provision.

It’s guaranteed to be a stimulating and stirring get together.

You can email Hanna Liljeberg hliljeberg@wea.org.uk or telephone: 01332 291805 to find out more.

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

It’s hard to imagine what life was like when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her ground-breaking book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792 – and to understand the leaps of thought that she made as a self-taught woman of her time. Her book has become a landmark document in the development of women’s rights and education. She suggested that culture rather than nature determines many perceptions about gender difference and her work provided a basis for later feminist theory. Her writing was truly remarkable for a woman born in 1759 as the first daughter of an abusive handkerchief weaver from Spitalfields in London.

Showing a strongly independent mind, she refused to accept the inequalities that she experienced between men and women, reasoning that they began with a ‘false system of education’ that valued ‘delicacy’ above all in girls’ development. Women were expected to focus all their attention on being attractive objects for men. She argued that society’s expectations denied women the opportunities available for men to develop their talents and interests. She thought that a tendency to, ‘consider females as women rather than human creatures’, led to inequality and challenged this discrimination throughout her life, writing non-fiction and novels to set out her case.

Her first book was Thoughts on the Education of Daughters but she is best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which called for equal education of women and included a radical proposal for a national schools system to be based on the premise that women are rational beings who are as capable as men in intellectual matters.

She proposed that educated women should have opportunities to take up independent positions and responsibilities in society and that if they failed to make the most of their education then society would have proof of their inadequacies rather than just assuming that they were less intellectually capable than men. Her writing was a challenge to test the hypothesis.

Her two novels, Mary and the unfinished Maria, focused on the self-education of their female characters and aimed to inspire female readers to learn for themselves. Wollstonecraft also wrote a children’s book, ‘Original Stories’ and commented regularly on children’s books as well as contributing educational treatises to the Analytical Review, which she helped to set up with the publisher, Joseph Johnson.

Wollstonecraft opened a school in Newington Green near Hackney in 1784, with her sister Eliza and a friend, Fanny Blood. It was here that she met Richard Price, a minister at the local Dissenting Chapel and his friend, Joseph Priestley, who led a group of men known as Rational Dissenters. She went on to be engaged in radical politics in England and France, where she lived for a time. Influenced by the political upheaval of the French Revolution, she argued that social equality meant removal of the monarchy as well as the church and military hierarchies. Wollstonecraft wrote that, ‘It may then fairly be inferred, that, till society be differently constituted, much cannot be expected from education.’ Her educational and political ideas were hugely controversial with one critic famously describing her as a ‘hyena in petticoats’.

For many years Wollstonecraft’s unconventional personal life overshadowed her writing which gained renewed attention towards the end of the last century. She had two affairs that ended badly – with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay – before marrying the philosopher William Godwin. She died aged thirty-eight, ten days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

From Mary Wollstonecraft to Malala Yousafzai, how far have we come since 1792?

A tale of two cities (Nottingham and Chelmsford)

I spent last Friday morning at the launch of the WEA’s “Women Leading Learning” project in Nottingham. It was one of those mood-boosting days that happen in adult education when people share their stories. Students gave their testimonies about how learning had transformed their lives for the better. Occasions like this are almost evangelical. Each person’s story could be the makings of a novel, drama or film. Some women had got jobs, some had overcome depression and some had gone into local politics as a result of adult education courses. One had done all three. It was a joyful celebration.

Antonia Zenkevitch was an expert compère as WEA tutors, staff, volunteers and people from partner organisations added their voices and took part in creative activities. There are more details about the event, links to photos, including the one above, and some video clips at http://womenleadinglearning.wordpress.com/5th-october-launch-event-programme-and-details/ You can also scroll down ‘Other WEA Blogs’ in the right hand column of this page to a find a link to ‘Women Leading Learning’.

(For the record, I also support the Men’s Sheds movement http://menssheds.org.uk/.)

On Saturday I joined branch volunteers and staff at the WEA Essex Federation’s Annual General Meeting in Chelmsford. I’m grateful to their Chair, Ron Marks, for inviting me and for the opportunity to share thoughts on teaching, learning and assessment and our ambition for WEA education over the next 3 years.

There was a good turnout from the county’s 43 volunteer-led branches with reports, presentations and group discussions. Colchester MP and WEA Patron, Sir Bob Russell joined the meeting, where people raised issues about democracy and change as key themes for discussion. As well as reporting on the year’s highlights, people debated various concerns and niggles. This is natural in a democratic organisation where students, volunteers, members and staff can express their views and they can now be explored further through the appropriate channels.

WEA Essex Course Brochure 2012-13

It was encouraging to hear and read about branch activities and educational projects in Essex including a Cultural Olympiad and plans to digitise the Region’s archives. People from at least two branches mentioned that they had 96-year old students in their courses. This reminds me that I should re-check how many WEA students are over 100 years old. It’s amazing that there are some.

The balance of work done in the previous year was interesting and there were yet more descriptions of great tutors and of adult education that had given people a fresh start when their lives had seemed almost without hope. An account of student Tammy’s aspiration to become a midwife against all odds had people spellbound. Tammy had been in and out of care as a child, left school at 13 and was on a life path that seemed destined to repeat the same cycle for her own children. Her story, like Alice’s, Mel’s, Keren’s and other women who spoke in Nottingham on the previous day, offer living proof that education can be an escape route from one life path and onto a better one. We also saw evidence that learning helps to keep people active in their communities as well as stimulating their brains into their 80s and beyond..

Over the two days I heard about some of the WEA Award winners who will be honoured at our Parliamentary event on 7 November. That will definitely be another day with a feel-good effect.