Girls and education

Girls and education

Essays on sexism, ‘trousers protests’; ‘Girls are Poweful’ badges: here feminist activist and Spare Rib collective member, Susan Hemmings, looks at girls’ experience of education and some of the anti-sexist campaigns in schools.

Girls are powerful! Girls and education in the 1970s and 80s

I worked at Spare Rib from 1976 until 1982. I was previously a teacher and a lecturer, training teachers. At that time the education system was changing: the eleven plus exams were abandoned and secondary modern and grammar schools were being replaced with comprehensive and co-educational secondary schools. As you would have expected, no-one involved the pupils and students in any of the decision making and no-one thought that was odd. School students had no voice, and girls in particular were pretty much silenced. Spare Rib set out to give girls a voice. To start with, our approach was generalised, although we did seek views from girls from a range of cultures and backgrounds. Soon there were specific articles from the voices of working class and Black and ethnic minority girls.

Spare Rib magazine issue 183

Spare Rib issue 183 p 14

Article about the experiences of Black girls in the British education system in the 1980s.

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Usage terms Item 1: issue 183 p1 front cover, photograph of schoolgirls by Jenny Matthews
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Spare Rib magazine issue 183

Spare Rib magazine issue 183 front cover

Front cover of issue 183.

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Usage terms Item 1: issue 183 p1 front cover, photograph of schoolgirls by Jenny Matthews
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Sexism at school

In a special issue on education, school students and teachers talked about their experiences of sexism in schools and what they were doing to counter it.

Spare Rib magazine issue 075

Spare Rib magazine issue 75 p. 1

Front cover of special education issue of Spare Rib.

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Usage terms Item 1  issue 75, p 1, front cover; illustration by Lynn Duncombe; Item 2: issue 75 p 3, editorial by Spare Rib Collective © Spare Rib Collective Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Illustration by Lesley Ruda
Usage terms: © Lesley Ruda Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 3 issue 75 pp 40-41 book reviews: The Bad Sister Reviewed by Amanda Sebestyen
Usage terms: © Amanda Sebestyen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence; Collected Stories Vols. 1 & 2: To Room 19 and The Temptation of Jack Orkney Reviewed by Helen Taylor
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My Mother Said & Make it Happy Reviewed by Angela Phillips
Usage terms: © Angela Phillips Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Social Origins of Depression, reviewed by Fay Barnet and article on Kid’s Comics by Rosemary Stones
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding these items Item 4: issue 75 pp 42-42 Junior School by Sally Shave
Usage terms: © Spare Rib Collective Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 5: issue 75 pp 6-8 Schoolgirls up against sexism by Debra Peart; Illustrations by Caroline Jackson
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Spare Rib magazine issue 075

Spare Rib magazine issue 75 p. 3

Editorial of special education issue explaining the importance of consciousness-raising around sexism and education.

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Usage terms Item 1  issue 75, p 1, front cover; illustration by Lynn Duncombe; Item 2: issue 75 p 3, editorial by Spare Rib Collective © Spare Rib Collective Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Illustration by Lesley Ruda
Usage terms: © Lesley Ruda Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 3 issue 75 pp 40-41 book reviews: The Bad Sister Reviewed by Amanda Sebestyen
Usage terms: © Amanda Sebestyen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence; Collected Stories Vols. 1 & 2: To Room 19 and The Temptation of Jack Orkney Reviewed by Helen Taylor
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My Mother Said & Make it Happy Reviewed by Angela Phillips
Usage terms: © Angela Phillips Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Social Origins of Depression, reviewed by Fay Barnet and article on Kid’s Comics by Rosemary Stones
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Usage terms: © Spare Rib Collective Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 5: issue 75 pp 6-8 Schoolgirls up against sexism by Debra Peart; Illustrations by Caroline Jackson
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In one article, ‘Schoolgirls against Sexism’, three girls write about their experiences at school and their understanding of sexism in society as a whole. 13 year old Viv says: ‘My friend and I try to bring up the subject of stereotyping of girls in a discussion. The other girls refuse to believe that they shave their legs and wear mascara and want to marry as soon as possible [...] as a result of social conditioning. Even the teacher refuses to accept our arguments. My friend and I feel utterly alone in our anger at society’s view of females’. These girls were angry and frustrated at the kind of institutionalised sexism they experienced at school. It wasn’t just about boys doing cookery and needlework, or girls playing football, a fundamental shift in consciousness involving all students and staff was needed if real change was to be achieved.

