Beyond Home Ec.: Vocational Education for Rural Girls

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Annie graduated from high school in June. She can milk a Holstein, put up two dozen quarts of beans, take care of a house full of small children, and run a metal lathe. She learned the first three skills growing up in a small Vermont town. She learned the last skill at the Area Vocational Center where she has spent her afternoons for the past two school years. She is the only female graduate of its Metal Trades Program. Now Annie is looking at her options.

Her town has one industry, a small precision-molding factory. This plant has just hired one of her classmates to fill a machine operator's position. Annie applied, too, with better grades and a strong recommendation from her teacher. Her uncle, a foreman at the plant, told her he thought they'd never hire a girl for anything but spot-welding, no matter how well qualified. She has heard she could get work with a big company in a city, but she went to Boston once and can't imagine living there. Her boyfriend Al, who works as a logger with his father, wouldn't agree to it anyway. He thinks that they should marry, and that Annie should stay home with their kids. Annie's parents agree. So does she, in a way; she looks forward to being a good wife and a mother, but she knows she and Al will need two incomes to have the nice home they dream about.

What Annie would really like to do is open her own custom tool shop; Al could build a little workshop right at their house. But she knows nothing about financing or running a business; she has no idea where to begin. Right now, she's lucky to have a job as cashier at the village grocery store. The cold-rolled steel plumb bob she made as a final project in metal trades sits on her bedroom dresser. She wonders if she will ever make another.

Annie's case illustrates the complex dilemmas facing young rural women in vocational-education programs. Some of Annie's problems are shared by other segments of the population. Young people across the country are anxious to have practical skills for competing in a tight job market. Increasing numbers of women face the conflict of full-time roles in the workplace and at home. Many of them also confront the choice between accepting the low-paying, dead-end jobs traditionally reserved for women or proving themselves and overcoming discrimination in male-dominated fields.

For young people like Annie, however, these conflicts take on an especially intense quality. The vocational preparation of girls in rural areas presents a particular challenge to educators, who must understand and respect rural conditions before attempting to plan for change.

Regional variations cause great diversity in the experience of America's 25 million rural women, but there are some common trends. As a group, rural women tend to be strongly family-oriented; they value the roles of wife and mother and accept traditional divisions of labor within the household. Although this conservative orientation might not be surprising among older women, rural high-school-age girls also give marriage a high priority and say that they expect to run their households and raise their children with little help from their male partners. The isolation of rural life can make this a particularly demanding task. Although the dawn-to-dark toil of the farm wife is less common now, with only 11 percent of rural residents engaged in farming, country housewives are less likely than urban or suburban women to have easy access to day care, supermarkets, public transportation, and other services.

Along with their commitment to the traditional family, however, rural girls exhibit high educational and achievement levels, as well as a strong career orientation. They expect to work in the paid labor force, and they expect that work to be a source of satisfaction. Often, they hope to pursue careers, such as veterinary medicine, that require extensive dedication and training.

With nearly half of all women in the labor market today, this recognition of the need to "work out" is realistic. The farm wife's egg money will not purchase much of the American consumer's dream brought to the countryside by fast highways and television. Even more compelling is the deepening economic crisis, which sends growing numbers of rural women into the work force just to make ends meet. Some of them seek independence and variety, but others have no choice; rural areas are not immune to the pressures that crack the nuclear family and swell the ranks of working single mothers.

Although their plans to work are realistic, the career aspirations of rural high-school girls tend to transcend the actual opportunities available. In fact, the rural labor market offers highly restricted choices to most women, concentrating them in low-level, poorly paid jobs. The relatively undiversified economic structure in rural areas contributes to limited mobility and sex stereotyping in occupations. A given region may have only a few major employers, who hire men for the demanding physical labor of mining, logging, fishing, or heavy-machine industries, and hire women for repetitive unskilled work in textile, plastics, and other light industries. Similar patterns appear in local businesses that employ both women and men: Men tend to hold the positions with greater status, security, and pay. Given these circumstances, the "superwoman" vision of rural high-school girls, aspiring to combine ideal marriages with meaningful careers, begins to look like a brave romance.

What role does vocational education play in fostering or challenging these illusions? Very little research has been done on the impact of vocational programs on rural girls, but some patterns are apparent. When the Smith Hughes Act of 1917 began federal funding for occupational training in secondary schools, rural programs had two major components, with "sex-appropriate" enrollments: vocational agriculture and home economics. Except for the World War II call for women to do "men's work," enrollments have remained segregated as programs diversified. Even when a program is ostensibly mixed, as in office occupations, for example, a close look reveals that girls are studying typing while boys are learning accounting and management. In short, the sex-stereotyping characteristic of the rural labor market seems to prevail in vocational-education enrollments.

This situation is not confined to rural areas, but it has particularly serious consequences for country-bred girls. Their comparatively traditional values may prevent them from venturing into training viewed as "boys' territory," but the rewards of staying in their place are few. Business and health-care programs at the secondary level prepare students for low-level positions; a girl who acquires further training--as a legal secretary, for example--is likely to find little application for her specialized skills in the local labor market. Other "sex-appropriate" programs, such as consumer and homemaking education or child care, may offer valuable training for private domestic life, but provide no earning power in the absence of formal day-care organizations. Young women who do take nontraditional training, like Annie in metal trades, can find themselves up against the conventional attitudes of their peers, instructors, families, and community and prospective employers. They may respond with strong motivation and detailed visions of the future, or they may withdraw into half-hearted "feminine" participation. In any case, they are likely to experience considerable conflict, and face at best uncertain employment opportunities.

