My first definable awareness of a feminist tendency occurred, aged seven, in Mrs Sharp’s classroom at primary school. It was the early nineteen-sixties, and Mrs Sharp bucked the conservative trend of teachers of the time – she had red fingernails, wore tight pencil skirts and drove an open-top MG sports car. She was probably considered rather dashing and rebellious in a time when most ordinary folk did not have cars, and most drivers were men. (And teachers were comparatively well-paid – even women.) One morning, having taken her nippy little car to the garage, she brought in a broken car dynamo and placed it on her desk rather as she might a trophy. ‘Some of the boys may like to see this,’ she stated, leaving the dynamo unexplained as if boys would learn by some manly principle of mechanical affinity. Even the dashing Mrs Sharp could not envisage that girls may have been interested in a piece of machinery. And the boys dutifully inspected it. What they gained from this was never revealed – to me, in any case, perhaps because I was a girl. But the other little girls in the class did not even spare the dead dynamo a glance. The niggle in my head, the inner voice of a proto-feminist, obliged me to inspect it myself, to satisfy something in me that was nothing to do with a test of my potential as a female car mechanic or as a test of femininity. I found myself irritated by an assumption that only boys would find it interesting. My inspection was for form’s sake. Looking at it did not reveal the secrets of machines, or much of anything really. The dynamo remained a mystery for many years until I studied physics.
My feminist stance on learning was broadened at senior school, where, alongside a handful of other girls, I decided to leave the overcrowded needlework room and learn technical drawing. Within a term, we had caught up with the boys and took top places in the exam. The teacher maintained that – as girls – we could never aspire to be more than tracers, simply because of our sex. There were few female draughtsmen (and they were suspiciously unfeminine) . I can cite similar small tales throughout my progress to university to study physics – a boy’s/man’s subject that would surely shrivel my ovaries…
Nonetheless, I was able to make and act upon my choices without serious hindrance. I was not prevented from choosing ‘boys’ subjects’, although I did have go elsewhere to study science as it was poorly provided for at the time for both girls and boys at my school. Any disadvantage of being female seemed less significant in this context. At technical college, where I eventually got my science O and A levels, I found the classes had a high percentage of science-minded females, so I discovered I was not so strange, after all.
Perspectives on what women can and cannot do have changed to what women can and must do, although the practicalities are by no means perfect, especially when a woman has children. Within my lifetime, a sea change has occurred and new norms established. 30 years ago, a male colleague whose highly qualified wife had delivered him of two fine sons required her to remain at home to care for them. I asked him why he was not able to take on childcare himself and allow his PhD’d wife to return to her career. He described it as a ‘false choice’. His words were framed by his own experience. In a modern context, we see how restrictions are built from limited perspectives.
Of course, there are huge practical issues with childcare. Once it was hidden and unnoticed within tradition and social structure. Women did it, unpaid and taken for granted. But at least it was regarded as essential and its necessity unquestioned. Nowadays it is supposed to happen like magic whilst both partners work to pay for a high cost of living – including childcare costs – on low pay. Women’s routine involvement in work outside of the home has shown that childcare is a huge economic factor, crazily ignored in economic models.
There has been a lot in the press recently about the advantages of being regarded as the ‘norm’. We are a society of labels and classifications. There is no doubt I have had an easier life in the UK as a white, straight woman than had I been of another ethnicity, lesbian, or transgendered. But in Britain, regardless of any of these factors, I have an incontrovertible right to aspire to any role in life I choose. In reality, things can be much harder for certain individuals whose social designation forces upon them a particular role or prejudice that inhibits their progress.
It is often at family level that we are fettered by the expectations of those around us who enforce restrictions and provide role models, and these are rooted in the past. The perception of the ‘norm’ is a vehicle of convenience when justifying social attitudes. And there are certainly false ‘norms’ – false choices – perpetuated by the politician and propagated by the media to idealise the model citizen. Our propaganda machines have never been so reactive. I would argue that ideals have become so detached from everyday reality as to alienate large chunks of society – particularly those who find it difficult to obtain work or suffer low pay and poor working conditions handicapped by having been educated within a system that does not encourage individual development beyond certain box-ticking targets.
The normative woman defined by the media is a size zero working mother, available and functioning 24/7 . Men too have been re-made . There are now many men who take on the carer’s role – and I salute them. But many more men fear being sidestepped at work for not putting their careers first, despite changes to the law and lip-service to participative fatherhood. They have been handed a curved ball. There are many claims on our priorities that do not add up to real choices, let alone false ones.
There is, too, a danger in focussing on the labels we give ourselves, in over-defining and pigeon-holing ourselves. We all want to belong to something, and identify ourselves alongside sympathetic companions, and that strengthens us. But labelling is always a restriction – it stops us doing non-standard things unless we have room for questioning our assumptions, to listen to our inner niggles.