Education and The Feminine Mystique

This is a year for celebrating feminist anniversaries.  In my post of the 6th June I wrote about a local celebration that of the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death – under the title ‘Deeds not Words’.  The 50 year anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ escaped my notice.

picture of book jacket

The Feminine Mystique

This book, published in the US in 1963, explores the reasons why so many educated US women in the 1950s and 1960s were finding it impossible to live out idealised roles of full-time home-makers and mothers.  But its analysis resonated with younger women across the developed world. Without the changes that the First Wave of feminism achieved especially the right of access to education and the professions, women would never have been in the position where there was such a creative tension between their expectations and desires to be part of the world as equals with their brothers, while social expectations were that they would primarily live their lives as unpaid support workers for others – as wives and mothers.  Women wanted both, and the history of gender equality since the 1960s stems from that desire and the pressure or have it recognition as not an unreasonable desire which should be supported by policy and legislation.

My colleagues (Liz Whitelegg and Iris Rowbotham) and I are researching the the impact of the Open University’s interdisciplinary  Women’s Studies on the women who studied them in the 1980s and early 1990s. It is clear from the interviews we are doing with these women that many of them were suffering from exactly the ‘Problem with no Name’ that Friedan described so well. Women’s Studies gave these women the intellectual frame-works to understand their situations and their feelings, and the wider issue of the gendering of society. The courses also gave them – they tell us- tools to change their situation.

However, it is clear that these women’s lives are very different from the lives described by the majority of women in the 30s in the developed world today, see: Alison Wolf (2013) ‘The XX Factor.  How working women are creating a new society’. The question we have is: What kind of Women’s Studies course would empower, and produce a sense of solidarity among women of similar age today?

Part of our research has been published in G Kirkup and E Whitelegg (2013) ‘The legacy and impact of Open University women’s/gender studies: 30 years on’, Gender and Education Vol 25 Issue 1. Our newest work is being reported in a presentation: What’s happened to the gender agenda? The legacy of women’s/gender studies at ‘Educating women: an interdisciplinary conference’ on 18th July Canterbury Christ Church University.

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Teaching horses to talk

I am reading William Bowen’s neat (in a number of senses) new book on the economics of elearning: Higher Education in the Digital Age. It is a highly accessible book on a very opaque subject – sometimes you feel the opacity isn’t natural it is a product of smoked glass screens.  Towards the middle of the book Bowen give us a parable about teaching a horse to talk. It goes something like this:

A prisoner who is about to be executed buys his life by claiming that if he is spared for a year, he will, during that time teach the King’s horse to talk. The King agrees and releases him. His friends are horrified – they are pretty sure no one can teach the horse to talk. But the -now ex- prisoner explains: a year is along time, he might die, the horse might die, the king might die, there might be a miracle and the horse might talk. He’s got a year’s grace, in which lots can happen, and he has lost nothing from the bargain – after all he had nothing to lose.

Bowen uses the parable as a message: Buy time – the future is likely to produce something like a miracle.

Unfortunately it’s not a parable that has such a positive resonance for me.  Investing money in claims for new educational technologies and practices that will teach horses to talk sounds very familiar.

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Celebration of deeds not words

Emily Wilding Davison

The centenary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, who was fatally injured apparently trying to attach a suffrage banner to the Kings horse running  the Darby at Epsom, seems to have captured the imagination of the press this year as never before.  Part of this has to be due to the fact that it was caught on film. It is has suddenly become an opportunity to remember the militant suffrage activity that was taking place across the UK 100 years ago, as well as to review feminist actions and campaigns today.

