As I mentioned in my last post, in addition to the reasons espoused by mainstream educators in favor of including women in the canon, Waldorf teachers also need to consider inclusion from the standpoint of Rudolf Steiner’s writings and philosophy. Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education, had much to say about nearly everything (agriculture, spirituality, banking, architecture, art, sport, health… the list can seem nearly infinite). It’s not my intention here to investigate or defend every aspect of Steiner’s thought. Rather, I’d like to re-cap some of Steiner’s main observations about gender and muse upon what they might have to say about the issue of inclusion in the classroom.
First of all, it’s important to note that Steiner explicitly addressed what he called “The Women’s Question” in several different places, most notably, his lecture “Woman and Society” (Die Frauenfrage), given in November of 1906. On that occasion he stated point blank that the question of women’s inclusion into hitherto unintegrated portions of society “is one of the greatest present questions of our culture,” and observed that the issue involved much more than simply the admission of women into higher education and the professions, or even the question of universal suffrage. Rather, he noted, “the issue concerning women embraces an economic, a social, and a psychological side, and many other aspects as well.” If these two statements alone aren’t an incentive for Waldorf teachers to be diligent about the inclusion of women in the canon, I don’t know what is!
As anyone who knows Steiner’s work will attest, the man often first takes the prevailing wisdom of the day to task by pointing out its own internal contradictions, then later, adds his own penetrating insight into the mix. In this lecture, after laying out what was at stake, he considers a number of the prevailing theories concerning women, correctly observing that in most cases they directly contradict each other. Moreover, he goes on, if we were to look at the scientists’ and psychologists’ conclusions about women (namely, at that time, that men were the active, creative ones and women the natural followers), we would find that they are severely limited by the narrow data they collect.
Investigation of other times and cultures, he states, would reveal women who participate in what we define as “masculine” work. This observation about the cultural and temporal context of gender roles might seem commonplace to us now. However, at the time, it was incredibly advanced. It’s hard to imagine Havelock Ellis or any of the other contemporary luminaries he mentions accepting that their theories might be culturally limited. Furthermore, he points out (and this is an especially important point for us historians), the concept of “Woman,” even within a given culture, is itself “an unacceptable generalization.” Which women? Where? In what contexts? Are we talking lower- or upper-classes? Steiner insists we be specific.
And then even further, he argues: if we investigate “influential” women and conclude there are very few of them out there, aren’t we being confined by our own cultural assumptions of what constitutes “influence?” We need to examine our own inherent biases–towards privileging public spheres over private, political power/voting over other ways of exercising influence. If we have only confronted the issue of women’s inclusion in these last hundred years or so, that is because our culture is itself both the creator and product of conditions in which it is possible to think about arenas such as “the political” or “the academic” as abstract entities, within which the equally abstract notion of “human rights” (applicable to both male and female) can be applied.
Here, my mind immediately went to the somewhat dismissively-named “harem intrigues” that seem to be so frequently alluded to in historians’ discussions of both ancient and contemporary polygamous court cultures. Quite honestly, I doubt that a ruler ousted by the mother or wife of a half-sibling or other potential rival felt much difference between a female-led “intrigue” and a male-led military coup. In either case, at the end of the day, said ruler was out.
I find it exhilarating to think that Steiner understood power itself to be culturally constructed–an observation that puts him in the best post-structuralist company. He’d be right at home, for example, with Michel Foucault’s notion of power as “relations…interwoven with other kinds of relations (production, kinship, family, sexuality) for which they play at once a conditioning and a conditioned role).” (1) I like to think of them, in an alternate universe, sitting at the Café de Flore (upstairs in the smoke-filled back room, of course), discussing relations of power and human subjectivity.
But, to return to the subject at hand…
Towards the end of the lecture, Steiner moves from considering the various culturally determined aspects of the “woman question” (class, time period, societal context, etc.) into what he considers the heart of the matter– the essential nature of the human being.
And that’s where I’ll leave you hanging, dear readers, until my next entry.
(1) Michel Foucault, “Power and Strategies” in Power and Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, p. 142.