From the archive - 03.01.1958

9th March 2012 at 00:00

Amazons in brogues: the boarding school tradition

A short time ago I used to travel to work in the company of a little schoolgirl. She was shy and seldom spoke. At the age of 13, she disappeared and I heard she had gone to boarding school. About two years later I saw her coming along the road in the uniform of a well-known public school, taller and tougher-looking. "Hullo," I said. "How are you these days?" "Very well," she replied stoutly. "And how are you?" I said I was also well. "Good show," she said, and strode on.

It was about the same time that I met another girl whom I had known in her early years. This one, who had just left public school, had been childish and expansive about her doings. She was now voluble, but she talked for effect, as if life was a cocktail party and nothing must be said which no one has said before.

These examples illustrate what was presumably behind a question put forward the other day by a detached observer. She asked why girls' boarding schools produced such unlikeable, unfeminine girls.

The question was partly unjust and a little out of date, and the two girls who I have summoned in support of it were arbitrarily selected; anyone could adduce quite different examples. All the same, there is a grain of truth that needs examining.

Fifty years ago there were two quite different boarding schools for girls. There was the old kind, which had the touch of finishing school about it and favoured accomplishments rather than learning. And there was the new kind, the girls' public school which was part of the current protest against sex inequality and sought to show that what boys could do, girls could also do. By the end of the First World War, the older type was busily transforming itself in some kind of version of the new.

The new model was a gift to the intelligent girl, gave new scope to strong characters and put an end to false notions about the purpose of girls' education.

The ideas introduced a new, false assumption. The proof that girls could march parallel with boys was taken to mean that this is what they should do. For fear of losing ground no woman's voice was raised to mock this corollary, to question whether a training calculated to produce masculine leaders of men would make a girl a better wife and mother. To ask this was to admit that a woman's place was in the home. And this was the traditional assumption that the leaders of the women's movement were most determined to contest. At that time, the professional careers were not, as now, considered compatible with domestic virtues and feminine grace.

It is curious how, with the battle won and women having the best of both worlds, this imitation should persist in girls' boarding schools.

Here we are, at the beginning of a highly dangerous age in which women's sharper conscience, practical reasoning and ready compassion might fill a vacancy in leadership, but women are afraid to devise their own training for it.

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