As Women’s History Month comes to a close, I reflect on my new career path with Washington School for Girls. I am proud to join a team that has high expectations for girls, encouraging more advanced opportunities to learn and progress. I specifically reflect on women’s contributions in the classroom and the role they have played in shaping the education system at large. I think of the opening scene in the film Hidden Figures, where the female teacher of a young Katherine Johnson recognizes her talent and arranges for her acceptance and scholarship at a more rigorous school. She tells Katherine’s parents, “You have to see what she becomes.” One woman made a difference for a young girl. But that story truly began many generations earlier, when women’s courage and perseverance catapulted the fight for the right to an education for women and girls, including Black women and girls.
The Washington School for Girls is built on the philosophies of women who dedicated their lives to fighting for educational equity for girls: during and after the French Revolution, Claudine Thevenet worked to educate girls who had been orphaned by the conflict so that they could become self-sufficient; Cornelia Connelly was an innovative educator who believed in educating young women and launched a legacy of all-girls schools in the 19th century; and Mary McLeod Bethune founded numerous schools for Black students who would otherwise not have access to education while also advocating politically for increased opportunities for Black people. So often throughout history, women have led the charge for educational equity, demanding a seat in the classroom, or when not given one, creating their own learning communities.
Black women and girls served at the forefront of desegregation, laying the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education, and were some of the greatest architects during the plight for justice. The fight for educational equality was an inevitable catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement: the segregation of schools further perpetuated racial inequality and injustices, as Black schools were often under-equipped with inadequate conditions for learning. Black girls and women found themselves taking on the responsibility of advocating for change, as they committed themselves to bringing the issues of segregation to the courts. Families began independently filing lawsuits demanding the desegregation of schools, with a substantial portion of them filed on behalf of or by girls and young women.
However, too often the role that girls and young women played in the desegregation of schools goes unnoticed. They selflessly walked through angry mobs and sat in what was once an all-white classroom in the pursuit of integration. Amongst these hidden figures was a young girl, Ruby Bridges, who became one of the first African Americans to integrate an elementary school in the south. Ruby Bridges’ integration was not without challenge. The isolation, sabotage, and violence that Ruby experienced is the story of many young girls today. Last summer, the “Black @” social media movement allowed Black students to anonymously expose the many instances of racism that they experience at primarily white schools, even those schools with proactive administrations committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
Thanks to phenomenal women in history, Black girls have made tremendous strides in the fight for inclusion, however, our communities continue to face educational inequity. The issues that affect Black girls' social, emotional, and spiritual growth are prevalent. The stereotypes associated with Black girls further perpetuate disparate discipline practices in schools, and oftentimes administrations’ tainted views of Black girls continue to create systemic barriers, impeding girls’ educational success and self-perception. While women still dominate the education field in the K-12 space, only 34% of university professors are women, and Black women hold less than 3% of tenured positions. As inspired as I am by the impact women have had in education, there is more work to do to ensure that the future of women and girls in schools is brighter.
Black girls need classrooms where they can simply thrive. We are called at WSG to ensure that girls have a safe space to be seen and heard by our community, and to cultivate an environment of support. Our mission, to ignite the joyful pursuit of learning and inspire faith-filled lives of purpose, leadership, and service, is inspired by gratitude for the bold and courageous women who have come before us, and our belief that each of our girls can and will shape the future. We rely on the collaboration and engagement of our community to push forth these efforts. We alone cannot solve the systemic gender and racial inequities in education: the work must continue at all levels, from the teachers in each classroom across the country, to the leadership of schools and school districts, to the philanthropists who invest in our education systems and our politicians who create education policy. We must continue to address the educational barriers that slow the advancement of girls and women in education.
Women’s History Month is almost over, but the future is female.