Educating Women

In the austere days towards the end of the second world war, my grand-parents were considered either enlightened or very foolish when they allowed my mother to take up the place she was offered  at secondary school.  At the time, most pupils stayed in general schools until the compulsory leaving age of fourteen, only the most academically able being offered transfer to a school that specialised in more adanced education, which catered for young people up to the age of eighteen.  Although places were offered to bright girls,in my grandparents’ class educating girls was considered rather a waste, when they were only going to marry, keep house, and produce and rear children.  Such schools did not charge fees, but providing the uniform and writing equipment was a drain on household expenses, and, more importantly, a girl had to be fed and clothed, even if she was making no contribution to the family finances until long after her fourteenth birthday because she was still at school.

The precedent set by her eldest brother may have helped; having completed his secondary education, he was about to become the first in the family to go off to university.  But although she showed a quick and ready intelligence, often borrowing that brother’s textbooks, studying them, and then debating the contents with him, the basic School Certificate (precursor to O-levels) was the limit of her parents’ folly or enlightenment.  At sixteen she was expected to work at a job without prospects until she should marry, and to pass over her pay packet each week to her mother, who would use most of her wages to pay for food and other household expenses, giving her back a small sum for her own personal spending.

If she had been born fifty years later, my mother could have shared my children’s easy acceptance of the right to go to university, subject only to satisfying academic entrance requirements.  She would have loved the buzz of exhilarating debate, and would have revelled in the broadening of her horizons.  Her interest in people, and her propensity for collecting life’s waifs and strays, would also no doubt have found full expression on a university campus!  On the other hand, perhaps her thirst for learning and her love of solitude might have encouraged her to frequent the library more than more sociable venues!

Instead, she was largely self-taught, being a voracious reader, until she chose to focus her study on music.  She fitted in her practice, her learning of harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and teaching theory around giving birth to and raising her children.  Once we were all in bed, she would spend an hour at the piano before getting out her textbooks.  Bach – her greatest joy and composer of choice for developing technical skill – and Beethoven, her greatest challenge, lulled me to sleep night after night, soothing me with the evidence that mum was not very far away.  Should she change her routine, perhaps because there were too many household chores to finish, my sister and I would lie tense and silent, all our attention focused on listening for that first warm-up scale that would reassure us that our world was indeed still safe.

It was not until I had my own children that I realised what determination it must have taken, to spend all day devoting herself to her toddlers and babies, and then consistently to practise and study in the evenings.  There were days, when I had three little ones, where I would fall asleep on a child’s bed, having barely managed to finish reading the story before sinking into oblivion.  Yet Mum managed to summon up the energy and fire, night after night, to attack the latest recalcitrant sonata, or develop control of the next fugue.  Presumably, when my father returned late and exhausted from his long day’s work, she also managed to put aside her studies and focus on being a wife.

Both my parents were enlightened as far as education was concerned.  While the girls down the road went to the nearest secondary school, and the girls from the big house opposite went to an establishment where they could learn to be young ladies, much thought went into choosing the best and most appropriate school for each of my siblings and myself, with the same standards applied to girls as to boys.  (As an aside, I later applied for a vacancy for a maths teacher at that school for young ladies, and was told at interview that I wouldn’t have to worry too much about whether the pupils passed their exams, as they didn’t expect girls to be very good at maths!  I turned the job down…)

In the early 1970s, a grant towards the cost of university fees and living expenses was determined solely on the basis of income (of the prospective student and, except in the rare cases of mature students, of his or her parents), and male and female applicants were judged by exactly the same rules.  There were those who felt this was inappropriate:  the argument in favour of university grants was that graduates earned far more on average over their working life than non-graduates, and hence paid more taxes, so that contributing to higher education was seen as an investment, rather than a hand-out.  In that case, why pay the same grant to a woman, who would be unlikely to earn enough to pay back the country in extra taxes?  This viewpoint was overruled, not in the name of equality, but because it was decided that the benefits to the nation of a university education ought not to be viewed solely in terms of earning capacity.  Although most of them would end up as housewives, or working in part-time jobs where their academic skills were irrelevant, women graduates contributed in other ways, not least as the nurturers of the next generation.

Less than thirty years later, when my own children were weighing up their educational options, gender was totally irrelevant in determining suitability for a university place and also when considering potential earning power thereafter.  We have come a long way in just two generations.

My mother was never militant, and would not have called herself a feminist.  She had no vision of herself as a trail-blazer:  her family was at the heart of her life and her priorities, and no doubt the fact that she could earn a significant contribution to the household income without leaving the home influenced her choice of future career and hence her course of study.  But the copious numbers of women like her, who did their best for their families;  who found a way to study and achieve in a world that thought they were either incapable of it, or incapable of profiting from it;  who did a full day’s work as a wife and mother, and then found the energy to learn or work in the evenings;  who earned less than their colleagues, in spite of doing the same job, simply because of their gender:  these women, and the men who empowered them and shared their lives, surely forged a path that we who come later can follow without such hardship.  And so, I would like to thank my mother and all those like her for their dedication, their determination, and above all for their love.