Spare Rib magazine issue 075

Spare Rib magazine issue 75 p. 6

Article where school girls give a first-hand account of their experiences of sexism in the education system.

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Usage terms Item 1  issue 75, p 1, front cover; illustration by Lynn Duncombe; Item 2: issue 75 p 3, editorial by Spare Rib Collective © Spare Rib Collective Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Illustration by Lesley Ruda
Usage terms: © Lesley Ruda Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 3 issue 75 pp 40-41 book reviews: The Bad Sister Reviewed by Amanda Sebestyen
Usage terms: © Amanda Sebestyen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence; Collected Stories Vols. 1 & 2: To Room 19 and The Temptation of Jack Orkney Reviewed by Helen Taylor
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My Mother Said & Make it Happy Reviewed by Angela Phillips
Usage terms: © Angela Phillips Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Social Origins of Depression, reviewed by Fay Barnet and article on Kid’s Comics by Rosemary Stones
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Indeed, consciousness-raising groups were formed and actions taken by many teachers.  In ‘Diary of a Feminist Teacher’, Kate Elliot, a supply teacher in an all-girls comprehensive school, recounts conversations with her students about a range of issues including boys, sex, pregnancy and their expectations for the future. Elliot was keen to work out the power relationships between herself and the girls in the context of her commitment to feminism, work which was challenged and, at one point, stopped by the Head Teacher. In her ’10 ways to Counter Sexism in a Junior School’, Deputy Head Sally Shave reveals a commitment to changing attitudes towards girls and women which, by the standards of the day, was ahead of its time. (Issue 75 p 42-43). But it’s the voices of girls themselves that provide the most powerful testimony of the desire for change. In a special visual issue, three fourth year girls from a comprehensive in south London explore the visual representation of women in advertising.

Spare Rib magazine issue 072

Spare Rib magazine issue 72 p. 20

Article written by teenage girls about images of schoolgirls in the press and advertising.

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Usage terms Items 1, 2, 3: issue 72, pp 6-9, A real life story of true romance by Lucy Williams;  Jo Spence; Robyn Slovo; Lesley Ruda; Martin, Angie; Loftus, Val; Penny Hollow;  Liz Heron ; photographs by Jo Spence; Robyn Slovo; Lesley Ruda; Liz Heron; pp 18, 19 The Advertising Standards Authority’s Line on Sexism by Pat Moan & Jill Nicholls; pp 20-21 Images of Schoolgirls by Linda Sheppey; Abida Hashmi; Lisa Sutton;
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We asked within the Spare Rib collective and among groups such as feminist teachers’ groups for contributions on specific issues. Spare Rib received articles and letters on a range of topics such as boys getting more classroom attention, the effects of the education cuts in the late 1970s and sex education.

Spare Rib magazine issue 173

Spare Rib magazine issue 173 p. 10

Article about changes in the law around sex education in schools in 1986.

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Usage terms Issue 173, p 10, Sex Education Who Decides? By Wendy Cobb; photograph of a school lesson by Maggie Murray.
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Spare Rib magazine issue 114

Spare Rib magazine issue 114 p. 4

A typical letters page in Spare Rib from the early 1980s, including a letter from a lesbian teacher.

