WOMEN HAVE WON – AND LOST
Not so long ago parents didn’t bother to educate their daughters – who had much more fun as a result, says BLANCHE GIROUARD
The downside to educating girls by Blanche Girouard
MY AUNT Teresa James was the epitome of elegance. She dressed exquisitely and sat perfectly upright. In her house, butter always appeared in curls and grapefruit halves never had any pith. Even Mars bars (which she loved) were sliced up and arranged on a plate.
My father, Mark Girouard, is many wonderful things but I wouldn’t call him elegant. I once came into the drawingroom to find him sitting on the sofa, peeling potatoes onto a towel on the floor. ‘I didn’t see why I should stand up to cook,’ he said, by way of explanation. Ironically, he was following one of Aunt Teresa’s recipes.
My father went to Christ Church. My aunt went to finishing school because my grandfather didn’t believe in girls going to university. Sadly, she died before I thought of asking her about her past, but I have started talking to others from her generation and I’m fascinated by what I hear. It’s amazing how much, and how quickly, things have changed for women in England. Some things ‘back then’ sound ghastly – like school pants (long, baggy bloomers with cotton ‘liners’ underneath) and chilblains. Other things sound quite terrifying – like unprotected sex (before the Pill was available) and illegal abortions. Other things boggle my mind – like the fact that you couldn’t eat in a restaurant with another girl or share a flat with a male friend.
But what amazes me most is how attitudes and aspirations have changed. Parents really didn’t seem to care about their daughters’ education. Bindy Lambton refused to get out of the car on parents’ evening because she was grieving for her dead dachshund. Edward, Duke of Devonshire, refused to sack his daughters’ useless governess because, he said, no one else would employ her. Valentine Wyndham-quin said you shouldn’t educate women because it would teach them to argue with their husbands.
Everything seemed to be geared towards marriage. At Southover, all the girls were taught to play ‘God Save the King’ on the piano so that, as future wives of local squires, they would be ready to close Women’s Institute meetings. At Benenden, they were taught how to curtsey and open a bazaar. One girl’s mother even got her to wash her brother’s hair and socks during the school holidays, in preparation for marriage.
It all seems so incredible now. It seems heinous that parents had such limited ambitions for their bright daughters, and that nothing, beyond marriage, was expected of them. And yet there are aspects of that era that are really enviable. Back then, nobody bothered about exams. Marigold Johnson (who went on to Oxford) wrote in her schoolgirl diary: ‘17th July. Slept in history exam. Thought I would revise, but no such hope. Far too much to do.’ ‘4th December. Left Latin after half an hour. Who cares? Notice on the board says exams are a sideline to the Christmas party.’
Today everybody cares. I have spent the past ten years teaching in academic girls’ schools and, try as we might, it is impossible to ignore the spectre of examinations. Today’s girls aren’t going on nature walks or learning poetry off by heart – they’re cramming their heads full of facts and committing essay plans to memory. It’s hard to enjoy learning when it leads, so obviously, to revision. ‘By the end of last summer,’ one sixth-former told me, ‘I hated all of my subjects.’
Back then, girls weren’t expected to go on to higher education. When Valerie Pakenham got into Oxford in 1956, the whole school was given a day off in celebration. Today, everything is geared towards getting into the best universities and every choice is guided by that goal. It’s depressing talking to girls making their A-level choices. If they love a subject but feel they’re not good at it, they drop it. If they love a subject but fear Oxford won’t like it, they drop it. All that matters is getting an A and impressing the university admissions board. Hardly surprising, then, to find that maths rules supreme and that art, music and drama (which girls love) get sidelined.
I’m not suggesting that we should go back to the days when sex education was a lesson on the reproduction of rabbits, or when no one learned any science. However, I do think something has gone very wrong. It’s time we backed off and gave today’s girls the time and space to work out what they actually enjoy and want to do with their lives. Happiness and success don’t turn on A*s and a place at Oxford. What matters is working out what you want to do and doing it. The women I have interviewed (many of whom now have very successful careers) are proof of that, and it’s time we learned from them.
‘Your poor wife has told me so much about you’