Sunday, 31 March 2013

Great Britons

My father is a great stamp collector and has often lamented the lack of interest my sister and I have shown in the subject. In the last few years, since collecting television and film memorabilia (particularly props and autographs), some of these areas have overlapped. My father is incredibly jealous of my Alexei Leonov autograph (first man to walk in space) and my Sylvia Anderson one (never mind the fact that I actually held some of the original Thunderbirds puppets!). In turn, I've made him promise to leave me his Gerry Anderson cover once he's gone.

These days, I do flick through his leaflets and catalogues to see what the latest offerings are, and he often asks me if he's getting good value for money on autographed items (such as the 50th anniversary Dr Who covers). 

Royal Mail's 2013 "Great Britons"
So, this morning I was perusing the catalogues when I found a collection entitled "Great Britons". These sorts of sets interest me, as I always wonder who they've chosen and why. What is it that makes someone inspirational enough to make one of these lists?

But as I looked through, I noticed an inequality. On first glance, I only noticed two women (there are, in fact, three). But why three women and seven men? Are there not enough inspirational and influential women in the history of Britain? I doubt it. 

One could argue that in terms of visibility, men have historically been more visible in influential jobs in Britain and, therefore, this is reflected in the choice of personalities on their stamps. But, I think this really undermines and neglects to acknowledge the work of women in this country. We make up 50% of the population, why not 50% of the collection?

I noticed that the collection is the third in a series commemorating pivotal figures in society. Out of curiosity, I decided to find out whether this inequality reached over the other covers or not. I found that over the series, 21 stamps were dedicated to men, and only 9 to women.

The women featured on these stamps are, undoubtedly, influential in their fields; Elizabeth David, Mary Leakey, Vivien Leigh, Mary Morris, Odette Sansom Hallowe, Kathleen Ferrier, Joan Mary Fry, Mary Wollstonecraft and Judy Fryd.

But there are so many more inspiring women in our history.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was not only the first female doctor in Great Britain, but the first dean of a medical school. She was also the first female mayor and magistrate in England. Her work opened up the profession to women, but also changed the way in which doctors were trained, in which university hospitals worked and how patients were treated.

Lilian Bayliss was the manager of the Old Vic, producing Shakespeare plays and founding what were to become the National Ballet, National Theatre and English National Opera. If that's not influential in your field, what is?

Agatha Christie is known the world over as a novelist and has produced works that are synonymous with English crime writing. She's also been the subject of an episode of Doctor Who!

Margaret Damer Dawson was the forerunner of female police officers. She formed a group of volunteers in London during the first world war.

Rosalind Franklin, whose images of the double-helix structure of DNA were central to Watson's theories.

Joyce Grenfall, whose monologues and exceptional, unique "voice" made her a household name.

Caroline Harriet Haslett was one of the pioneers of home electricity - not what you'd expect, seeing as electrician is seen by many to be a "male" profession. She was both a campaigner for its use and an electrical engineer herself, and formed groups for female electrical professionals.

Dorothy Hodgkin has saved billions of lives around the world with her pioneering research into insulin and its molecular structure. Without that research, perhaps Franklin, Watson et al wouldn't have made their DNA discoveries.

Amy Johnson, who many know as being the first woman to fly solo to Australia. But she was also influential in the history of aviation in general, being one of two pilots to first fly to Moscow in a day, setting records flying to India and South Africa. She was more than just "that woman pilot".

Jane Lane Claypon did some of the first studies and research into breast cancer, and was one of the first epidemiologists. She introduced the idea of using control subjects in health tests.

The Pankhurst women are synonymous with feminism, suffrage and politics. Though their aggressive style of activism may not be to everyone's taste, it's undoubtedly influential in the country's history.

Mary Quant is a household name when it comes to fashion. And the mini-skirt has been one of the major changes in 20th century clothing.

Anita Roddick was the founder of The Body Shop and amongst the first to ban animal testing for products. This decision has influenced hundreds of other companies and her campaigning has changed the way we think every day.

Marie Stopes who campaigned tirelessly for women's quality within marriage, sex education and opened the first family planning clinic. I can understand why Stopes wouldn't be considered for this collection, given division on these subjects, but she was certainly a pioneer and huge influence in her field.

Vivienne Westwood is a key icon in the British fashion industry, teaming cutting edge punk designs with historical inspiration.

These are but a few women I can think of who have been key in their fields. They are women who aren't names solely for being women, but because they made key contributions regardless of their gender. Some of these achievements may have been inspired by their own experience of sexism, but they are still great achievements in their own right.

I don't want to see a cover with "Great British Women"; I sometimes feel that by segregating women in what are supposed to be "inspiring, feminist" events, we are just drawing attention to and heightening the inequality. What I want to see is women fairly and accurately represented in these features, and recognised for the work they are doing or have done, which is equal to that of their male counterparts. Even if the recognition is over a century late.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Genius Teacher

The following is an "article" written by one of my primary pupils this week. The task was to write a newspaper article. As L (a very low ability pupil) hadn't been on the class residential to PGL, she chose to write about me. I felt I had to share (I have corrected and names have been changed, obviously).

