A study conducted by Hayes (1992) as cited by David (2016) brought to light the impact feminism has had on adult education through an experiment and analysis. Common sense, a characteristic that both the black and white women attributed to themselves, was defined as the ability to negotiate working-class culture and to solve day-to-day problems. Intelligence was not as clearly defined, but, overall, a distinction was made between school-based intelligence and “real intelligence.” Real intelligence was seen as the ability to teach oneself a skill such as how to fix a car or play a musical instrument.
In defining who had real intelligence, the white women gave only male examples. They included the manual labor typical of males, such as the ability to fix mechanical items, in their examples of real intelligence, but the skilled labor required of them as women-the ability to sew, quilt, or cook-was never cited as instances of real intelligence. The black women, on the other hand, saw the work that they did as requiring real intelligence; many also specifically cited the ability to deal with racism and survive as instances of real intelligence. While the black women defined themselves as having real intelligence, they also attributed black men’s power to black men’s superior knowledge (David, 2016).
They said that black men have the ability to convince black women to do just what the women said they would never do. Thus, even though the black women saw themselves as having real intelligence, black men’s intelligence was seen as superior to their own. Both the black and white women resisted adoption of the white middle-class value of the importance of school based knowledge. But both groups adopted the gender-oppressive value of male intellectual superiority, although in different ways.
This in a large way reflected the way black and African women have been programmed to think within society. Society, religion and past education have inadvertently connived to ensure women see men as superior to themselves. This has without doubt been expressed within the education and professional setting. Feminism has brought about significant changes in this regard, however.
Women have been subjected to abuse within their families and society whilst at the same time society, religion and at times the educational sector has made it normal. However, authoritative scholarly voices are now heralding equality by teaching all gender groups that men and women are the same (Salo et al., 2018). More knowledge on gender equality is now aiding in addressing the taboo our society has regarding rights of women and it also enlightens public regarding the importance of equality among the genders. Shaw (2015) states that culture and education are fundamentally the most important aspects of breeding equality within the societal forum. Mpofu (2016) articulates the fact that gender equality activism is more important within the African context in order to shift what has been culturally ingrained in people that males are superior to their female counterparts.
Ahikire (2014) posits that feminism has boosted female acceptance by men and even their own selves, by putting light on the importance, strength and unique abilities that women have in order to eradicate the view that they are lesser. Women are considered to be the essence of life on earth, and when feminism comes into force, women are treated with their much- deserving respect and love.
The United Nations, feminist scholar Sylvia Walby (2011) and adult educators Ostrouch-Kaminska and Vieira (2014) stated that despite the gains of the feminist movement, gendered regimes remain stubbornly intact in Africa within social and cultural organisation and functioning, politics, institutions, educational spaces, and male-female interpersonal relationships.
Ahikire (2014) states that in Nigeria educational structures do not make it easy for individual teachers to perform gender-sensitive educational work. Leadership positions at many adult education institutes are still occupied by men, while teachers are predominantly women–who are often employed precariously. “Gender mainstreaming” is all too often discounted as a continuing education requirement and not as a reason for organizational development or structural reform. In these traditional structures it is difficult for an individual teacher to live out a different and encouraging image together with course participants. Adult education is challenged as a sector to progress towards greater social justice over the course of hopefully advancing structural professionalization.
It is no secret that males (and others who benefit from systems of privilege in our culture, such as those who are white, middle-class, or able-bodied) are often chosen for leadership positions over females (or racial minorities, members of the working class, or people with disabilities) in the professional world of work. But they are also more often in leadership roles, either overtly or covertly, in less formal situations, such as in voluntary organizations, in social gatherings, and, as we have seen in the above vignette, in the adult education classroom (Walby, 2011). It is not necessarily that these males consciously “take over” the groups in which they participate, or that women (or members of those less privileged populations cited above) consciously acquiesce or set the males up to be in leadership positions instead of themselves.
This process of putting (mostly white) men in either informal or formal leadership positions is instead more unconscious in nature. It is probably a result of the fact that we are, after all, accustomed to having men in leadership positions in all places in our society (Mpofu, 2016). The adult education classroom is no exception. Men, especially white men, have been socialized to be in leadership roles. Not only do they often willingly volunteer for such roles, but they also have been socialized to speak with a more authoritative style than women, which makes them more likely to be chosen for such roles. Women, on the other hand, have been socialized to be in support roles, to defer to men, and to take care of people, sometimes at their own expense (Salo et al., 2018). They may contribute to the process of putting men in leadership roles by suggesting a particular man for one of those roles, especially if they perceive that he wants to be in that role, in order to take care of him. Or women can simply refuse to volunteer for a variety of reasons. No matter what the reasons are, the reality is clear: In general, males and those who benefit from greater privilege in our society because of their race, class, age, or experience have more power than do women, racial minorities, and members of the working class in the adult education classroom (David, 2016). The question is, What can be or is being done about it?
