Everyday Sexism in the 1970s

I wish Laura Bates’ website had been around then. As a large-breasted, cripplingly self-conscious and generally friendless teenager, with an unaccompanied two-hour journey to college and back, I was subjected to this “niggling” kind of sexist treatment routinely, all the time.
I grew up in the depths of the countryside, so I was about 15 before the brutal shock started to sink in: urban public spaces, streets, parks, whatever, didn’t mean public to me. Hitherto, I’d understood that the public meant the grown-ups, but I’d maintained the happy delusion that one day I’d be a grown-up and a member too. I’d be free to come and go as I liked, when I liked, where I liked. It wouldn’t matter not having a grown-up to take me, or even friends to go with. I didn’t have to wait for a boy to ask me. I could go out anyway.
Wrong. Gradually it became clear; just because I was female, I was never going to be left in peace. I couldn’t walk alone, I couldn’t go to a café or a bar or a cinema alone, I couldn’t even sit in a sunny park and read. All these places really belonged to the boys, how stupid was I not to grasp this? Was I expecting an emblazoned Men-only sign or something? I could only stay on sufferance. I really needed an explicit invitation. If I went on my own, I was – surely I understood? – actually asking for one of them to join me. And of course, I liked it really. To be picked up was what I had come out for, right?
I’m not talking about strip-clubs, or even bars. I’m talking about public parks, cafes, libraries, cinemas, anywhere.
This was the kind of invisible purdah in which western young women lived, back in the late 1970s. On Laura Bates’ evidence, they still do. It affects everything about us; our interests, our self-confidence, our ambitions; everything.
Even as I write this I hear the old silencing voices in my mind: “Oh, she likes it really.” Like the stealth-boasting mum complaining about her too-precocious child, all women who complain about sexual harassment “like it really, all women do . .” “They’ll complain quickly enough when nobody notices them” and, the more intellectual, misquoting Oscar Wilde, “Well, lady – there’s only one thing worse than being whistled at in public – and that’s NOT being whistled at in public!” The same voices are chorusing now, “She’s only writing all this to remind herself of how good-looking she once was, now that’s she’s an ugly old crone.”
“That Laura Bates too – she should be so lucky! Look how good-looking she is in all the photos? Don’t pretend she doesn’t know it! Who wouldn’t wolf-whistle that?”
I wasn’t ever as good looking as Laura Bates, though it is possible that I had bigger breasts. But even so, I didn’t like it really. I always hated it. And I couldn’t really believe those who insisted I’d be sorry when the catcalls stopped, though my brilliant father’s absolute certainty on this point did make me wonder. But I was right and he was wrong. Oh, I was so right. One of the very best things about being 55 is how, for just about the first time in my life, the streets, the public spaces of my city are mine at last. At last, I can walk, eat, sit down and read or survey the view, and nobody bothers me at all. I only wish I had more time for it.
Nor is it lonely, because should I wish to approach a male, I can do so, generally, without gut-assumptions being made about what I’m after, or what chance they might have. I am free to have an unencumbered human interaction. This is the malign heart of the assumption we faced; that a woman had to choose between being constantly sexually harassed and consigned to neglect and loneliness. But actually, few things are lonelier than the basic-human-neglect of constant sexual harassment. Common or garden neglect is a cinch by comparison; or put another way, it’s freedom.

