Should Women Be Allowed to Go to College? Feminists Unsure

2013-08-21 o-alma-mater

This headline is much more provocative than the blog post that inspired it (O, Alma Mater), so let me explain why I think it’s warranted. In the post, Anne-Marie Maginnis responds to the idea that women who earn Ivy League degrees and choose to be stay-at-home moms are wasting their degrees. She cites a recent article in The Guardian:

Any Harvard Law School degree obtained by a woman who then chooses not to use it in any sort of professional capacity throughout most of her life is a wasted opportunity. That degree could have gone to a woman who does want to spend her entire life using it to advance the cause of women—or others in need of advancement—not simply advancing the lives of her own family at home, which is a noble cause, but not one requiring an elite degree.

The quote is ostensibly about advanced degrees at elite schools (not “college”) and specifically about stay-at-home moms (not “women”), but the truly alarming thing about the argument–which Maginnis exposes immediately–is that it assumes that women aren’t worth educating for their own sake. If you take it seriously, this brand of feminism says that a woman’s value–her right to be educated–is dependent on her usefulness to the capitalist machine. So much for liberalism, in pretty much every sense of the word.

9 thoughts on “Should Women Be Allowed to Go to College? Feminists Unsure”

  1. It appears as though Kelly Goff feels she can style herself or even society as the judge of how education should be used. That’s alarming for more reasons than I can count.

  2. While she is correct that a law degree is wasted if you decide to instead raise children, if you take this to the extreme then anyone who obtains a degree (advanced or not) and does not work in the field in which that degree was earned, they are also a wasted opportunity and took the place of someone who could do the same. In a purely analytical sense, okay I see the point, however that’s such an (I’m searching for the words here) idealistic, snobbish, and ignorant viewpoint. It also assumed a great deal many other things about the capitalist and feminist machine, like the fact that said person with elite degree will work to advance any cause other than their own or the company for which they eventually work. There are so many poorly constructed assumptions in this argument it almost hurts to read it.

  3. I agree with you that Goff’s argument is disturbing: the idea of education as something that societies should value in and for itself is under attack in a lot of places these days. Still, I think we ought to be clear: she’s not saying that educated women are only valuable insofar as they are “useful to the capitalist machine.” Rather, she appears to believe that women should work outside the home not to acquire wealth for its own sake, but to work to overturn patriarchal power structures, whether directly, by taking positions of leadership, or indirectly, by living lives that do not conform to traditional gender roles. The capitalist system is incidental.

  4. Being a feminist, but a pretty pragmatic one, I think, I was a bit surprised at how much our responses differed on this, Nathaniel. If we’re only talking about “elite degrees” in the sense of what I thought Goff meant [law, medical, etc.- professional degrees], I don’t think she’s saying anything other than professional degrees should not be obtained by people who do not wish to use them. After all, professional degrees are for professions; I distinguish them from “advancing” or obtaining an education, at an elite university or otherwise (so if that’s what she meant, disregard this). So I don’t take the statement to be saying anything about women not deserving education for its own sake. I see it as a reasonable and fair standard that people who are taking a valuable spot for a professional degree who don’t plan on using it should allow someone who will use the training to do so. I think to say otherwise– for anyone, man or woman– is a bit naive. Tell me how I’m wrong…

  5. Tim-

    You’re right that the utility of the women to the capitalist system is as incidental as it is ironic (coming from the left), but whether women derive validity for their claim to education from contributing to the capitalist machine or the battle to turn back the tide of patriarchy, the commonality is that the claim to education rests upon a functional argument. That, for me, is the ultimate problem. Because it assumes that the right of women to educate themselves rests not with intrinsic individuality, but based on the whim of a greater collective. The rationale is sinister no matter which particular end is required to be served.

  6. Rachael-

    As a quick preliminary: If Goff wanted to focus exclusively on post-graduate degrees, that level of specificity is absent from the piece. It would be a stronger argument in that case, but still problematic for two crucial reasons. The first, as I mentioned to Tim, is the assumption that a woman’s (or anyone’s) decision to get a specific degree ought to be subject to “the greater good”. After all, Goff is not merely suggesting that women who have post-graduate degrees ought to make the most of them, but that policies ought to be instituted to screen future homemakers ought of these degree programs:

    Perhaps… the next frontier of the admissions should revolve around asking people to declare what they actually plan to do with their degrees

    I find the mentality behind that suggestion truly sinister. But what might be even more sinister is not simply the idea that colleges ought to override individual decisions to hand out degrees “for the greater good”, but the specific (and highly political) definition of what “greater good” entails. What it does not entail, Goff makes quite clear, is being a mother.

    Now again: you could argue that she’s specifically saying that having an MD isn’t as beneficial to a mother as it is to a doctor, but she certainly didn’t hone in on the narrow-focus of post-graduate degrees. If that was her argument, it would be much less about Harvard and Yale and just as much about your run-of-the-mill medical or law school. Instead, she focused on elite institutions and only honed in on law school in hypothetical examples. Furthermore: I think she’s betraying her fundamental disregard for the role mothers play. Doesn’t she think that young women who are raised by mothers with MBA or law degrees from Harvard may be substantially more likely to attend such schools themselves? You might argue that if they don’t use their degrees either, nothing has been obtained, but Goff doesn’t even consider that avenue. I think it’s plausible that women who take their elite degrees into homemaking can have very strong effects to help women, but you have to have a very healthy consideration of the power and influence of motherhood to consider that alternative.

  7. I don’t disagree with you on this, Nathaniel. My point was just to try and zero in on the actual character and motive of her argument. I find that when I don’t do that, my interlocutor and I tend to end up arguing past one another.

  8. My point was just to try and zero in on the actual character and motive of her argument. I find that when I don’t do that, my interlocutor and I tend to end up arguing past one another.

    That’s an endeavor that is both admirable and practical.

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