I consider myself to be a successful woman because I went to the school and they told me that my son was the best and that he likes to study. That is a triumph for me. And then, my husband says to me, "My work is going better and better." This is also a success for me.
Yet Elena had to stop taking English classes because she could not find the time, with family responsibilities and working as a domestic labourer six days a week. She accepts that she will never return to her profession, and devotes all her energy to providing a better life for her children.
Not to conceptualize themselves as having rights, to put themselves last. whether by choice or force, and to take on the bulk of the work of the family, is typical of the women we interviewed. This is how domination is lived through the gendered practices of the family; these practices are taken to be natural and normal; it is how literacy is gendered.
When women talk of literacy, they speak of desire. They have to desire themselves to one day learn English, but most keenly they feel the desire that their children become educated. Literacy as education symbolizes hope for a better life a way out of the working class into a world of middle class culture and life-style. The dream for most is to enter this world through secretarial work, and for some through nursing or teaching. For women whose only options are field, domestic, or factory work, the world of commercial and professional practice holds the hope of being "somebody". This is what Maria means when she says, "I would like to be somebody, you know."
Yolanda, working nights as a cleaning woman, talks of saving to send her daughters to finishing school and of providing them with a superior education so that: They have the way of getting a good job, without killing themselves, without having to work in the job that I have, which is not a ...it's not a job which one can be ashamed of but its not a very clean job.
Office work is clean work; it is also the way to meet a desirable partner for those who are unmarried. It also conforms to dominant cultural images of femininity which depict slim, well-dressed, unmarried, beautiful, smiling women working in offices. This image holds out the promise of marriage to a non-macho male. Marriage is not questioned. The violence of marriage is seen in terms of machismo, not the institution itself and the power dynamic it constitutes.
The women we interviewed cannot learn enough English to move into the next strata of occupations open to them. Efforts to train women for work in the trades will be problematic unless the issue of literacy as desire is addressed. The women we interviewed do not want to be machinists; they want to be secretaries - and this work is being revolutionized by technology.
To seriously act upon the principle of literacy or learning as a right-or even a possibility- for women, we must reconceptualize "the political". Our work suffers from a splitting between the public and private which reinforces the domination of women through gendered practices. While we've begun to look into reproductive practices, we are wary of acknowledging the centrality of family, religious, and other cultural forms, or sexual practices, to women's oppression. We act as though literacy is neutral, apart from these forms, and so miss its charged dynamic for women. We must be willing to venture into the sensitive world of the supposedly private sphere; the sanctified realm of the family and church, the hidden realm of the sexual, if we are to be with women politically.
Kathleen Rockhill has been an Associate Professor in the Department of Adult Education at OISE since 1983, when she moved from Los Angeles where she was a member of the faculty at UCLA. Since coming to Canada, she has been working on developing a feminist critique of adult education. She is particularly interested in theories and practices relating to the development of feminist critical consciousness, both in education and research. Also, concerned about, differences-cultural, class, race - she continues to work with women whose experiences have not been central to feminist theorizing; currently, this concern is reflected in co-operative project with Chilean feminists.
This is an excerpt of the original version of a paper presented at the Women and Education Contemned from page 12 Conference held in Vancouver in 1986. A revised version of the complete paper will appear in "Women in Education: Perspective", edited by Jane Gaskell and Arlene McLaren, soon to be published by Detselig Enterprises Limited of Calgary.