I loved living in Mexico City, mostly. I loved the freedom I had there, as an already-mature, developed-world woman (for want of better phrase) to travel the length and breadth of that stunning country on a shoestring. I loved the $100 a month flat I returned to, with its roof terrace and nearby tropical park. I was freed by my status, my relative wealth, and my relative age to do much as I pleased with this gorgeous, cut-price playground. But it was also the loneliest place I had ever lived. Nowhere was it clearer, the chasm between constant sexual harassment, attention or call it what you will, and companionship. And nowhere were its consequences more evident.
If popular culture is to be believed, Mexican women, unlike “unfeminine” northerners, genuinely enjoy street sexual harassment, so long as it’s only “little compliments”. They genuinely worry if they don’t get them, apparently, on every excursion. Look how they attend to their appearance, doing do all they can to maximise its incidence. But wait a minute; popular culture is in Mexico is what it is around the world: the popularist voice of the male, and there’s more than a hint of admonition in it: you ladies out there; don’t get any ideas above your station. Make sure you preserve that femininity.
For Mexican women were among the most timid I have come across in my entire life. The Mexico City metro, pickpocketing aside, is about the safest place in the whole city, yet the prospect of travelling a single stop unaccompanied filled the well-brought up native lady with horror. “It’s not safe!” they gasped, looking at me aghast, convinced that in my daily ignorance I was courting the most desperate attacks, clearly sexual in nature.
Well, I was once rubbed against in a packed carriage during rush hour. But that was it, in three years spent bumming about on my own on public transport on a daily basis. The only time I was afraid – briefly – was confronting a gang of boys on an isolated beach after dark, very far from the city. I kept my head, crossed my fingers and succeeded in shaking them off. The freedom I enjoyed in Mexico was not shared by local women of any social class. And that, yes, was very lonely for me.

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Growing Pains; how a brilliant primary school programme becomes a victim of success

So Michael Gove is sending his daughter to a Westminster comprehensive. As a measure of how small inner London is, in distances if not population, it’s the school attended by the older sister of a child in my son’s class. I assumed some other girls from our class would eventually go there (the school is girls-only). But since last Friday I’ve been thinking, good as that school is, it may not be considered good enough for most of them.

Our school is a bog-standard inner-city community primary, in terms of intake (30% free-school-meals, 50% English-as-second-language, 80% non-white-British), and curriculum (largely imposed) and resources (stretched). All of which is enough to make it exceptional historically, and, like a beloved child, irreplaceable those of us committed to it. But there is one way in which it is exceptional by any standards: its intensive music programme. Every single child takes violin class for half an hour, three times a week, every week, from age five. One of those lessons falls out of school time, another is taken with just one other child. Violins, music, everything is provided free of charge, and, oh yes, for three years, it’s as compulsory as learning to read and write. After that the same programme becomes optional and costs something like £3 a week.

It’s only been running for six years, so the first year to benefit has now reached year 6. Like all year 6 children, they’ve just received their secondary school offers. And guess what – no less than four (out of 30) have full music scholarships to well-known private schools. A fifth child has an arts scholarship.

“How fantastic!” exclaimed the mother of the child in Michael Gove’s chosen school when I told her this stunning news.

Fantastic or not, a parent governor told me that at last week’s governor’s meeting she’d had to defend the music programme for all she was worth.

“But I thought everyone loved it!” I said. “I had no idea it was controversial.” But then I put two and two together. “Of course, it doesn’t benefit everyone.”

“Some of the other governors,” the parent governor said, “think it diverts too many resources.  And (our head teacher) agrees.”

“But I thought she was really keen!”

“Yes, but she’s listening to them. She is concerned about equality. The violin drop-out rate is too high.”

My child’s year, now 2, is, it’s been suggested, an especially musical one. Even so, I can’t see any child from the lowest of the three music streams, and even some in the middle stream, carrying on with the violin for a week longer than they have to. And guess what, the top stream is increasingly made up of children doing well in every area, while those in the bottom stream are almost exactly the same children in the bottom reading and maths sets. This isn’t completely uniform, and several of the brightest kids are just middling violinists (as yet) while some middling-academic children are up with the best musicians . . . but there are absolutely no completely non-academic kids in our year’s top violin set.

Not that any of them are exceptional, at this stage. It’s just that some come from homes where practice is taken seriously and some do not. Some come from homes with at least moderately musical parents; my own child is one of two with a piano in the living room; one of three, I believe, whose parents can sort-of read music. No prizes for guessing where our children end up. And which children, in four years’ time, will have the best chance of those scholarships.

