I didn’t choose to work in a girls’ school. It just sort of happened. Twice. I wasn’t even aware, the first time, that girls’ schools existed outside of the independent sector. And this is in no way me weighing in on the argument about mixed or single sex education: I am too utterly torn between the unfairness of working in phenomenal schools that effectively exclude 50% of the population, and the fact that girls are really, really lovely to teach on their own. (I know it’s more complicated than that, so here ends my weighing.)
One thing that I love about working in an all-girls’ school is the way I can shape my lessons and my curriculum to reflect what are also my concerns. I can obviously understand and empathise with the women in literature and the feminist concerns more readily and with more interest than those of the other sex. I know what girls like. And I’m sure my colleagues in mixed schools know what both boys and girls like, but with me there was no learning involved.
It’s self-indulgent to have the capacity to only consider what would interest people I was once like. My reading lists are undeniably lacking in machismo, action or horror, or any of those texts that traditionally don’t appeal to women; don’t appeal to me.
But what is much more important than all this literary laziness is the opportunity to be proactive about women’s issues. That’s right, I said it. Because for all our assumed equality, there is a massive bone to pick with literary history, and I intend on my girls knowing about it and reading about it, then using those glasses to look more closely at the way things are now, and to draw some new conclusions.
Year 10 have just finished studying a beautiful course my department has called “Women in nineteenth century literature.” The first half term, we skipped through “The Lady of Shalott” and waded more slowly through “Jane Eyre,” before considering the female mindset under patriarchy (or, hysteria) in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” We then segued into an exploration of women who once earned us the right to vote, looking at the pamphlets they wrote and the speeches they gave.
The young women I teach are full of confidence, and full of brains. They brim with these. There is an overriding concern in some areas of some English departments with what boys are reading, and what boys are learning, and how to engage boys in reading and literature; in particular ethnic groups particularly. But when you dig down in the data, with the luxury of looking only at the girls, the same under-achievements are there. Yes, girls do better overall; but crucially, not as well as they could.
Of course, gender is only one slim strand of a person’s many-textured personality; it is simplistic to argue that if I like it, they like it. But I will be forever grateful for the many opportunities this single orientation has allowed me.