Thursday, October 6, 2011

Time travel

I had a free trip to Auckland last week - my old school, Auckland Girls' Grammar, invited me to speak at Founding Day. Strange to remember what I was like then - my mother used to say I had "no brains for anything but schoolwork", and she was right. I enjoyed going back through the beautiful old building where we had almost all our classes and assemblies, though now it houses the staffroom and various utility centres - the 1400 girls and the library have moved to a much bigger smart modern block next door. Here's what I said - they laughed in all the right places:
           "Half a century ago, in 1961, I was here at school in what was then the lower sixth. My classmates then are still my closest friends. Our class already had a dreadful reputation. In the fifth form we weren’t allowed to be called 5A1, and were known instead as 5X. (X didn’t have the X-rated associations it does today.) In the lower sixth we had to be allowed our proper name of 6B. One striking difference between my day and yours is the impressively large numbers in the senior school now. When I was here, although it was already a big school when , there was only one small lower sixth and one very small upper sixth. Very few girls went on to the upper forms, let alone to university. But we were not allowed to occupy 6B’s traditional home, the tower room.

6B, 1961 - I'm in front, reading

Why were the teachers so concerned about our class? Because we were irritatingly different. When we disapproved of a teacher, we united in silence strikes, refusing to answer any questions. Quite a few of us were unusually independent and strong-minded, finding creative ways to subvert what we considered petty rules, for example about uniforms and hair. Some of us wore black underwear, as required – but it was black lace. Yes, there were underwear inspections in those days.
         I see the senior girls can today wear pretty much what they like, presumably underneath as well as on top. You owe my class some thanks for that. In the lower sixth we fought for, and won, for the very first time, the right for senior girls to wear a different uniform. [Spontaneous applause broke out here!]You would have found it very weird – white blouse, straight navy skirt, and ordinary brown stockings instead of black ones – but it was the principle that mattered.
         We can’t have been all that bad. Members of our class went on to become, for example, a prominent journalist, a pioneer of women’s and patients’ rights who is now an Auckland city councillor, an internationally recognised economist, and the human rights commissioner. Being such a generally stroppy class had something to do with this. We listened and learnt, but we also thought for ourselves. And of course our teachers had a lot to do with it too. They gave us an excellent education and were obviously perfectly capable of running the place.
          But the example they set us also had one disadvantage – it stopped us noticing that in the world outside, women rarely ran anything except girls’ schools. When my friend went to the Herald to ask about becoming a cub reporter, she was told, “Oh no, dear! We don’t take girls!” When I was at Auckland University, I dreamt of an academic career. Foolishly I failed to notice that there was only one woman in the English department. All my other lecturers were men. Although I got first class honours, not one of my university teachers ever said anything to me about my future prospects – because in fact they were virtually nil. Not only was I a woman, I had married at 19 and had my first child at 20. So I just didn’t count.
           New Zealand has fortunately changed a great deal since then. And it has changed thanks, in part, to the most annoying girls in my class, and the teachers who gave them the idea that it was perfectly normal for women to use their brains and run things. It was my generation of women who started making this a reality – not just for a few exceptional women, but for all the women you now see around you everywhere, flying planes and working on the tarmac, running their own businesses, prosecuting, defending and judging cases in court, heading co-ed schools, a few boys’ schools, even the Ministry of Education. Or the women like my engineering geologist niece in London, who told me that on her new project site she’s the youngest, the smallest, the only New Zealander and the only woman – and she’s in charge.
           A study I did a few years ago shows that about a quarter of all men and women now work in jobs where they’re in roughly equal numbers – jobs like industrial designer, optometrist, accountant, finance manager, radiologist, pharmacist. But it’s not all good. There’s a whole layer of jobs that are still very strongly divided by gender, and by pay. About half of all men and women work in these jobs – exactly as they did when I left school. Men are drivers, mechanics, tradesmen. Women are caregivers, office workers, nurses. Equally skilled work, but they earn a lot less. And at the bottom, there’s another layer where men and women compete for necessary, useful, but very low-paid jobs, like cleaner and packer.
           There are two ways to fix this. Girls can do very well in the trades, and they’re badly needed. But we also urgently need better pay for socalled “women’s jobs”, the jobs that involve taking care of people, the jobs we can’t do without. If you do this kind of highly skilled, vital job, you shouldn’t have to pay the price in lower wages. And everyone deserves a living wage for a decent day’s work. Running through all this is the big problem that still faces women, and increasingly, men too: how do you combine taking care of a family with doing the kind of paid work you want to do? If you want to make a really important contribution to New Zealand, please focus on solving this one.
           We did our best to change the world for the better when we left school. Now it’s your turn. I’m sure you’ll be fantastic – and you’ll have a great time doing it."


  1. Nice speech, Anne, and what a different world it was for girls back then.
    I talked to the Anthropology professor when I was trying to make a choice about whether to major in Anthropology or English. He said that, being female, the only way I could succeed would be to be married to an anthropologist. Field work for a woman would be too hard. (Looking back, why didn't he mention Margaret Mead and say Go for it!).

  2. A beautiful speech, thank you for publishing it. And thank you for being one of those stroppy women who made change for the generations of women who followed you possible.

    I went to Epsom Girls Grammar in the 1980's and have always thought that our girls schools are excellent places for young women to learn and grow. We also were taught that girls could do anything, and encouraged to have minds of our own. I really enjoyed my time there, and I was lucky enough to be able to return as a teacher (albeit very briefly). It is still a wonderful place and if I had a daughter I would want her to go there.

    I found the girls of the current generation in high school are fiercely feminist, even if they don't associate with that word. It gives me great hope for the future!