Joanne V. Creighton

SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)–As president of the oldest institution of higher learning for women in the United States, I am sometimes asked: “Is your college still single sex?”

The question seems to imply that somehow Mount Holyoke has missed the coeducational boat and is quaintly out-of-date and out-of-touch.

In truth, the College has never been more robust, nor its mission more resonant: we are committed to preparing women for global citizenship and leadership in a world where the continuing gender imbalance of power and influence is distressingly obvious.

To cite just one blatant example: American women remain woefully underrepresented in our government–ranking fifty-seventh internationally in women’s political leadership, behind Slovakia and Burundi.

In Sudan, meanwhile, a nation suffering from the ravages of civil war, only 40 percent of women can read and write. The gender gap in education is further reflected in the low number of women who participate in the labor force. As the Sudanese economy has steadily deteriorated since the 1980s, Sudanese women have been among the most vulnerable groups.

Advancing educational opportunities for women across all ethnic, racial, age and socioeconomic groups continues to be the great unfinished agenda of the 21st century. Integrally intertwined with that is an even more pressing issue and a much larger agenda, that of social justice for girls and women worldwide.

Summer Summit

To address these important issues, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges recently co-hosted the conference Women’s Education Worldwide 2004: The Unfinished Agenda, which brought together to our campuses 47 leaders from 29 women’s colleges and universities from five continents.

Held in early June, the meeting included the leaders of long-established and new institutions.

As well as representatives from our American “sisters,” leaders of the women’s colleges of Cambridge University (New Hall and Lucy Cavendish) and the University of Sydney, Japan Women’s University, and Ewha University in Korea were also there, along with those from 2-year-old Kiriri Women’s University of Science and Technology in Kenya; 5-year-old Effat College in Saudi Arabia, and, still in the planning stages, Asian University for Women, to be located in Bangladesh.

Together for the first time–with great esprit de corps and a sense of collective purpose–we vowed to collaborate and support each other.

While recognizing the wide variance among our institutions in age, size, wealth and circumstances, we also acknowledged how the severity and nature of the challenges to women’s education and advancement vary around the world.

Amid that, we still found much common ground.

We could agree, for example, in the need to develop students’ self-confidence and leadership capabilities and to combat gender inequity, discrimination and cultural barriers to women’s educational access, including educational affordability.

Preparing Women for Leadership

Dr. Haifa Reda Jamal Al-Lail, dean of Effat College in Saudi Arabia, said that educators at her college “think about what women lack with respect to the political arena” and affirmed her institution’s commitment to a deeper discussion about preparing women for leadership.

Kyungsook Lee, president of Sookmyung Women’s University in Korea, spoke of her institution’s success in working with corporations to develop leadership training programs and in using the Internet to reach women who would otherwise not have access to education.

Carol Christ, president of Smith College, commented on the shortage of women in science and engineering. Professor Sheila Widnall of MIT emphasized this same concern in a keynote address about the great need and opportunity for women in those fields.

In his inspirational keynote address, “What’s the Point of Women’s Education?” Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen encouraged us to think of women’s education both broadly and politically. He argued that basic education for women holds the potential for “facilitating radical social and economic changes that are so badly needed in our problem-ridden world.”

Continuing Collaboration

While outcomes from this historic conference are still unfolding, clearly our collaboration will continue. We are keeping in touch electronically, developing a Web site, and forming a planning committee.

Colleges from around the world have volunteered to host the next meeting in two or three years. Student and faculty exchange programs among the institutions are taking shape.

Our goal is to be a powerful force in developing a new generation of women with the global perspective, knowledge, and skills to bring radical change to the status of girls and women across the world.

In a call to action at the end of the meeting, Johnnetta Cole, president of Bennett College, an historically black college in Greensboro, N.C., invoked Margaret Mead’s memorable words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; in fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Joanne V. Creighton is president of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.