So it’s not so odd, after all, that the Head has mixed feelings; in fact I share them. Not about the outstanding music programme, about which I among many parents can hardly believe my luck; but about how it’s slowly, inevitably, going to affect our unassuming little school. It’s just another one of those examples; wherever you go, whatever you do to help the most deprived, it ends up benefitting the already-relatively privileged most, rubbing our hands together as we do at our own good fortune. And all that does is exacerbate inequality, especially when financially- exclusive private schools are involved. I’m fairly sure the wonderful music charity which initiated this scheme, choosing our school for its non-denominational, mixed ethnic, high-deprivation-area intake, didn’t foresee it as a means of distributing private-school tickets. I’m sure they didn’t sell it that way to our head.

And now year 5 private tutoring has started in earnest, I hear, in some families’ hope of their child being one of the chosen ones next year, although until recently most were probably perfectly content with the prospect of the local comprehensives (pretty good, according to OFSTED).

Soon, the many local parents who would normally take prep-school for granted, will be sharp-elbowing their kids in, looking to save themselves a few thousand on both prep-school fees and music lessons, and a fair chance of a cheap ticket to Eton later on.

In which case – saddest of all – the programme won’t last long. It or our head teacher and the whole quality of our school will have to go. As it is, it’s a constant financial struggle to maintain, but without idealism behind it, the effort won’t be considered worthwhile. If its principle goes, then so will everything else, and then our bog-standard inner-city primary really will be back to where it started.








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Is it me or the system?

If, in public discourse, state benefit claimants are all free-loading scroungers, how long before the same applies to those who “claim” free, state education for our kids? This is topical this week, following a £33,000 a year public school head’s suggestion that the wealthier state school parents start contributing similar amounts to their schools, if they must use state education at all. Actually, shouldn’t they vacate those free school places in favour of those who really need them? Anyone who could remotely afford it should apply directly to Anthony Seldon’s school instead; like all the most socially-conscious private schools, he has some top-up bursaries to distribute where absolutely necessary.

This has been called impractical at best, evil at worst. What depresses me is the total abandonment of principle of comprehensive education; where all segments of society, the talented and the challenged, the privileged and the deprived, all hang out in the same general location, sharing the same facilities, for at least a small fraction of their lives, and thereby do have a chance, at least, to recognise that we are all the same species, and might do best to take account of each other for the rest of our lives. The alternative is more segregation, along class, ability, and ethnic lines, putting in place the cast-iron fault-lines for life. Isn’t all that already bad enough?

Why, as John Harris asks, do £33,000-a-year private schools take an interest in state education at all? Why these unprovoked impulses to engage and liaise with state secondary schools (which often end badly) especially now that their charitable status is no longer threatened? How can institutions whose raison d’etre is privilege, segregation, elitism suddenly turn around and decide, actually, we care about the unwashed masses after all? We want to help them, um, wash. Help them, you know, to lead better lives and be more like us. Anthony Seldon professes pure altruism. Am I the only cynic who thinks, hm? wondering, what’s in it for you?

It could be anything, from desperate PR from a sector that, less and less able to defend itself on moral grounds, sees itself under pressure, to a calculating desire to broaden their pupils “experience” and make them better equipped to manipulate the underclasses in future careers as media moguls, corporate utility bosses or Tory politicians. Perhaps it’s both those things, and other things besides. But whatever it is, I’m sure it’s about them, not about us. Their parents surely wouldn’t have it any other way.

Which brings me to the parents. I have more experience of these than a state-educated lady should have, for two reasons, really: the rural place I grew up in, and the urban place I live now. Back in the 1970s all my own parents’ friends, pretty much without exception, used private schools. My parents did not associate with the parents of the children I shared classrooms with; instead, I was expected to get along, outside of school, with the pupils of what was and is one of the most expensive private schools in the country. It got harder the older I got, and snobby responses from parents and offspring alike to my lack of private school panache, fashion sense and occasional plebby turns of phrase got worse. That was one of several reasons, I think, I was an exceptionally miserable adolescent who for years virtually gave up talking altogether. But never mind, I survived it and here I am, aged almost 55, as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I have ever been.

