(I'm not a musician.) I was taught as a child that I must not 'blow my own trumpet' as in talking about myself – especially not to say anything good about myself. I was also taught that much of what I could say about myself was nonsense and I needn't expect anyone to believe it. If I myself believed it, I must be insane. If not, I was obviously a liar. Telling my story, therefore, became a very confronting task. I am now in my late seventies, as I begin this blog, and it is only a preparation – things I write on the way to writing the memoir. Nevertheless, everything posted here is copyright and must not be reproduced without written permission from the author (usually me).

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Girlhood as a Social Construct

That sounds scholarly, doesn't it? But these are just notes really. In The Wisdom Circle, a discussion group I participate in, we're currently answering questions posed by Brooke Medicine Eagle in her book Buffalo Woman Comes Singing. It's been a marvellous exercise so far, bringing up all sorts of recollections and realisations for each of us.

As this blog is a compilation of pieces in preparation for a memoir, rather than the final version of the memoir itself, I thought it could be useful to include this particular raw material. Here are my personal answers to the questions about the first stage of life: girlhood. (I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s.)

Girlhood. ----- Begin with your earliest memories and consider the messages you received from women in your family.

How were you expected to behave:

To be polite. To speak nicely.

To sit with my ankles crossed.

When a teen, to wear stockings and white gloves when out in public.

That it was important to be pretty. In my family it was also OK for girls to be intelligent and talented, and I was praised for that. It was considered a blessing which would make up for not being pretty.

It was important to get married. As I was not pretty and therefore might not marry, it was lucky I had a brain and would be able to support myself with a career.

In my family, it was considered an advantage for housewives-and-mothers to be intelligent too, even though they didn’t have to work. The term ‘houseproud’ was not a compliment, but denoted a woman who had no interests beyond housework and therefore was somewhat despised or pitied.

Working-class boys were not suitable as husbands. Neither were any young men with low-paying jobs and poor prospects.

I was supposed to want babies.

Did you receive the same messages from  Mother – Father – Aunts – Grandmother – ?

Pretty much – but my father hoped I would be a free spirit and have many lovers before marriage, whereas the rest of the family still thought virginity a requirement for a bride.

Teachers – ?

Not overtly, but it was taken for granted.

Girls of your own age?

Preteen, they were as innocently rebellious as me. As they got older, they adopted the conventional views.

How did you feel about these messages?

I thought my mother’s life looked unutterably boring, and I didn’t want that.

Were there things you wanted to do that you were not allowed to do because – "Girls don't do things like that?" – list some.

I didn't like the fact that certain games and sports were for boys only. I didn’t particularly want to play them anyway, but I resented not having the choice.

I also didn't like the fact that there were things I was supposed to DO by virtue of being a girl, such as cook and sew, neither of which had any appeal for me.

Were there things about being a girl that you loved? – list some.

I liked my sleeping doll, Julie, and I still have her.

I liked watching my Mum get dressed up for parties, with beautiful clothes, perfumes and jewels and I looked forward to growing up like that. But I didn't like the party dresses I had as a child, because they restricted me and I had to keep them clean.

It appeared that boys were obliged to be rough and tough, and to settle some things by fighting. I was glad girls didn't have to.

How do you feel about these now?

I mostly wear trousers. I still like perfume and jewels, and enjoy getting dressed up for parties. 

I still wouldn't want to have to be physically rough and tough, as something expected and required of me. I don't think I'd be very good at it, and anyway I think there are better ways to solve problems. Besides, I'm a physical coward.

Were there hopes & dreams you had as a girl that you have put
aside growing older?

Only being a ballet dancer, which it turned out I was no good at because I was uncoordinated and had no ear for music or sense of rhythm. I have fulfilled all my other dreams. My parents and grandparents were feminists before we even had the word, so I was encouraged to believe I could follow my dreams.

(Only the dream of being a poet was considered too impractical; I was told it would have to be a hobby, not a job. This was nothing to do with gender, however – and I must admit they had a point!)

When did you feel you became a woman instead of a girl?

When I married my first husband at the age of 22. (Even though I graduated university and had a responsible job before that.) This realisation surprises me. I think it was something to do with having one's own home, one's own domain that one was in charge of.

What would you tell a little girl of your own now about being female?

There are many ways to express that. Find the one that suits you. Follow your joy; that's your clue and your guidance. 

I would say the same to a boy about being male.

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