 Davison’s death was never an inspiration for me. It seemed both a pointless death as well as putting an innocent jockey and the horse at risk. Suffragette militancy was usually aimed at private property not at people, Davidson’s act was different, she was the one who ‘threw herself under the horse’. But on Tuesday I learned a lot more about Emily, about how a highly principled and educated woman could end up risking death to campaign for something she felt all people of conscience must have: a right to vote. Her struggled for her own education was part of her struggle for self-determination.  We take both for granted at our peril. I was in the audience for the play: ‘Emily Wilding Davison:  the one who threw herself under the horse’. This is a wonderful one woman performance written by Ros Connelly and performed by Elizabeth Crarer. On Tuesday it was performed at St George’s Church Bloomsbury, where the memorial service for Davison was held on the 14th June 1913, when her coffin was carried through London by a procession of Suffragettes.  The play helped me understand Emily, her motivation, and how ‘The Cause’ became the most important thing in her life: ‘Deeds not Words’. Sitting watching the play in the church was one of those experiences where time collapses and you know what really holds the material world together- people and events across a hundred years and more – are ideas: the ideas we hold about ourselves.

The play heralds the beginning of the Wilding Festival: a new arts festival held in St George’s church which takes Davison as its inspiration. Great idea – and there are still tickets available.

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The strange education of politicians

It is well known in the UK that present Members of Parliament are drawn overwhelmingly from privileged educational backgrounds – 35% have attended independent fee paying schools, and 90% have undergraduate degrees. Since 1950 only three UK Prime-Ministers did not have degrees, all the others except one had degrees from Oxford – including Margaret Thatcher. Only Margaret Thatcher had a degree in SET, and even more rare, she had worked as a chemist in a commercial company. The others – all men- had degrees in subjects that seemed to prepare them for politics and little else:  PPE, law, history, Latin and Greek, oriental languages. In 2010 7% of women UK members of parliament had SET degrees and 11% of men. Our political representatives have never represented the educational backgrounds of the electorate – either in type of educational institution they attended or in the subjects they studied, but just becuase they never have done is no reason for hoping that they might in the future. The signs don’t look hopeful.

 Recent discussions with friends about Margaret Thatcher, and her training as a chemist led to me wondering whether it is rarer for a Head of State to be a woman or to be someone trained in some aspect of science, engineering, or technology (SET).

 A quick review of the qualifications of recent female Heads of State, suggest that being a woman and having a SET qualification is very rare. My list of 20 below shows only one woman with a clear STEM qualification: Angela Merkel- she is another Chemist, and one: Gro Harlem Brundtland who has a medical degree.

  1.  Angela Merkel – German Chancellor- (German Doctorate in Quantum Chemistry)
  2. Aung San Suu Kyi, -Opposition leader Burma-  ( India, degree in politics, UK degree in philosophy politics, and economics, UK degree in Burmese literature)
  3. Benazir Bhutto – PM Pakistan- ( US degrees in comparative government and law, UK degree in philosophy politics, and economics)
  4. Corazon Aquino – Pres Phillipines- (US degree  Maths/ French- joint degree)
  5. Dame Eugenia Charles – PM Dominica- (Canada and UMK degrees in law)
  6. Golda Meir -PM Israel-  (US teacher qualification)
  7. Gro Harlem Brundtland, – PM Norway- ( Norway Degree medical doctor, US degree public health)
  8. Helen Clark – PM New Zealand- ( NZ degrees in politics)
  9. Hillary Rodham Clinton -not quite US president- ( US degrees in political science and law)
  10. Indira Ghandi – PM India- ( studied in UK for degree in history, politics and economics- never graduated)
  11. Isabel Perón -Pres. Argentina- ( no higher ed)
  12. Julia Gillard -PM Australia- ( Australia, law degree )
  13. Mary Robinson -PM Ireland- ( Ireland, and US  Degrees in law)
  14. Sheikh Hasina Wajed -PM Bangaldesh- ( BA Univ Bangladesh)
  15. Sirimavo Bandaranaike – PM Sri Lanka- worlds first female PM-  ( no higher education),
  16. Tansu Çiller -PM Turkey -( US degrees in economics)
  17. Tarja Kaarina Halonen – PM Finland- ( Finland degrees in law)
  18. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, – PM Latvia- ( Canadian degrees in psychology)
  19. Vigdís Finnbogadóttír – PM Iceland- ( French degrees in French literature , Danish degree history of theatre)
  20. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro – PM Nicaragua- ( No higher ed)
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Margaret Thatcher – Chemist.