And now in danger of inflicting the exact-same issues on my own child. On the face of it my current home could hardly be more different; it’s inner-city, ethnically diverse, I can take tubes and buses everywhere I want to go. My son gets to primary school from our front door in 20 seconds flat; ten if we run. There’s a good chance he’ll get into the decent state secondary all of two minutes away; whereas I spent three hours daily from aged 11 commuting to the only county grammar school to admit girls. Not a girls’ grammar school, note; just the only one to admit girls. My brothers didn’t need to; there was a boys’ only grammar ten minutes away. I travelled on paid-for public transport, virtually alone.

Now, just about all my immediate neighbours pay that £33,000 – or maybe it’s only half that at primary level – for the privilege of driving their kids across south London to one of the numerous snobby prep-schools in Battersea, Clapham and Chelsea. It must take them 45 minutes on a good morning; I see them from our front window starting their smart cars when my son and I have barely begun breakfast. “Ooh, I so envy you, having such an easy school run!” cooed one parent who happened to catch me outside. I won’t repeat what I said back – actually, it’s obvious – but I don’t think she’ll try that kind of condescension again.

I can’t resist it, I’m sorry – but it’s my child I’m sorry for. I’m afraid I’m alienating his non-school friends, the children from our conservation area terraces, with whom he’s played effortlessly enough outside weekends and summer evenings all his short life up until now. But wait – who is really doing the alienating? Is it really me, with my silly, catty remarks? Or is it the families who put so much effort and expense into avoiding us at the great state primary on their doorstep?

To be honest, I don’t know. Like any parent, I’m just concerned to protect my child. I’ve always loved living here, who wouldn’t? It’s a great location, a pocket of nice houses, in a world-class city; super-convenient for anywhere – and best of all there’s a rare patch of green outside for children to play on. But at the first sign my son is being made to feel inferior by his posher (whiter) neighbours, however slightly – we’ll move, I promise, somewhere where all the people who count are not too posh for the local community school.

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The money we earn . . .

The good money we earn – is it ours by divine right? Did we work so hard for it that we are right to feel affronted by demands to donate any portion of it to those less well-endowed, who didn’t? I’ll call this Polly’s paradox, after Polly Toynbee , noting that even Labour supporters think current state benefit levels are too high. No-one, it seems, can bring themselves to admire the principle of above-subsistence state support for those in need. Not even for children in need. Not even, apparently, those in need, which is most of us at some time or other. Ms Toynbee has no solution, beyond hoping that opinions will soften when people see benefit cuts affect their nearest and dearest, but I fear the problem is weirder than that. We are capable of enormous feats of doublethink: “Oh I didn’t mean you are a layabout scrounger! Or me! Just everyone else on disability benefit/tax credits/housing benefit!”

As far as I can see, attitudes will only change when the link between pay levels and respectability is severed. When the public, en masse, recognises that, not only mega-salaries, but most halfway-decent salaries are probably less well-earned than miniscule ones, or indeed non-existent ones. That the hardest, most stressed workers of all are probably those who are not paid at all, except in benefits; a serial single mother, or a long-term carer, for example, on a run-down estate. How can anyone who is any kind of mother be fooled by the Daily Mail into imagining these lives are just one long irresponsible adventure holiday?

I’m going to come clean now about my most embarrassing personal secret: I too live off unearned income, and have done for several years. As a parent of young child, whose partially disabled father works long hours for virtually nothing, in the hope (his only hope) of improving his skills and contacts sufficiently to one day earn more; without a fortuitous inheritance just after our child’s birth, we would all be very poor indeed, and a lot more dependent on tax credits than we are at present. I’m not proud of it; on the contrary, I am as ashamed of my unearned income as any benefit scrounger. I have conscientiously avoided the kind of self-congratulatory circles where private incomes are relatively common, which has isolated me, in terms of social class, but there it is; that choice of mine virtually made itself. Actually, I’m not sure, given my other circumstances, that it was really a choice. Whatever, without that private income, my child would suffer, particularly in years to come.

