Lefou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking…

It was this article that got me started: reporting on research conducted by Girlguiding UK which concludes that sexism in the UK is widespread enough to impact “most aspects” of girls’ lives.

“Girls identified sexism as a priority issue for their generation”, with three-quarters saying sexism affected “most areas of their lives”, says the report.

Of the 11- to 21-year-olds questioned, some 87% thought women were judged more on their appearance than their ability.

More than a third (36%) of all those surveyed had felt “patronised or made to feel stupid” because their gender, rising to 60% of the 16- to 21-year-olds.

It got me thinking, because I started to consider my own life between those ages: I started thinking about the environment I was in, about the influences around me. These are more random thoughts than any kind of conclusion, and I wasn’t entirely sure whether to post it – but in there somewhere might be something I thought was worth saying, so.

I went to a school which was – admittedly – small and – also admittedly – private. But in that school, all three of my science teachers were women. My English teacher – also a woman – was precisely the kind of take-no-shit teacher you need to sit in front of a class of rugby-playing fifteen year old boys who have no desire to be studying poetry thankyouverymuch. We had two PE teachers: one male, one female. It goes without saying that the our female PE teacher was far more hardcore than our male teacher. Oh, and she also taught both junior Maths and Classics.

My mother never really wore make-up, and I remember being utterly stunned when, at some point in her mid-50s, I discovered she’d recently bought an eyebrow pencil. When I was little, she had a jewellery box I liked to poke around in and play with. I seem to remember finding a lipstick in there once (this would have been sometime around 1987…) that had clearly been in there since around 1970. It still had a (pre-decimal) price sticker on it, and had been used at best two or three times. It wasn’t some right-on feminist statement about make-up that she was making. It was just, y’know, that for her, she had better things to be doing with her time. I guess I inherited the attitude.

One of my uncle’s many girlfriends when I was growing up took it upon herself to buy me a make-up kit one Christmas. I think, rather like my mother’s lipstick, it got used about twice. Girlfriend Number 4 called me on it at some point the following year, asking why I wasn’t wearing any make-up. I shrugged and made the kind of sound I usually made when I was a teenager. She responded by telling me that it was “a woman’s duty to wear make-up”.

The one person who ever commented on the way I looked at school was a girl.

I’ve been in two fights. Both times, I was called a bitch. Both times… by women. (Well. I say “women”. One of them was at school. There’s a backstory, which is long and tedious and involves her getting her big brother to come into school and threaten to beat me up. She called me a bitch, I threw a chair at her. It would never have occurred to me to insult her based on her gender or her appearance. Her attitude, on the other hand, or her carefree willingness to pick a fight and then hide behind her nineteen year old brother? Yeah, totally guilty.)

My university lecturers were, certainly for my BA, mostly women. The vast majority of them held doctorates. Several of them were, at the time, either in senior lecturer or head of department posts. They terrified my male classmates – particularly when the most senior and serious of all of them took the seminar on women’s bodies in medieval religious literature…

I was born in a period with both – for better or worse – a female Prime Minister, and a Queen.

When I started university as a completely green undergrad, my department arranged for a novelist to come and give a commencement address in one of our lecture theatres. As it happens, since then that particular novelist has become the first woman to be awarded the Booker Prize twice, and continues to be one of my heroes… as she has been since that day, when she took the time to stand in a university common room and talk to said completely green undergrad about what it means to be a writer.

I used to work in a very corporate environment, for a very big company. My boss had many faults – and I can still list most of them, many years later, because that’s how crazy she drove me – but she was also capable of walking into a room full of senior investment bankers and getting them to shut the hell up every single time she spoke. And she did. The Chief Executive of that same company was also a woman. Her office was just across the floor from where I sat, and every day I saw her take meetings with – again, admittedly – mostly men. It wasn’t her hairdo that got her into that position. It was the fact that she was smart and she worked hard.

All my life, I have been surrounded by strong and capable women. Talented women. I continue to be surrounded by them, both personally and professionally. I continue to be surrounded by men, too, who both value and recognise women’s ability.

It comes back to this:

Of the 11- to 21-year-olds questioned, some 87% thought women were judged more on their appearance than their ability.

More than a third (36%) of all those surveyed had felt “patronised or made to feel stupid” because their gender, rising to 60% of the 16- to 21-year-olds.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky. Others may not have had the same luck, but I can only speak for myself and my own experiences. I grew up not just believing but knowing that I could be and do whatever I wanted to be, because everywhere I looked there were women who were doing and being just that, and reinforcing the idea that a woman’s place was wherever the hell she wanted. It would never have occurred to me that the world was otherwise.

(Of course, the negative here – which also needs saying – is that the times I’ve felt someone has been judging me by my appearance or based on the fact I’m a girl, it’s been other women. There’s a thing there, but it’s complicated and needs someone a lot smarter than me to articulate it without tying him or herself in knots.)

But overall, yes. I’ve been fortunate.

It would be nice to think that the generation who follow could have at least the chance to be just as lucky, wouldn’t it…?

(And yes, that blog title is me – without a hint of irony – riffing on one of Gaston’s songs from Beauty & the Beast. Well. Maybe a *bit* of irony…)


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