No UK based blog about women can ignore the death this week of Margaret Thatcher. She has been too important for us all in the last 40 years, and not in ways that we enjoyed. For someone like me who has worked on both researching and supporting practical initiatives to recruit more women into science Margaret Thatcher is an anachronism. Biographers agree that Thatcher deliberately chose to study for Chemistry because she knew it would be easier for her to get access to Oxford for Chemistry than for another subject. They all agree that she always aimed for a career in politics  had even told a fellow student that she would have been helped more in her political career if she had studied law. So rather than struggling to enter the masculine world of science, she used it as a useful stepping stone to an even more masculine world of politics.

Margaret Thatcher - Chemist

I first came across Thatcher as a young student teacher in the early 1970s. She was Secretary of State for Education and I was part of a group of young teachers invited to the Houses of Parliament to ‘discuss’ issues with her. I think I went because I liked the idea of seeing the inside of a committee room in the House. I knew little about her, but was y wary of Conservative education policy. All I remember of her at the event was wondering why this was a billed as a discussion. We asked questions she didn’t answer them, but spoke about things she had clearly planned to speak about before we arrived. That just shows how innocent I was of professional politicians. I remember her voice as horribly grating: this was before she was ‘de-elocuted’, to undo the years of elocution lessons.

But despite this only and unpleasant experience of her, I supported her in the 1979 election. As a radical feminist I believed that having a political party in power led by a woman would be revolutionary enough to counterbalance the impact of the party having policies I did not agree with. My Lefty friends were horrified.  But there was no way that the Labour party would have had a woman leader at that date, and it is important not to forget just how sexist traditional left wing political practice was. Very soon Thatcher made it clear that she was actively against feminism, and her actions suggest that she was not that keen on gender equality.  I also learned a lesson that changed my feminism – that getting women into places of power does not necessarily change gender subordination or inequality. There are still many feminists who seem to believe that change will be brought about by equalising the numbers of women at the top of politics and the professions. It is a naïve position that doesn’t recognise that the complex interactions of gender/race/class/caste ….  structure social position and power.  Sometimes gender becomes the less important aspect of what detemines opportunity, and worse sometimes it blinds everyone to bigger issues of inequity and  injustice which are hidden by its shining light.  A recent IPPR report  notes:

‘The narrow focus on women at the top and on work as purely emancipatory ignores the polarisation of women’s experiences of work and glosses over the fact that men also occupy different positions of power and class. Furthermore, the suggestion of linear progress for women risks reaffirming the current economic and political model, at a time when deep rethinking is required. The narrative of progress resonates with some families, but life has not gotten better for all women. Some compared their life to their grandmother’s, and felt it was worse.’

So yes, we now all think that leading a country is an appropriate job for a woman, but the daughter of a young single parent today probably has less opportunity to reach such a position than her post-war baby boomer grandmother. Are both these trends attributable to the Thatcher revolution?

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Ice Age Women

Over the weekend I visited the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum. This small but wonderful exhibition has as its theme the argument that our Ice Age ancestors 40,000 years ago were intellectually modern human beings whose aesthetic responses to the world were the same as ours. It is amazing to look at small finely sculpted or moulded representational figures and imagine someone, professionally skilled, producing these decorative objects while living in a hostile environment with an Ice Age climate, being the prey for carnivorous animals, and with a technology only of stone tools.

Ice Age Woman. The oldest ceramic figure in the world. From

It is also fascinating that some of the earliest representational objects found were small figures of pregnant women.  The exhibition speculates whether these objects were made by women as talismans for a good outcome in childbirth.  Many were pierced and showed signs of being worn, and many seem to have been deliberately broken.  These ‘Venus’ figures kept being produced in more ever more simplified versions for 30,000 + years alongside carvings of the animals that these early humans hunted for food and clothing.