One thing the banking crisis, and the mega-salaries’ publicity which followed did for me was make my own private guilt easier to bear. I didn’t earn my little pot of money, I didn’t deserve it, didn’t work hard enough for it – but by god, neither did a great many other people. And neither will their children, most likely with far fewer conscience pricks than I’ve had.

Yeah, sneer, please do, because I’m not trying to make myself likeable, I’m trying to make a point. Vast amounts of insufficiently earned income is a fact of life in places like the UK today where wealth differentials soar. It’s paid for by far vaster amounts of mass-distributed micro-incomes that have probably been “earned”, by comparison, ten or twenty or 100 times over.

Until the public comes to question the generally-held conviction that high salaries (and soaring capital assets) are deservedly and honestly enjoyed by people who are simply “better” than the rest, rather than just a bit more fortunate, it will never accept the levels of tax-redistribution necessary to give the children of the underclass a genuine fighting chance.

I’ve lived in developing countries where wealth-poverty diversions are far more extreme than here. There, you can hear the privileged openly convincing itself of the innate inferiority of the masses; serious, quasi-scientific reasons a bit like Boris Johnson’s are trotted out in polite conversation why the best of them will never be good for anything but domestic service or production lines. Clearly, to many of the wealthy, the poor and uneducated really do belong to a different animal species. It’s easy to be shocked, but I understand that some people need to believe it. How else could they live comfortably as they do?

The facility with which those convoluted arguments flowed on the other side of the Atlantic give me little optimism about what’s happening here. I don’t think British people are any more naturally egalitarian. We’re moving backwards towards underdevelopment, towards widening social classes, away from national consensus and all-mucking-in-together – and apparently, we’re supposed to be proud of it.





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The Tale of the Missing Mountain Bike: an urban parable

Last night, my partner’s bike was stolen from our front yard. Not surprising in hindsight; it’s a smart bike, and it shouldn’t have been outside on a dark December evening. A neighbour who’d seen something suspicious alerted me just a little too late. I contacted my partner, who was still at work, and he said phone the police.

So I did. They logged the report and an investigator called me back this morning; which quite impressed me, it’s just a bike, for heaven’s sake! The man was on the ball, too, knew something about patterns of local bike theft. He would be sending someone to interview my neighbour.  No doubt about it, he made me feel the crime was serious, probably organised and definitely worth pursuing. He wants to catch these crooks.

But on another level, he made me deeply uncomfortable. He picked up on my partner’s foreign name at once.  He did have the decency at least to ask straight out, is he black? But then; where’s he from? Does he have a British passport? I answered obediently, becoming unpleasantly aware that within seconds my partner was metamorphosing from victim into suspect. Well I suppose, I kept thinking vaguely, from your point of view it could be a set-up, he could be part of an immigrant-criminal network.  Does he have a job? The questions continued. What as? How long has he had the bike? Does he still have documentation for it? Before I could answer that one, it was, “Now, give me your honest opinion, Ms er . . .,  is he a well-organised, reliable sort of person, or . . .?”

“Are you joking?!” I sensed he was prompting me to say. “My partner could no sooner find old documentation for that posh bike (assuming he ever had any, which I doubt!)  than find his way to Mars! You should see his disgusting room! I don’t believe he’s ever filed so much as a bank statement in his life! Not that he gets bank statements of course! Not like you and me!”

Instead I mumbled something about a lot of paperwork, so the bike documents might take him a while to locate. In the background my deaf partner (who cannot make his own phone calls) assures me he can find the bike receipt. I pass on the message.

Only then do we get on to the details of the bike itself.

