One of the first things that happened to me when I went to boarding school, aged sixteen, was a mysterious summons to interview by the boys of the Upper Sixth. One by one, the new girls like me were taken to some common room or other, and were solemnly quizzed by complete strangers on such arcane matters as whether we preferred ‘pork’ or ‘beef’, and how short we kept our fingernails. There was an atmosphere of barely suppressed sniggering, a definite sense that we were being judged on the basis of our sexual orientation and availability, but in a code to which we had no access. None of us refused to go. None, that I know of, refused to answer the questions. We swapped notes once we were back in our own boarding house, all of us admitting to bewilderment, but none of us sharing the lingering sense of shame, that we had been subtley violated, made to perform for male amusement, manipulated into trying to ‘get it right’ in a game where we could never know or change the rules.
Welcome to patriarchy.
Nearly thirty years later, I find myself by some random chance hired by a private school several orders of magnitude more expensive, prestigious and intimidating than the one I attended. My job is to perform my show, The Moon Cannot Be Stolen, to their sixth form , and to have a convivial dinner with the students of the Lit Soc beforehand. I speak to intelligent girls, one a scholarship student who like me was state educated until receiving a bursary to attend this vast Palladian edifice. She feels a teensy bit stunned into submission – I sympathise. I speak to a quiet, thoughtful girl who would like to write about gender politics, but is too afraid to put herself and her thoughts out there for the trolls to piss on. When I ask her if there are feminist issues to be explored at her school, she replies that the opinions of female students ‘aren’t really taken seriously’.
Hello patriarchy, you again.
I start to perform my show, amid the impeccable acoustics of the rococo Music Room, but I am distracted by the (impeccably amplified) snickering of three boys in the front row. (The front row is pretty much all boys, I have watched the girls filter in and take their seats further back.) I try to ignore them, and the rising sense of inadequacy, self-conciousness and failure that their reaction is provoking in me. It can’t be done. In an instant flash of anger so strong it is virtually an out-of-body experience, I halt mid-sentence, spin on my heel and advance forcefully on them, tell them exactly what I think of being disrespected in this way, then seamlessly return to my performance. From the mulish shock on their faces, I imagine that perhaps women don’t generally speak to them like that.
Oh patriarchy, you don’t get it, do you?
The heart of the show talks about young women and their vulnerability to attack, rape, manipulation. Usually I end the short segment by saying “and I think of all the young women to come”. This time, for the first time, I get to say “and I think of you”, looking directly at these young, bright, well-bred young women, who are in receipt of such a privileged education, but whose native fierceness has been, and is being, trained out of them. A few of them are looking at me with faces close to rapture, eyes shining, listening to my one little story about finding myself. At the end, I am surrounded by girls wanting to ask questions, and I have never felt so useful and proud in my life. May they one day rule the world.