This week at Anytown Primary School, Year 6's teacher has been dreadfully ill. Luckily, Class 6 was saved when Miss TJ kindly stepped in.

Miss TJ does a lot for the class, such as;

  • she puts up with them
  • she makes learning fun
  • she makes sure we're not being silly
Generally, Miss TJ has been working through SATs work with them. For example, with adjectives, she got the class into a circle and they had to find an adjective that started with the same letter as their name - a fine example of alliteration. She used games like this to introduce each section of maths and literacy lessons, allowing time to get focused.

If any schools are in need of a good supply teacher, Miss TJ should be the first on their list. L says, "She's the same good standard as Miss H. Everyone likes her, including me. She has high standards, but is understanding when we have problems and explains things very clearly."

Would you hire her?

✓ Experienced
✓ Kind
✓ Always happy

If you are interested, please call 123-456-789

Honestly, this piece brought me to tears. So beautiful! I really hope I get to teach at that school again. As for L, I think she's got a promising career ahead of her!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Young People & Relationships

I get quite preachy a lot of the time, but what I'm not necessarily very good at is practising it! From ranting about how units should be treating new leaders, to picking apart safe campfire practice, I have an opinion on pretty much everything, and everyone knows that treatment of homosexuality (especially in Guiding) is a pet topic of mine!

Earlier today, I received a message from a young person I work with (I think this is safe enough to disclose, without giving away her identity! I work with enough young people!).

"Hi TJ, can't make the meeting on xxx. It's my girlfriend's birthday and I promised we'd do something romantic. Sorry!"

Before I even stopped to think, I'd replied with, "Don't worry. Thanks for letting me know and you two have a wonderful time!"

As soon as I had hit "send", I started to doubt that response. Am I supposed to offer support, ask if she needs to chat? Why has she disclosed to me, is she asking for something else? Is it a cry for help?

Then I stopped.

First, I asked myself, "When I was that age, what response would I have wanted?"

That didn't get me anywhere either. Because, to be honest, everyone's different and I was the world's biggest screw-up at that age. What I wanted / needed might have been far from what this young woman needs or wants.

But the second question that occurred to me was a lot more relevant.

"What would your response have been if she had said 'boyfriend' instead of 'girlfriend'?"

And the answer was, as you can imagine, exactly what I sent!

I would never have considered before that I would treat any young person in a homosexual relationship any differently to anyone else. After all, I was in the same position back then. But it's easy to get caught up in memories of the pressure and alienation of being a teenager in a homosexual relationship. It's easy to focus on the idea of supporting them, letting them know you're there and "acknowledging" it as an acceptable relationship.

But by taking that step, you're also acknowledging it as "different", "abnormal" and all those other negatives. And it made me realise that the best thing for me growing up, would have been for someone just to say, "fine, have fun, see you later". If people had accepted it as the same, I would have felt valued, that my feelings and relationships mattered. In some ways, the attitude of, "Oh, you're a lesbian? That's cool" (or other variants) is as frustrating as people saying it's "wrong". Because they are still marking you out as different, or not the norm.

So how do you react when a young person discloses a homosexual relationship? Exactly the same as if it were a heterosexual one. It's the same warning bells with regard to age of consent and other disclosures. We shouldn't be treating it any differently. 

And, in accepting the relationship without comment, you've shown the young person that you won't judge, that you'll discuss. You don't need to spell it out; your actions speak volumes!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Pen Is Mightier...

Words have power. It's a fact that we're all aware of, whether consciously or not, and its hold on us becomes an intrinsic part of our everyday lives.

As a sociolinguistics specialist at university (language students were able to study generally, or focus on literature, history and politics or linguistics), I was introduced to the idea of linguistic anthropology early on in my career.

I remember my first lecture with the rather intimidating, yet endearingly scatty, Professor Ulrike Meinhof (a fascinating researcher with a special interest in the link between discourse, identity and song), who began to talk to us about drawers. 

At first (and I have no idea if she was aware of this), the whole room was looking at each other in confusion and dismay; what on earth was this woman talking about? But as she continued, the analogy took shape and embedded itself, forever associated with Dali's anthropomorphic sculptures. 

The principle is that, contrary to popular societal belief, we do not possess just one identity (or if we do, then "identity" is also a collective noun), but a plethora of different identities that are each conditioned or adapted responses to different situations. Just like having drawers and picking different clothes out of each; they all belong to us, but they are each suitable for different occasions.

Each of us has multiple identities, not to be confused with multiple personalities. I, for example, am a daughter, a sister, a teacher, a Guide leader, a Senior Section leader, a sci-fi fan, a bookworm, a crafter, a friend, an ex-girlfriend and many more things besides. 

The nearest I have seen recently is Bucholtz and Hall's assertion that identity is fluid, though this doesn't wholly explain the theory of multiples.

"...Identity inheres in actions, not in people. As the product of situated social action, identities may shift and recombine to meet new circumstances. This dynamic perspective contrasts with the traditional view of identities as unitary and enduring psychological states or social categories." (M. Bucholtz, K. Hall, 2004, p376)

Whether consciously or not, we select from these identities in our everyday lives, our language being the most obvious marker of this role shift. For those that doubt, consider how you speak to young people (if a Guide or Scout leader) compared to how you speak to your parents or your friends. We not only have different words that we use, but different turns of phrase, even different methods of delivery and intonation.

