The scrummier halves

14th June 1996 at 01:00
OUR DAUGHTERS' LAND PAST AND PRESENT Edited by Sandra Betts University of Wales Press Pounds 12.95

This is the first book to scrutinise the childhood of Welsh women, from medieval times to the present. It assembles the work of 15 sociologists, historians, educationists and teachers writing on the gendered nature of childhood in Wales. A companion volume to Our Sisters' Land and Our Mothers' Land, its essays are lucid and vivid and the book's quality is even and sustained.

The editor says representations of Welsh children's lives, past and present, "have been virtually non-existent", but historians and sociologists working in the modern period unsurprisingly confirm the hunches of the general public.

Those brought up in Wales during the past half-century, observing the experiences of descendants, aren't surprised to hear that the gendered structures of learning and culture which were present, with class variations, in the 18th and 19th centuries, still determine or influence school syllabuses, and that Welsh boys occupy rugby fields, football fields and often netball fields too. In Welsh culture, sport is so big for males of all ages that the footballers' sisters not only find it easier to get motivated, and to get on, than their ancestresses, but than their brothers. The book's central image is the new responsible Welsh girl, from the posh or the poor school, realistic about education, sex, and work.

Thus historians and sociologists particularise and prove our unscientific impressions. The book also provides new facts, giving long perspectives to the present and recent past. Among much else, Michael Roberts illustrates gendered sport - choices and customs - from 1450 onwards, in an account of play as a forging of identity.The subject continues in the drama of the children Patricia Daniel interviews for "Hey Wizardora, give us a kiss!", about playground assertion, and the wise and wry reflections by girls quoted in "The boys have taken over the playground", by Margaret Sutton, Susan Hutson, and Jacqueline Thomas. In this book about girls, the brothers aren't forgotten, as the authors observe gender-construction and constraints.

The discussion of education includes Simone Clarke's work on the culture of the Welsh gentlewoman in the 17th and 18th centuries - absentee husbands on business or politics in England may have promoted the education and responsibility of wives and daughters.

Jane Salisbury's account of the 1994 action "Take Our Daughters to Work",cleverly introduced by a sexist address by the fictitiously named Mr Reers, is from a real careers lesson in a co-ed comprehensive. There are details of the social and domestic education of young ladies in big houses in the 17th and 18th centuries, and of their sisters in service and doing manual labour.

In an account of elementary and secondary syllabuses in the last century and in the beginning of this, W Gareth Evans tells us that Dr Withers Moore's typical fear of women's higher education - "not for the good of the human race" - raised protests in the 1886 National Eisteddfod, and that John Gibson, editor of the Cambrian News knew women were either slaves or non-existent.

Essays give details of old and new relationships between funding and syllabuses, from domestic science in the past century to family values and homophobia in the past two decades. I was a bit surprised by the 200-year survival of imposed domestic science for girls.

Social and familial identity over time is diversely illustrated: how gender dictated roles in begging; shawls wrapped Welsh-fashion; father's affection for daughters; salacious poetry; genteel tea-drinking (which Clarke optimistically thinks may have included political discussion); ore-washing and marram-grass weaving; modern girls showing new expectation of professional life, shaped by experienceof failed marriages as well as improved role models.

The essays particularise by object, name, act and sometimes voice, the innumerable biographies which Carlyle said composed history. Characters stand out: Goode and Delamont's group of women of the inter-war period who couldn't take up their grammar-school scholarships; sensible eloquent girls in contemporary playgrounds and classrooms; a woman of 80 who visited the children at an 18th-century circulating school and decided it was time to start her own education.

The editor and authors have collaborated in a scrupulously caring volume, in the interest of changing the images of Wales, and the lives of young women - and young men - for the better, making a welcome volume for teachers and parents who cannot feel entirely optimistic.

Barbara Hardy's memoir, Swansea Girl, and her novel, London Lovers, are published by Peter Owen

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