Ivor Bison 20,000 years old. From

It would be nice to think that they were creative representations by both women and men in a community of the value they placed on motherhood. But perhaps these Venus figures could simply be representations of ‘commodified’ creatures that human communities needed to exploit/exchange for survival [sadly this pessimistic possibility comes from my early reading of Engels on the origins of the family].

We can’t ever know which of these explanations comes close to the reality. But we can wonder about the life of the woman – who looks so much like us- portrayed in the 26,000 year old little head below.

Woman's head in ivory. 26,000 year old. From

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International Women’s Day gets worryingly exclusive

I was lucky enough last Wednesday to be invited to a celebration of International Women’s Day, lucky enough to be served good wine and canapés of melted cheese, cooked chicken and  tiny of dainty puddings in shot glasses in one of London’s great establishment’s after hours when day visitors had been sent home.  Don’t get me wrong I think International Women’s Day is worth celebrating, I’m just not comfortable about what we now seem to choose to celebrate each year.  Too often Women’s Day seems to be a celebration of The Celebrated, justified on the grounds that such people are role models and inspirational in their success. But:  the work of the world – said Marge Piercy – is common as mud, and still worth celebrating.

 Last Wednesday I felt uncomfortably like a man among men. We were a room full of women –all able to be there because of the work done by other women who we pay minimal wages to clean our houses, look after our children, make our clothes and the prepared meals and cappuccinos we pick up on the way to catch our trains. They work across the world on our behalf in shoe factories in China, and by our elbow offering us another salmon canapé. And some of them are men.

Caulflower seller Brixton Market 1930s. Copyright Margaret Monck, Museum of London

On which day do we celebrate their work? Are we embarrassed to celebrate the common work that women everywhere do? Keeping the spotlight constantly on the women who get Nobel prizes and become ‘Captains of Industry’ blinds us to the poorly paid women working in that parallel shadow land  that provides us with those things that make us comfortable. Next year I hope I get invited to a celebration of the value of ordinary women

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Eggs is Eggs- but what are they worth?

Be-Ro Recipe book 19th Edition 1956


Be-Ro Recipe Book 21st edition

I have just taken possession of the cookery books that I learned to bake from. These are free little books given away with a brand of flour called Be-Ro. Their front cover had an iconic image of a schoolgirl (Miss Be-Ro) in traditional school uniform, with a mixing bowl, spoon, flour, jug and egg/s. The oldest version I have is the 19th edition dated 1956. I also have the 21st edition.  Putting the two front cover images side by side  shows how the photo was slightly ‘doctored’ to update it, between the two editions but also one egg in 1956 become two in the later edition. At the end of each book is a page showing a display of 12 plates of cakes and biscuits and in the 1956 edition there is the statement: ‘All the cakes were made from one 3lb bag of flour. The total cost of the other ingredients did not exceed 10 shillings (including eggs at 5/6 doz’.  In the later edition the same text quotes the cost of eggs as 3/6 a dozen.

 I was stuck by how expensive a dozen eggs were in 1956, and wondered how this compared to 2013 prices. An online historic price converter gives two conversions for 5 shillings and six pence. Using the retail price index it is equivalent to £5.35 (2010 prices). But a better measure of relative cost is to use average earnings as the indicator because this suggests the proportion of an average income (present day) that the original price (1957 prices) equates to. Using 2010 average earnings a dozen eggs gives an equivalent cost of £13.50.

What value would we place on an egg if we paid £1.10 for it, rather than present supermarket prices which range from 12p (‘Value’ range) to 35p (free range organic)? This brought home to me, very pragmatically, what we all know- that food is probably too cheap, and that is why too many of us are too fat.

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Campaign to Save our LunchTimes (SOLT)

It is time to start a workplace campaign to Save Our LunchTimes.

Once we had lunch-breaks

In the last century – when I began my working life-  lunch-times belonged to the workers.  We could use this time to eat, drink, lie on the grass and chat, go shopping, keep fit or play sport, attend  clubs and events – some of us even spent lunch-time with our children at the workplace nursey.  But these days it feels as if lunch-time if belongs to our employer.  It is now expected of us that we have ‘working lunches’, we attend ‘brown bag’ seminars where we bring our own sandwiches while we listen to work based speakers, we are ‘invited’ to lunch-time meetings . 

