- Hearing Women’s Voices in General Education
“The voice of women needs to be heard” because “when we truly take their lives seriously it changes our whole understanding of who we are and what we are called to become” (Chilcote 10). The revolutionary impact of feminist theory and practice in all areas of contemporary culture illustrates the world-transforming potential of women’s voices. It is now essential to any liberal education, as well as to the intellectual development of individual women students, that women’s voices be richly and intentionally integrated into general education core skills and knowledge requirements, beyond gender and women’s studies programs. Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, one of about fifty women’s colleges remaining in the United States, has designed a new general education structure, the Sophia Program in Liberal Learning, which foregrounds women’s voices in precisely this way.1 Our general model and the lessons we have learned in implementing it are easily adaptable to coeducational and/or secular institutions, even though our distinctive identity as a Catholic women’s college has shaped the specific details of our curriculum.
The women’s voices requirement is a “cognitive and communicative skill” that does not add credit hours. Rather, students typically fulfill it by taking courses that also fulfill one of the four general education area requirements: “science for the citizen,” “arts for living,” “cultures and systems,” and “traditions and worldviews.” I say “typically” because a strength of our new general education program is its flexible responsiveness to each individual student’s desire to construct her own education. Students are required to have a total of four women’s voices learning experiences, but only three of them must be three-credit courses taken from at least three of the four general education areas.
These areas are represented by the four arms of the French cross, a graphic design taken from the college seal (see Figure 1, next page). The fourth women’s voices learning experience may also be a course, but, alternatively, it may also be an out-of-class learning experience, such as volunteering at Sex Offense Services (S.O.S.), a local sexual assault prevention, and victim assistance, agency. Many Saint Mary’s students currently volunteer [End Page 1] at S.O.S. and similar nonprofit groups that focus on the needs of local women. We believe that students learn more richly and deeply from such voluntarism if they are also challenged to apply and fulfill women’s voices learning outcomes in the context of their freely chosen commitments to support and empower other women. We also think it right to give students academic credit for integrating research, theory, and critical analysis into their service to the community.
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Although a women’s voices requirement for all students is arguably the most innovative aspect of general education at Saint Mary’s, it is grounded in our oldest traditions. Saint Mary’s educates women to make a positive difference in the world, a difference that develops organically out of each individual woman’s honest understanding of her distinctive gifts and her firm confidence in her power to do good. To cultivate these qualities, students need as many diverse women role models, historical and contemporary, as we can present to them. They must also learn to recognize and analyze the forms and effects of gender prejudice, so as to view both themselves and other women more accurately and respectfully than patriarchal culture has historically viewed them. With such an education, students are better equipped to resist and overcome the obstacles of sexism, and thus to make the best and most fulfilling use of their gifts for the common good.
Other institutions’ pioneering models helped us to recognize that women’s voices could not be assumed to permeate our students’ education just because Saint Mary’s is a women’s college. On the contrary, without a specific women’s voices general education requirement for all, women’s voices would be at risk of remaining marginal and optional for many of our women students. So, we were encouraged to learn that, among other...