The question of how best to educate for social and/or cultural transformation has no easy answer. It has long been an issue for adult educators interested in emancipatory education. The recent feminist literature offers new insights that may prove useful for adult education practitioners who try to educate for social transformation. In order to outline how feminist theory can offer new insights both to the field of gender equality and to those educators interested in educating for social transformation various things need to be discussed.
A notable strength of the Feminist philosophy is that it emphasizes a woman’s ability to be, do, and become whoever she wants to become. This philosophy encourages women to highly regard inter-subjectivity as a positive discourse; inter-subjectivity being the balance of finding meaning within one’s self via a multitude of interpersonal relationships (Mpofu, 2016). Inter-subjectivity acknowledges that women’s interpersonal relationships serve as resources for learning and knowing oneself. The focus is on inter-subjectivity as alerting women to their common bond with other women. Inter-subjectivity is a protection thwarting objectification of others and a reminder that other individuals are entitled to their personal expressions of self. Nevertheless, while the urgency of putting individual women at the forefront seems justified, it seems that a tall order has been handed to women. Women are asked to look deep inside themselves for a great majority of answers without the consideration of social and cultural effects. Although women are encouraged to accept the freedom to look at their individual needs, this tunnel vision may sometimes put additional pressure on some women to solve life’s problems on their own. In addition, another concern for women is the need to acknowledge that this process of being, doing, and becoming may be encumbered with varied degrees of power struggles in relation to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, historical and/or cultural expectations that this philosophical stance does not address (David, 2016).
Freire’s (1989) as cited by Shaw (2015) concepts, based on his theory of oppression, appear to be more widely heralded within adult education as a philosophy that equalizes the power imbalances between teacher and student. The overall goal of Freire’s perspective is social emancipation via a collective force of individuals’ political questioning and strengthening. It is clear that the primary challenge to women’s learning and knowing occurs at the intersections of multiple systems of privilege and oppression. Therefore, the primary purpose of adult education under the framework of feminist emancipatory philosophy is social change. This philosophy is about women working together via fervent communication pathways to confront social injustice and inequity, in order to develop better ways of living and knowing within society (Shaw, 2015).
Shaw (2015) suggests that within this tradition women must rest upon their shifting positionality, which encumbers their historical, political and cultural lives. Within the feminist philosophy a foundation of difference is acknowledged among and between women, whereby these differences are viewed as a collective strength for social change. Women are encouraged to deconstruct master/patriarchial narratives, in order to make sense of new ways of learning, knowing and being within society.
Much of the work on women and adult education is characterised by a focus on the under-representation of women and the role of adult education as a vehicle for transformation for those women (Mpofu, 2016) However, many examples of research are characterised by uncontested claims about the particular nature of women’s education and unsupported ideas about the characteristics of women learners.
Ultimately, the goal of gender equality is to forward the cause of women because men are already on higher social, cultural, and economic pedestal. In many words, gender equality researchers argue that there should be a shift in focus from research on women (that is, on women as the object of research) to research for women. In some cases, researchers have seen the relationship and ultimate empowerment of the women they are researching as a principal part of the research; in others, researchers have been content with using their research results to serve equality agendas which acknowledge women as equal to men or promote women’s perspectives.
While some feminist research in African culture has been concerned with establishing the condition of women’s lives from which these changes can take place, others have been much more directly involved in action research projects which have tried to change women’s lives – in other words, they have been involved in praxis (Mpofu, 2016). Of course, much of the practice of gender equality is concerned with the empowerment of women.
Luttrell, W., 1989. Working-class women’s ways of knowing: Effects of gender, race, and class. Sociology of Education, pp.33-46.
Salo, E., Moodley, A., Madlala, Ν. and Kemp, A., 2018. The Dawn of a New Day: Redefining South African Feminism. In The Challenge Of Local Feminisms (pp. 131-162). Routledge.
David, M.E., 2016. Feminism, gender and universities: Politics, passion and pedagogies. Routledge.
Walby, S., 2011. Is the knowledge society gendered?. Gender, Work & Organization, 18(1), pp.1-29.
Ahikire, J., 2014. African feminism in context: Reflections on the legitimation battles, victories and reversals. Feminist Africa, 19, pp.7-23.
Krook, M.L., 2017. Violence against women in politics. Journal of Democracy, 28(1), pp.74-88.
Shaw, C.M., 2015. Women and Power in Zimbabwe: Promises of Feminism. University of Illinois Press.
Mpofu, S., 2016. Blogging, feminism and the politics of participation: the case of Her Zimbabwe. In Digital Activism in the Social Media Era (pp. 271-294). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.