Modern advocates for social change could take lessons from the strategy used by early feminists to combat discrimination and promote higher education for women. In a recently published book, Carol Strauss Sotiropoulos explores how European reformists creatively and subversively used Romantic prose, fictional narratives, and patriotic rhetoric to advance their cause. The title is Early Feminists and the Education Debates: England, France, Germany, 1760-1810 (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press).
During the period covered in the book, girls' education was limited to the training required to fulfill their domestic role. Sotiropoulos, a Northern Michigan University professor, illustrates the dominant mentality of the era by quoting Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "Woman is made specially to please man … and to be subjugated." The challenge reformists faced was how to argue for broadening education in a way that would gain a responsive audience, not to mention private and state support.
To prevent alienating the men in power – from government officials to doctors to professors – Sotiropoulos said feminist writers used a variety of genres to advance their argument. These included ladies' periodicals, fictional letters, essays, petitions, curricular proposals, and plans for national education.
The authors tried to subversively discredit theories about the alleged differences between male and female brains that prevented women from reasoning the same as men. Sotiropoulos said the issue remains relevant, given the recent controversy over the suggestion that innate differences between genders might explain why there are relatively few female scientists or engineers.
"Many of the reformists invoked the idea of the ‘maternal educator' to make their views more palatable and gain approval," she said. "For example, they would state that mothers needed to be educated so that they could teach their sons to be good citizens. Or they might lobby for mothers to chaperone their daughters to school as a guise for getting women into the classroom. They adapted and reshaped the strategies being used by their opposition."
Sotiropoulos resurrects the writings of 10 women and two men whose voices surfaced during the struggle for equal access. The most widely known was Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. The manifesto-like treatise called for the overhaul of women's education in Britain and became a landmark piece referenced by succeeding generations. In the same year, the oft-neglected German advocate Theodore von Hippel wrote On Improving the Status of Women. Sotiropoulos calls him "the most astounding radical feminist of the era," especially considering he was a close friend of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was "no friend to women."
Sotiropoulos said the book helps broaden readers' knowledge about educational reformists who have been forgotten over time and illustrates how political events can impact education policies.
"Finally, a feature relevant to all is the book's examination of subversive expression: how we use language strategically to assist us in getting our ideas accepted when we address – in writing or speech – potentially hostile audiences that wield power. My next project is to study the transatlantic path of the debates, to expand the discussion to the American context during the exciting period of the early Republic."
Sotiropoulos noted that women make up 55 percent of U.S. college enrollments today, but that this has not translated into national political representation. She said women account for 16.3 percent of the members of Congress.
Her book focuses on a period more than 200 years ago, but Sotiropoulos said there are current examples of subversive expression at work.
"One need not look too hard to see the rhetorical strategies at play in slogans such as 'sustainable development' claimed by both environmentalists and economists, or the highly charged 'support our troops,' claimed by people of all political stripes."
Early Feminists and the Education Debates was selected by Choice magazine as an outstanding academic title for 2007. Choice is the official review publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries, Division of the American Library Association.