Lenham: Lexington Books, 2015, 289 pp.
Reviewed by Jayne Howell (California State University Long Beach)
Sociologist Wendy Geller’s Rural Young Women, Education and Socio-Spatial Mobility: Landscapes of Success speaks to the importance of schooling and skilled employment as critical components of women’s empowerment in the 21st century. A crucial underlying basis for the research is that globally, levels of women’s education are on the rise, with female students pursuing higher education outnumbering males in a number of industrialized nations. Geller contextualizes her research into high school girls’ attitudes and career plans within a sophisticated overarching framework that weaves globalization perspectives with debates about constructions of the self, social reproduction in stratified societies, and mobility (both social and geographic). This allows her to argue that changing economic systems and expansion of transportation and communications networks in the early 21st century have spurred and facilitated students’ dreams for their adult lives, which often result in them leaving their rural communities in Vermont and the district of Leinester, Ireland (which is home to Dublin). Her concluding chapters situate gendered issues within this larger context.
Early in the text, she reminds readers that education is “one of the most powerful agents of social change we have” (14) and an institution that serves to help reinforce the status quo. In her analysis of 29 interviews, 39 take home questionnaires and 138 free-write essays from students attending a total of seven schools (29), she incorporates Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of capital, habitus and social fields to identify the “structural constraints,” types of familial backgrounds and support, and personal “agency” and motivations that shape high school students’ career and life goals. She contends that students “psychic landscapes of social class”contributes to their differing perspectives on the importance of schooling and life goals (46).
Her analysis of data relative to the demographics of diverse bodies leads her to divide her research population into two distinct groups: Planners and Dreamers. Planners, who are mostly of blue-collar backgrounds and whose parents typically do not have university studies, prioritized education and have clear career goals that entail leaving the community to study. Due to the lack of gainful employment in their home communities, they were aware that they might leave home permanently. In contrast, Dreamers tend to come from “white-collar” households headed by professionals with college education, and spoke and wrote of their desires to remain in and contribute to their communities, at times in activities that would not require advanced education.
In addition to the contrasts between Planners and Dreamers, Vermont and Ireland, rural and urban locales, and students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, Geller is interested in gendered differences. Chapter Five, “Resources, Family and Parental Relationships” may be of the greatest interest to AFA members and other feminist scholars. Geller expands here upon gendered patterns she has referenced earlier in the text concerning how femininity and masculinity play into students’ identities and plans. Specifically, she explains a fundamental difference between the Planner and Dreamer girls: outlooks. The Planners are imbued with a sense of “can-do girlhood” and a belief that they can become successful “career women.” At the risk of oversimplifying the argument, Dreamer girls view a “fulfilling” future as one that involves having a family, and supporting it and their communities in varying ways. Planner girls are instead imbued with a desire to be “career women” who might never marry, and would either delay or forego motherhood to ensure that they were successful in their employment (166-168). An interesting finding is that boys in her population also saw having a family as key to their future happiness, with many expressing a desire to be good providers for their children (216-217). In Chapter Six (“’Success in Rural Schools”) Geller notes another important gender distinction: Whereas Planner girls attributed their success in school to their “hard work,” boys were more likely to chalk their academic achievements to their talent and knowledge (202).
It is heartening that Geller asserts that “feminism as a prescription for change may be at work here” when she discusses the Planner girls’ goals (169), and provides statistical evidence and references relevant studies to support her claims about the importance of rural schooling. Similarly, in an era when hand wringing about rising unemployment and possible disenfranchisement among contemporary youth are consistent in scholarship and popular culture alike, Geller’s findings that these students’ desire for “material security, personal autonomy … and self-efficiency” as members of a “knowledgeable” labor force (165) are encouraging. However, there are a few limitations in this predominantly quantitative study. The first is that, as Geller notes, the cross-sectional approach means that we do not now the outcomes of these adolescents’ plans and dreams, including if the students’ goals changed after data were collected (54). Secondly, additional narratives in the students’ own voices would enrich the detailed quantitative data. Third, an emphasis on what rural students in industrialized regions can achieve through schooling that does not recognize the lack of infrastructure and resources, and gender role stereotypes in less developed nations that can severely limit students’possibilities for schooling.
These points aside, Geller’s contention that schooling can enable agentive women to resist notions of marriage and motherhood as the only options for adult women may indeed reflect a challenge to the dominant patriarchy in both nations where she conducted research (236-237). This message is especially timely given that as this book was in press as the 2015 United Nations Millennium Goals – which included calls for universal education and gender parity – were reconfigured as the Sustainable Development Goals. The continuing stated mission of promoting gender equity and social justice through, among other means, quality education aims to give women greater voice in economic, political and social arenas (http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/).
Jayne Howell is Professor of Anthropology and Co-Director of the Latin American Studies Program at California State University Long Beach. She has conducted ethnographic research regarding schooling and employment opportunities in the Mexican state of Oaxaca for the past quarter century. She has identified structural and gender role ideals that have presented obstacles to women’s schooling, as well as successful individual and household strategies that allow women to complete professional studies. She has also documented the experiences of informal sector works who lack formal education. She is currently president of the Society for Urban, National, Transnational and Global Anthropology (SUNTA).