Women as national education chiefs

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is the first woman Minister of Education in France, in office since 2014 in the second half of François Hollande’s presidency. (Before becoming Minister of Education she was also the Minister for Women’s Rights and subsequently also Minister for Youth, Sports and of Urban Affairs; it turns out she isn’t the first French Minister of Education to use Twitter.) She was born in Morocco (and has had to think plenty about eluding the “diversity” pigeonhole); I’ve long been struck by her charisma as a public speaker (which isn’t to say that her political projects have always been unproblematic, needless to say).

In any case, I came across a recent interview in which she makes an interesting comment on the cultural value of education in France:

I’ll transcribe:

— Vous êtes la première femme ministre nationale de l’Education dans la République. On a un problème avec les femmes en politique!

— Ça va mieux quand même! Non mais je commence toujours par faire un diagnostique qui se veut relativement positif, parce que sinon, c’est déprimant et jsuis pas là (?) pour être décliniste. Je fais pas partie des gens — et il y en a plein dans le paysage politique actuel — qui croient que c’était mieux autrefois. Euh non. Par exemple sur la question que vous m’êtes posée, autrefois, les femmes, elles étaient nulle part. Le fait qu’il a fallu attendre 2014 pour avoir une femme Ministre de l’Education, ce sur quoi ça en dit long, c’est en fait comment dans notre pays on perçoit l’éducation. On perçoit l’éducation comme un vrai levier de pouvoir. Et c’est pour ça qu’on n’y a pas mis de femmes. Parce que, malgré tout, on continue à donner le vrai pouvoir aux hommes.

— Vous pensez que c’est pour ça ? Vraiment ?

— Ouais, oui fondamentalement je pense que c’est ça. Même si je pense que parfois ça s’est joué inconsciemment.

In English this comes out to:

— You are the first woman National Minister of Education in the Republic. We have a problem with women in politics!

— Oh, but it’s getting better. No I mean, I always start out with a relatively positive assessment, because otherwise, it’s depressing, and I’m not here to be a defeatist. I’m not one of those people — and there are lots of them in the current political landscape — who believe that formerly it was better. Uh no. For example, with the question you’ve asked me, formerly, women, they were nowhere. And the fact that we had to wait until 2014 to have a woman Minister of Education, it speaks volumes about how our country perceives education. We perceive education as a real instrument of power. And that’s why they didn’t put women there. Because, in spite of everything, they continue to give the real power to the men.

— You think that’s what it is? Really?

— Yeah, yes, basically I think it’s that. Even if I think that sometimes it works unconsciously.

So basically, Vallaud-Belkacem’s view is that it’s because we respect the power of education that we haven’t had a woman minister of education before. Within the familiar patriarchal logic that she evokes, women are by definition low-status, so they must be kept out of roles that are high-status; masculine exclusivity thereby becomes a sign of societal esteem.

The comparative question that immediately comes to my mind is: What’s the gender history of the U.S. equivalent role, the federal Secretary of Education? It turns out (I didn’t know this) that the U.S. Department of Education was created by Carter in 1979-80, and that the very first Secretary of Education was a woman, Shirley Hufstedler. The job was then monopolized by men from 1981-2005; after which there have been two women in office, Margaret Spellings in George W. Bush’s second term and Betsy DeVos under Trump. Nevertheless, neither GWB nor Trump put education at the center of their political or ideological projects (though No Child Left Behind was admittedly a large educational intervention early in GWB’s term).

In short, a cursory comparison seems to confirm Vallaud-Belkacem’s intuition. The United States has had several women Secretaries of Education and simultaneously it values education less as a zone of national politics than France does. This value difference is, however, also partly an organizational artifact, since in France but not in the U.S., public education is directly part of the state apparatus. It seems to make sense that since public education is somewhat decentralized in the U.S. context, the national education bureaucracy would be diminished in symbolic value.