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 Oldie - - NEWS - Blanche Girouard is in­ter­view­ing women over sev­enty who didn’t go to univer­sity. If that in­cludes you, she would love to hear from you. Please con­tact her at blanche­girouard@hot­mail.com or write to her c/o The Oldie.

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’

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