Women’s Schooling and Literacy

Around 1980, the first demographic evidence became available suggesting that, in a variety of developing countries, women’s schooling was robustly associated not only with lower fertility but also with reduced (post-infancy) child mortality and increased use of health services. “Robust” in this context means that the associations did not disappear when income, father’s schooling, and “socioeconomic status,” however measured, were statistically controlled. (The associations of women’s schooling with infant mortality did disappear when income and father’s schooling were controlled, indicating that the death of infants was more dependent on domestic economic resources than that of older children.) Results from the World Fertility Survey during the 1980s confirmed the original findings, so that by 1988 it was clear that sending girls to school could generate a major demographic transition to lower birth and death rates. But the mechanism or processes involved remained mysterious.

(The American demographic research establishment of the time—consisting of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Population, the Population Council in New York, and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations—had already acquired support from USAID for a multi-million dollar research program on The Determinants of Fertility in Developing Countries, beginning in 1980. The demographers knew that they needed someone in the field of education to explore the mystery of women’s schooling, and since I was at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and had already published an article, “Influences of women’s schooling on maternal behavior in the Third World,” in Comparative Education Review, my research group received a grant of $250,000 to conduct studies on the subject. )

We were far from clear how to answer the basic question of what accounts for the correlations across different parts of the world, but as anthropologists we were convinced it could be done through field work. The story of our four-country study, beginning in Mexico, continuing in Zambia and Venezuela, and concluding in Nepal, is told in our 2012 book, Literacy and Mothering: How Women’s Schooling Changes the Lives of the World’s Children (Oxford University Press) which has recently been published in paperback, with an updated preface. The study as a whole took almost 30 years to complete, could not have been done without our graduate student collaborators, but several points about it are noteworthy:

First, the “women’s schooling effect” as a widespread demographic finding is as striking in the 21st century as it was in 1980, and it has spread to more countries that were late to the demographic transition.

Second, after almost a decade of field research in Mexico and analysis of Mexican data, we were convinced by our Mexican students from Harvard to focus on literacy skills as the key to understanding how mothers behave differently when they have attended school, and how their levels of school attainment predict their behavior as mothers. We were fortunate in having experts in reading comprehension (Jeanne Chall) and other literacy skills (Catherine Snow) as our colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Our studies in rural Mexico, urban Venezuela, urban Zambia and Nepal (both rural and urban) supported the literacy hypothesis. Though the findings remain provisional until confirmed in longitudinal studies, they have generated convincing explanations of the processes involved.

We argue that the key process is internalization of the teacher-pupil relationship in the classroom, so that when a girl becomes a mother interacting with a nurse or doctor, she acts like a pupil and follows instructions. When she’s interacting with her child, she’s more likely to act like a teacher. Though we present evidence that support this conception of the process involved, we do not yet have the longitudinal evidence that would be conclusive. But we would not have come this far were we not psychological anthropologists with a toolkit of concepts like internalization.

Robert Levine is  Roy Edward Larsen Professor of Education and Human Development, Emeritus at Harvard Graduate School of Education

Cite as: Levine, Robert. 2017. “Women’s Schooling and Literacy.” Anthropology News website, July 5, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.479

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