Recently I have challenged two colleagues who have organised different work-based meetings during the  lunch period – they did it deliberately, they argued, because there was no other time in the day when people were free attend the meeting; if they organised it at any other time few people would come. This suggests three things:

1. We have work overload.

2. Staff are hugely committed to doing a good job to the point of agreeing to be exploited.

3. It is expected that all the time from when we arrive at our place of employment until the time we leave should be spent in productive activity determined by our employer through the way our managers organise our time.

Effectively this means we no longer have the right to a ‘proper’ lunch-break - so a right to time when workers take a ‘break’ from work is not guaranteed each day. People are simply working all day – going from one meeting to the next and eating during those meetings that happen between noon and 2.00 pm.  This is certainly a less visible way for the employer to extend  working hours

From the employers’ point of view it seems that keeping people ‘at it’ all day gets more done than letting them have a break. This is what  a piece of research by Charlotte Fritz argues. It might be true, but it seems to me that Charlotte misses the point, she presumes that lunch-breaks and coffee breaks exist for the interests of the employer: to  make the workers more productive. If they don’t fulfill that function they should be abolished. She recommends instead that workers spend the time writing out to do lists, or seeking feedback on their work. Oh Dear I think I see lunchtime appraisals and self-criticism sessions just cresting the horizon.

On the other hand I think that  lunch-breaks exist (or at least they should do) for the benefit of the worker taking them. There are many ways in which employers can squeeze more productivity out of their workers- certainly if they have no long-term responsibility for their workers’ wellbeing and they can simply replace workers when they are no longer maximally productive, abolishing breaks is one one of them. But we workers have other responsibilities to ourselves and our communities: and that means that we need to take back ownership of that short lunch period – reclaim that break from work during an 8 hour working shift, and do with it whatever pleases us.

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Last Exhibition at the Old Wash House

I am at the moment very ‘exercised’ about archives. I work in an institution that does not believe that academics – or anyone else for that matter- needs space for the physical storage of such things as print books and papers. The papers that we all collected during our various activist days of the 1970s and 1980s, will if they are lucky, find a home in a box in a loft. But if we are super efficient we have probably already thrown them away to make room for open plan empty space.

I already know that a number of collections of papers about organisations and initiatives that promoted women’s education and employment in science and technology has been lost/mislaid as they were moved from one organisation to another, that had neither the skills to look after an archive nor the funding to be anything other than a temporary resting place.  The creation of the London Women’s Library in its home in the renovated East End wash houses in 2002, was a hopeful sign that, not only the precious collection of items from the First Wave feminist suffrage movement would be properly cared for and exhibited, but that it could be a home for the archives of Second Wave feminism too.

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the opening of its last exhibition: Treasures of the Women’s Library.  This exhibition started life as a celebration of 10 years of the Women’s Library, it opens as the last exhibition that the Library will have since it will move from its purpose-built [ although it is   a renovated wash-house so I am not sure that this adjective is quite accurate] home to a new location in the library of the London School of Economics.  It is a wonderful exhibition of books, pamphlets papers, photos, flags, badges, posters and flyers, products of the commercial publishing industry side by side with the roughly printed posters of action groups and campaigns ,and the hand embroidered banners.   One of the most orginal aspects of the exhibition was the little side room dedicated to Greenham Common. The evening that I attended one of the women who donated many of the items in this room was there talking about them, and the impact on her life of that action. It was the kind of experience of critical consciousness that led her to further action and to becoming in her 50s an undergraduate student. Education and social and political activism at times go hand in hand. I am not sure if Britain in 2012 is one of those times.

The Library’s collection and some of its staff will move to the LSE, and open there next year. The LSE library has a huge collection of political and social reform movements, such as the Fabian Society and CND, so this looks like a safe home for a collection on UK feminist and suffrage activity.  I hope it can support the collection as ‘living’ and growing. The present exhibition would be much diminished if it had not included its Greenham room.

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