The man is doing his job, I suppose. But there was no escaping his starting-assumption; what business does an immigrant black guy have owning a £2000 mountain bike in the first place? (And having a well-spoken, probably-white, probably-being-conned girlfriend into the bargain?) It reminded me that anyone who joins the police force must accept, consciously or unconsciously, that their job is basically about protecting the haves of the world against the assaults and presumptions of the have-nots; and in order to do that, they have to make snap-judgements all the time about who belongs in which category. Who, in other words, can expect unreserved support, and who automatic suspicion. Most of all, their consciences must remain absolutely untroubled by reinforcing the wider injustice implicit in that obligation.

I really want my partner to get his bike back; I share his sorrow over losing it. But I have distinctly mixed feelings about the criminal, and am quite lukewarm about pointing that investigator to the information on him my neighbour will be able to provide. I don’t believe in black and white, heroes and villains, good and evil. I’m fairly sure, that on balance, whoever he was, that bike thief, in this horribly unequal city he’s much more of a victim than we are.

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Peeking Beyond the Comfort Zone

We talk, we metropolitan chatterers, as if ours is the whole world. Bad things happened in the past, to women and children, and to various other classes of people, but nothing like that would happen nowadays, we crow confidently. All of us are just doing fine. Look at me. Look at all my friends, having moved from the squalid urban districts of our dare-devil youth into thoroughly family-friendly neighbourhoods; and/or educating our golden-haired children privately, bar our few wacky-eccentric friends making their boho point about primary state education.  

We may know very few black people, actually none we would count as friends, but we certainly know some gays. The point being that whatever, sexual equality (“nowadays”), acceptance of gays, and anti-racism are a given. Of course they are!  The dark ages are long gone; we have moved on massively from the worlds of our parents and grandparents, whose lives were bound by the assumptions and attitudes of another country entirely.

 My now-very-elderly mother once shocked me with her take on the story of a distant acquaintance charged with rape of somewhat closer friend. “But the ridiculous thing was, you know, he could probably have had her anyway,” she declared in all earnestness, “If he’d only been more patient. She had told us how much she was looking forward to getting to know him better, and you know, she was single at the time.”   

The truth is, her generation had only the haziest notion of rape as a crime against a person (though one was free to joke, innocently, about “a fate worse than death.”)  They were naturally sceptical of the idea of rape in marriage; one had one’s duty to one’s husband and there was an end to it. The traditional view of rape, I believe, saw it as a crime committed by one man against another man’s property. It’s clear this view still holds sway in many places and in even more people’s minds, in every country. How can property be expected to consent to anything? Still less if it’s underage? 

Reports like this, in the press this week, are a reminder of how fragile all our supposedly-givens are. Male gangs convicted of “grooming” young girls for sex have apparently claimed in their defence that the underage girl-victims, mostly from children’s homes, were “just trash; no-one’s daughter or sister”, so what’s the problem, guv? The chilling thing was that I could almost see the police officers falling for it. 

I note my own reluctance to speak up at school in support of Stonewall/Mumsnet’s anti—homophobia campaign, because I know that the issue, though a no-brainer to me (and all my friends) in the context of our multi-ethnic school could be sensitive and even backfire on my child. I note my reluctance to raise the issue of sexual stereotyping at our school’s annual book fair (fairy-princess books for girls, action-superheroes for boys) and elsewhere at our termly parents’ forum for much the same reasons. It’s so easy to uphold all the right values within your own tiny comfort zone. So much harder out there in the real, unreconstructed world.


Someone needs to take on Boris Johnson head to head. He’s likely to be too influential to ignore. If it were me, I think I would start by asking him if he really thinks the super-rich (who pay for 30% of our public services, apparently) really deserve the billionaire salaries they draw.  Do they really work a billion times harder than the average care-worker, nurse or fire-fighter? Are they a billion times more talented? And is what they do really a billion-billion times more essential? And if the answer is, no, not really – I’d try to remind him, and all his followers, that all high taxation levels towards decent public (ie. free) services does, is attempt to redress the unfairness a little. Just a little. That’s assuming, of course, that there is any.




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