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Women x Education = The Survival of the Human Race

05/04/2015 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

The margins of her reading assignment are filled with delicate pencil markings in the Bengali alphabet of her homeland. She has defined dozens of words she has looked up on every page: pampered, herbage, oppressors, sycophants. I wondered at the time she must have spent just looking up all those words. Her assignment is an article written in 18th century English, packed with archaic metaphors and long-lost literary devices that now sound foreign even to native English speakers, like her fellow classmates (whom she had already asked for help before coming to me).

She has read a summary of the assigned article online and comprehends the ideas, but the dense written English of Great Britain from two-plus centuries past is a puzzle to her. She has three other courses to worry about and is falling behind in them as she frets over this one assignment. I feel the concentration burning behind her serious eyes set deeply in her heart-shaped face. She takes detailed notes in English, paying attention to my every word. She desperately wants to learn and to understand these ideas.

She convinced her parents to leave Bangladesh and come to America for a better life. They didn't want to come. She holds a job so she can afford school. Her parents want her to find a husband and forget about getting an education. To keep what little financial aid she has, she must keep her grades up. In this two-year program in the Bronx, she must pass a 100-level English class. She has come to me in the school's writing center for help in understanding a Mary Wollstonecroft chapter entitled "Of the Pernicious Effects Which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society." Wollstonecraft's words fly like Wonder Woman's "lasso of truth" through 223 years of history and across the Atlantic to yank me off me feet and wake up my mind:

"There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind are chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride."

Over two centuries ago these words were written. How many women the world over are still chained to the bottom by fate? The fate of being born a woman. As Wollstonecraft points out, it is not just women who will benefit by their liberation but all of society. And there is NO morality without equality for women. This concept-so radical in 1792-is still far from being realized even today.

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(Edward Blake frontispiece to Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life)

More of the world needs Wollstonecroft's message. We need more world leaders like Gro Harlem Brundtland, the ex-president of Norway and former general-director of the World Health Organization. When I first heard Brundtland speak in person several years ago, I was embarrassed that I had known nothing of her previously. She had lots of statistics to show that in those countries where women are more equal, life is healthier, safer, and more prosperous. With a group called The Elders, she has worked with Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu and others on such projects as "Girls not Brides," to end the harmful practice of child brides. Brundtland says:

"Women will not become more empowered merely because we want them to be, but through legislative changes, increased information, and redirection of resources. It would be fatal to overlook this issue."

Fatal. Inequality is fatal to our very existence on this planet.

Where do we start? In our backyard, we can support President Obama's initiative to make community colleges free to all willing to work hard. I see first-hand at the community college where I work how these schools can make a difference. Where I teach, over 65% of the students enrolled are women. Tom Hanks wrote recently, in a moving editorial, about Obama's plan "I hope the idea sticks, because more veterans, from Iraq and Afghanistan this time, as well as another generation of mothers, single parents and workers who have been out of the job market, need lower obstacles between now and the next chapter of their lives." ("I Owe it All to Community College, New York Times, January 14, 2015).

We can elect and appoint more women who provide role models for leading women to freedom. Women like Loretta Lynch, (finally!) the new attorney general for the United States, has aggressively pursued sex traffickers as a U.S. Attorney in New York. Her grandfather was a sharecropper who helped those wrongly accused escape the Jim Crow laws of the South. Her great-great-grandmother was a slave.

"The sex trafficking of young girls and women is modern-day slavery," declared Lynch. "We will do everything in our power to eradicate it." ("New Attorney General Loretta Lynch Is Sex Traffickers' Worst Nightmare," The Daily Beast, April 24, 2015)

Not only has she prosecuted American pimps but she has extradited sex traffickers from across the border to get them stiff sentences in Brooklyn.

Not far from where I am teaching, Sonia Sotomayor grew up in a housing project in the Bronx. Her mother Celina stretched the family budget to buy the Encyclopedia Britannica and inspired her daughter to value education. On her way to becoming the first Latina Supreme Court justice (and third female justice), Sotomayor had to work hard and be strong. When a law firm recruiter asked if she gained entry to Yale Law School because she is Puerto Rican, she pushed back and filed a complaint.

Lynch and Sotomayor and other women have started to pry open the doors of power. Despite the fact, however, that enrollment for women is greater than men on many college campuses, it is also true that men still earn more for the same work. And far fewer women major in science and engineering. The answer to some of these problems may be far simpler than imagined. How do we attract more female engineers? It turns out that women want to design things like affordable solutions to clean drinking water and invent medical diagnostic equipment for neglected tropical diseases. By offering programs that attempt to achieve societal good, universities find more women than men sign up. "It is not just about gender equity - it is about doing better engineering for us all." ("How to Attract Female Engineers," New York Times, April 27, 2015).

For the second time during our 50-minute session, the young woman wipes her kohl-rimmed lids as black streaks follow the tears down her cheeks. She apologizes for crying. She explains why she is so stressed out. I want to hug her, but instead offer strong words of encouragement: you are smart; you are strong; these are difficult things; and you are doing them. I feel the sadness reflected in her eyes: how hard she tries, how many hours she puts in, how little support she gets at home.

She returns two weeks later, no more tears, with an even more determined look on her face, as she tackles a Bell Hooks reading about the history of the white male patriarchy that pits black women and white women against each other. She smiles when I try to lighten the conversation as we plow into heavy material. Her determination fills me with wonder and awe. How resilient she is! Mary Wollstonecraft would be proud.