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Usage terms Items 1, 2: issue 114, pp 49-51, No such thing as pain by Ruth Wheeler; illustration of women in hospital by Sue Hillwood-Harris. pp 14, 15, Violence & Sexuality: report from WAVAW conference; Brazil: men's crimes 'of passion' by Brazilian Women's Group In London; Reclaiming Exeter by Exeter Women’s Group; News by Winchester Women’s Liberation Group; Pornography continued by Sheila Jeffreys
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Trouser protests

One debate, which angered and bewildered us, and which resulted in many letters and articles, was the topic of school uniform. This was a time when girls were routinely sent home for wearing trousers. The trouser issue became a kind of motif for everything that was sexist and wrong in an education system which was reluctant to let go of old fashioned and out-moded attitudes to girls and women.

Refusing to wear skirts, then, became a powerful way in which girls could challenge these attitudes, with ‘trouser protests’ taking place in some schools. In, ‘It’s Trouser Time’, a group of girls report on their own trouser protests.

Spare Rib magazine issue 089

Spare Rib magazine issue 89 p. 53

Article about ‘trouser protests’ by schoolgirls who can’t see why they should have to wear skirts to school.

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Usage terms Item 1: issue 89 pp 20-22  Abortion Demo Special by Susan Hemmings
Usage terms: © Susan Hemmings Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 20 Image of anti abortion march by Jill Posener Usage Terms: © Jill Posener Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 21 Two TUC women give their views to Spare Rib, by Sue O’Sullivan
Usage terms: © Sue O'Sullivan Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 23 cartoon: A day at the march against the Corrie Bill by Lucy Byatt
Usage terms: © Lucy C Byatt Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 2: issue 89 pp 24 -25 We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Letters About the Conflict. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Item 3: issue 89 pp53-55 It’s Trouser Time by Susan Hemmings
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Girls are powerful

Where there were gaps in our coverage of girls’ education, we commissioned more articles, for example on being a young lesbian, career expectations, sexist bullying. We collected these together over a period of two years and then published a collection,  Girls are Powerful with the feminist publisher Sheba, later republished by Penguin. At the same time a Spare Rib badge, Girls Are Powerful, was made and thousands were given away. (I believe this badge was part of the linguistic engendering of ‘Girl Power’ which bloomed in the 90s.) Girls were routinely told to remove their badges at school. A sequel was commissioned, True to Life, this time in partnership with national youth organisations who were committed to establishing girl-only youth club activities, a hugely successful feminist led project.

Spare Rib magazine issue 118

Spare Rib magazine issue 118 p. 54

Article about the ‘Girls are Powerful’ anthology, with excerpts from the book.

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Usage terms Items 1, 2, 3: issue 118, p 12, A wife’s right to refuse; p 54, 55 Girls are Powerful by Liz Mackie; pp 22, 23 Who’s birthing the baby – postnatal depression and maternity hospitals by Diane Walters
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Spare Rib magazine issue 118

Spare Rib magazine issue 118

Advertisement page with an ad for the ‘girls are powerful’ anthology.

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Usage terms Items 1, 2, 3: issue 118, p 12, A wife’s right to refuse; p 54, 55 Girls are Powerful by Liz Mackie; pp 22, 23 Who’s birthing the baby – postnatal depression and maternity hospitals by Diane Walters
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Through its features and news pages, letters and editorials, Spare Rib always had a keen eye on developments in education both from a policy and political perspective and through the voices of teachers and pupils themselves.

  • Susan Hemmings
  • Susan Hemmings was born into the age of austerity towards the end of WW2, into a relatively poor family, youngest of three children. Times were hard and dreary, but getting into Grammar School in 1952 brightened things up: an all-girls school with some interesting and committed women teachers determined to give their charges a chance in life meant that Susan got into university and London life. She reached young adulthood just when the revolutionary years of the mid and late sixties were bubbling up with second wave feminism and gay left politics. Despite her quiet and anxious self, she was propelled into exciting activism, and was brave enough to leave a violent husband and begin a more settled and suitable life with lesbian friends and partners. After a few years teaching and lecturing, she found herself on the Spare Rib collective, both a challenge and a privilege, from the mid seventies to mid eighties, and from thence to three decades of activism. Now while enjoying retirement, she remains involved in left and feminist politics, with her civil partner, in Suffolk.