… I’ve seen it before. I was in a sorority*
*Betty Draper in ‘Mad Men’.
I’m still on the ‘feminist angst’ route, especially since The Telegraph has an article in it today about how girls’ schools are becoming less popular. I need to stop reading The Telegraph. It’s as bad as the Daily Mail and it’s giving me apoplexy. Obviously the choice has nothing to do with the recession, then?!
Anyway, Steve thinks it’s funny I went to a girls’ school. In his mind, it was like a convent and we were all very well-educated, virginal nuns-to-be who spoke with a plum in our mouth. In my mind, it’s about the best thing that could have happened to me. Apart from giving me Big Fish in a Small Pond syndrome, which I realised when I got to university, it taught me to be a good woman. I was surrounded by successful women. We had female speakers come in. We celebrated our successes. Our dreams had no limitation. We were expected to think like future lawyers, accountants, teachers, bankers and even television presenters. Ironically, gender was not an issue.
Whilst we might not have gone down the route of having electronics courses or resistant materials until much later than mixed comprehensives offered it, Steve was probably in a single sex class for electronics himself. Girls in state schools do not opt for such things. Girls in mixed schools are less likely to opt for the sciences, or go for biology in preference to chemistry or physics. They’re less likely to choose Maths or Physics or Chemistry A level in mixed schools. In fact, gender is more of an issue where there are boys around. Girls do humanities and food technology and languages; boys do resistant materials and sciences and the only common ground apart from compulsory subjects, are in PE and Art. I’ve seen those ‘boy-only’ resistant materials classes (or ‘knocking and hammering’ as my friend Sally likes to call it – she’s a RM teacher) and the boy only graphic design courses, and the boy only electronics courses.
It is of course deeply ironic that in a girls school, gender was never an issue. If we liked physics, we liked physics. In fact, we had positive female role models, since few of our classes were taught by men. In fact, the men who taught in our school were either complete old gents or wet lettuces. Our geography teacher was so inept as both a man and a teacher that we girls grew strong in simply knowing this was our opposition.
And contrary to popular belief, it didn’t turn us into either whores or virgins. We heard stories about the French stream (only the ‘thick’ boys did just French… all the others did German and the most superior did Latin too… La dee dah!) and chair throwing and generally apeish behaviour largely borne out by photographs of what happened in the junior common room. But we socialised, we went to parties together, we got buses together – we just didn’t ever have to think of whether or not they were looking at us in class.
We still had the ‘do we look good?’ pressure and knew that in those bus journeys and walks to school and promenades up and down Bridge St that we’d have to have enough make-up on to sink a ship. We just had no boys to compare ourselves to, results wise.
So it was a privilege not to have boys in class. Having taught only mixed sex classes, bar one or two delightfully Vicky Pollard-esque creatures, boys are notorious time-wasters, lazing-abouters and messers. They distract and they annoy. They need coddling and reinforcement and take most of your time. That one boy who dominates your time spoils it for all those lovely, quiet boys who are absolute sweethearts – the Stevens and the Carls who are such great lads but are drowned out by the Davids and the Jacks. And girls, mostly, don’t attempt to hide under your desk, have temper tantrums, eat test papers, try and bully you or deliberately distract other children in class.
I say this having once watched a very silly 16 year old boy (I swear he was a labrador with ADD in a very big boy’s body) saying ‘Gibbons…. Gibbons… Gibbons…. Gibbons…. ‘ over and over again. He was sitting at the back and – not really having some kind of monkey-related tourettes – was trying to get his friend’s attention. As an observer (I was a teacher trainer, so I had to watch a lot of lessons and then try and suggest ways to improve…) I tried not to intervene, but this boy drove me to distraction. If I’d have been the teacher, that boy would have had short shrift from me. I watched (and counted) another boy interrupt the lesson 157 times in 30 minutes.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve had humdingers of arguments with girls. But girls are more subtle in their approach. I always said I’d hate to teach in a girls’ school because they can be a set of vipers. I’ve only ever met three boys who I thought were genuinely malicious rather than just disruptive. But I’ve met hundreds of girls (myself included) who can turn milk to cheese just with a look. When girls explode, they can be nasty and mean and cruel. I’ve seen them manipulate male teachers and female teachers alike. When a teacher is crying in the staffroom, it’s usually over a girl, not a boy.
So where does all this take us?
Well, I’ve been watching Mad Men, which I’ve been meaning to for ages. It’s set in 1960 in New York. It’s funnily enough a lot like my school, and also very, very different. The boys, for instance. That smarmy Peter Campbell reminds me of one particularly nasty, underhand, smug boy I went to school with. The locker room mentality is also a lot like the boys I know from school.
But the girls are a species apart. And a lot of that is thanks to my school. I never was afraid to dream to be a lawyer or a solicitor. That’s thanks to my family who always had ultimate belief that I could be anything – and my sister too – and my Gramps who told me a hundred times I should be a solicitor. He was right. I love to argue and I love to be right. But I’d hate the petty, mealy-mouthed money-grubbing and the Jeremy Kyle side of people that solicitors end up seeing. I never had to think I’d only be fit to work in a shop or as a waitress or in a factory. I could be anything a boy could be, if I wanted to be.
That’s pretty cool.
That’s not to say that doesn’t happen in mixed sex schools – just that I’ve worked with enough boys who consume all your time as a teacher that I’m glad I went to a girls’ school and learned that gender doesn’t matter. It’s also to say that I’m very aware that girls should pull together and not tear ourselves apart in some kind of media-amphitheatre where we slag each other off for public entertainment. And mostly, women do. That’s what makes us great. 4,000 years of being inferior in the Western World, of being subjugated as second-class citizens, and, to misquote Maya Angelou ‘still we rise’. In all honesty, I think working class women never really knew gender subjugation, since the working classes have been subjugated regardless of gender through history – your aspirations as a working class woman were similar to those of a working class man – but those middle class girls really took a beating, aspiration-wise. Men could be priests, lawyers, officers, doctors, teachers, professors, and we weren’t allowed to go to university.
If you’re a working class peasant, that doesn’t matter to you. Man or woman, university wasn’t even a dream you could have. If you were middle class, though, and an educated, bright mind, you were either weird (like the Bronte sisters) or lucky (your husband gave you patronage and let you work) or you were trapped behind an apron. If you had domestic help, you didn’t even have that. I bet life for your average Dorothea Brooke was awful. It would have driven me mad. No wonder Madame Bovary cheated and Lady Chatterley took a lover and Dorothea Brooke found solace in Will Ladislaw. If I were trapped in the secretarial pool of Mad Men, I think I too would have become a cynical, hard-hearted bitch rather than marry.
It makes me think, too, of two of my great-grandmothers – both teachers up until they married. A married woman couldn’t be a teacher. That’s so sad. At that point, they became wives and mothers and home-makers. I don’t know if they painted or read, did maths or puzzles, if they sewed or knitted. They just lived. They took a supporting role.
And whilst contraception freed up women so they weren’t prisoner to the life cycle, and laws freed up women to earn the same as men, universities opened their doors to women and men alike, only when women pull together can they advance.
I think we women have done a good job to move away from Mad Men into a world where it seems utterly unbelievable that gender inequality of that kind should be so rife. And we have to remember to teach our girls to aspire, to dream, to know they are equal – and that this is something we women shouldn’t take for granted lest it’s taken away from us again. A girls’ school fosters those things. I never even knew inequality existed.
All girls should have that experience, just once.