If sex-stereotyped programs are problematic, "sex-neutral" curricula would seem to be more promising. Programs such as food services and printing and graphics have shown some potential for attracting both males and females. Again, however, the simple structure of the rural labor market presents drawbacks; the effort and expense of mounting new programs may not pay off after a few years, when all the local positions are filled with recent graduates. Community resistance to mixing up men's and women's work may also discourage this kind of innovation. Efforts on a larger scale, like the 1963 Vocational Education Act and its amendments through 1976, which aimed specifically at promoting sex equity, have had limited impact for related reasons. By basing program evaluation on the entry-level job-placement rate, this legislation actually may have hindered the development of nontraditional programs; programs that succeed in placing graduates in entry-level positions in the rural labor force are those that adhere to conventional patterns.

Although educational planners have little control over the shape of the rural economy, they can look for ways to work effectively with the values and attitudes of rural people. Clearly, the problems of fostering sex equity in rural vocational programs go beyond the classrooms themselves. Administrators and counselors who encourage nontraditional enrollments can make some difference. Teachers who welcome and support girls in male-dominated courses have an impact, especially when they design courses to appeal to a wide range of interests and capabilities. But these efforts must have credibility and practical applications within the rural community, if they are to avoid offering only more illusions. The attitudes of students, teachers, and employers form a complex, interlocking pattern, reflecting the close-knit character of relationships in small and relatively homogeneous communities. Movements toward reform must consider this interacting web of forces and focus on the potential for using rural networks to address specific local conditions.

A recent study sponsored by the National Institute of Education and directed by Faith Dunne, professor of education at Dartmouth College, has defined a set of proposals with this perspective. The list of recommendations points the way to more comprehensive vocational programming for rural girls.

An important first step is designing courses to help high-school students develop realistic career orientations. Girls would benefit particularly from this, as they tend to get less guidance in career planning than boys and have less concrete and well-informed plans. Formal courses could aid them in formulating and assessing goals in the relatively safe context of high school, though the effort to break down stereotyped career orientation should begin at earlier levels. Teachers who offer role models for nontraditional family styles could contribute to this process, especially as their personal lives are likely to be visible and familiar to members of small rural communities.

Two further proposals focus on changing the stereotyped patterns of enrollment in vocational-education programs. One is to encourage girls to consider nontraditional careers. Although programs may be officially open to both sexes, actual recruitment depends on active, coordinated efforts among administrators, counselors, and teachers; this should involve genuine support for nontraditional choices, as well as a greater diversity in the conventional curricula--including commercial horticulture, for example, in an agriculture program. In addition, teachers and employers need to be re-educated about the potential of women in nontraditional fields. Pressures to enroll or hire women should be accompanied by specific information, ideas, and support for those efforts. Teachers should benefit from in-service workshops and conferences, but educating employers is likely to occur through less formal, one-to-one contact. In both cases, it is important to recognize the value of local networks. Outside "experts" will be less credible and effective than local vocational educators, who know their own territory and already have ties to community employers.

Another recommendation is to encourage continued development of sex-neutral programs. This approach has proved problematic so far, but there are some advantages worth pursuing. The range of occupations in this category seems to be growing; it includes relatively new careers like data processing and natural-resource management, and new perceptions of others such as food services, bartending, and printing and graphics. For girls, sex-neutral fields can eliminate the choice between sacrificing community approval or self-esteem; real estate might well have more appeal than either auto mechanics or the plastics assembly line. The mere existence of non-stereotyped programs and jobs helps reduce polarized perceptions, and some schools are seeking to promote this change with programs clustered in broad neutral categories like "human services" or "protective services." Experiments like these merit further research and attention.

Two final proposals emphasize the potential for building on skills and strengths that rural women already have. One possibility is to develop programs for training women entrepreneurs. Small business enterprise is a promising field in many rural areas, where services have been historically limited and where recent migrants from cities and suburbs are creating a new demand. If rural women could acquire the business skills necessary for running small shops and other services, they might achieve the economic independence and job satisfaction many of them seek.

Some might pursue nontraditional work like small-engine repair, but many could put "women's skills" to profitable use, running day-care centers, beauty parlors, craft shops, and other small-scale enterprises.

A related proposal involves teaching women to use their skills for supplementary income. Those who are unable or unwilling to work full time may still want to earn some money, preferably in home-based operations. Many rural women, both young and old, have a variety of skills in handwork, gardening, preserving food, furniture refinishing, and other domestic arts; they lack neither experience nor imagination, but they do need business training to help turn those skills into employment.

Each of those recommendations offers some potential for bringing the vocational aspirations of young rural women closer to reality. The most effective approach to change would be a combination of these elements, recognizing the need for a wide range of options and the importance of interactive relationships between rural schools and communities. Obviously, the proposals are generalized and would require creative adaptation to specific local circumstances. Their value, however, derives from a feature essential to any attempt to improve education in rural areas: respect for the traditional strengths of rural life. If young women like Annie are to flourish, they need support for their loyalty to community values as well as for their courage in exploring new directions.

Vol. 02, Issue 03, Page 20, 18

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