This knowledge has been a great comfort to me over the years, and one that often plays at the back of my mind. Inside, there is a curious researcher who monitors my own language use as well as that of others. And recent events have highlighted how strong a role language plays in the formation of my identity.

There are some words that I just don't like. I struggle to say them, or write them, or even listen to someone else using them. Some of these words I can cope with in different languages (which shows the way multilingualism affects my self-perception) and others retain their discomfort. Some words are fine for me to use when I'm in one position (a teacher, or a leader), but I won't have used to describe me at all. 

The most obvious of these examples, for me, are a collection of words, which all fit together contextually:
  • Feminist
  • Courageous
  • Empowerment
  • Inspirational
If any one of these is used to describe me or my actions, I feel deeply uncomfortable. I am still unsure as to why, especially with feminism and empowerment, but there is something to do with the wider meaning and societal context of the word that doesn't sit right. And yet they are words that I use on an almost daily basis to describe those around me, to explain the change I want and what I am doing.

It may seem odd, and somewhat contradictory, but far from it. It demonstrates perfectly the different identities that I use and the way that each role selects its language. The powerful, determined, activist  chooses to use those strong and evocative words, whereas the "small" me, the hidden and vulnerable me, cannot identify with them at all and rejects them outright. These "people" are both there, they are both real. And yet the language they choose is so different.

I spoke on Twitter a few weeks ago of reclamation and self-worth. That our ability to use and accept language has much to do with our perception of ourselves and whether we believe that we are deserving of these terms.

This, understandably, elicited quite a response. Mainly, as you can imagine, one of "well, we need to keep using these words until people can accept them".

But I wonder if that really is the right way?

Because words have power. And these powerful words are being used against people who can't identify with them, who feel they really don't deserve them, that they can't live up to these terrible pressures and aspirations that people are putting upon them. And instead of building them up, these people are being slowly eroded away, each word feeling like another failure, another falsehood.

It's not enough to use powerful words. It's not enough to know that one of that person's identities will accept them, when you know that the most vulnerable (often the one that has the most impact) will not. We need to find another way.

We need to empower them to accept these words (yes, I used it. Yes, I'm cringing. Yes, I used it to describe "them", not "us"!) by showing the true impact.

It's not enough to say "you are inspirational" or "that post was inspirational", we need to show that inspiration. "You have inspired me", "Can I share that post? I know it will inspire....". It's not enough to say "You are brave", but rather, "I know it took a lot of courage to do that". 

Show the person that they are worthy of those words. Show them the facts, the irrefutable evidence. It's only then that they will start to accept them, that they will become part of their identity and their accepted language. It's only then that they will have true impact and power.

Happily Ever After

I've always had a love/hate relationship with Disney.

As a child, their films were magical, fantastic escapism and, as an adult, provide a safe haven from the trials and tribulations of the "real world". From Snow White to Tangled, Sleeping Beauty to Enchanted, these tales of happy endings soothe us and transport us back to a time of innocence and hope.

At the end of 2011, I wrote a post on my Guiding blog about the perpetuation of the "happily ever after" myth, and the false expectations given to girls about relationships, but the Disney Princess culture goes deeper than that.

Because, through the years, they have put an emphasis on beauty, that self-worth is tied to ability to find a man. Yes, there have been others in recent years (Pochahontas, Mulan, Tiana and Merida) that have bravery, tenacity and wit, but even they get their man in the end. And all of them are stunningly beautiful.

As a short, fat, spotty child with bushy hair, I struggled to find characters I could identify with within the Disney framework. Rotund men were friendly, funny characters, often bumbling (Maurice, Sleeping Beauty's father), but the women were evil (Madam Mim, Ursula). The most positive I could find was Merryweather from Sleeping Beauty.

I always adored Belle from Beauty and the Beast, as she was the first Disney Princess, in my recollection, that was "real". She had hobbies, was a bit of an outsider and, despite her beauty, was a character I could almost identify with.

Even now, when I'm ill, I flick on my copy of Beauty and the Beast, which practically lives in my DVD player upstairs (I'm pretty sure it's in there at the moment). But I also feel a strange, niggling doubt. Because how are we supposed to empower girls and show them that there's more to life than this media-driven obsession with beauty and reliance upon a patriarchal system if we perpetuate this ridiculous Disney myth?

And then, yesterday, I saw this video. No, it doesn't address the fairytale ending, but it does talk about what it means to be a Disney Princess. It does talk about what qualities should be valued, and even refers to physical appearance in the understated, "we are told we are beautiful". It's a beautifully dismissive and appropriate, "yeah, we're beautiful, but that's not the important bit".

Disney are getting better at sharing this message. Between video campaigns such as "I am a Princess" and their more recent heroines like Tiana and Merida, who promote self-reliance and determination, we're starting to talk about empowerment and feminism with younger generations. But is it going far enough? When will we see the heroine that doesn't get the prince? Or, more importantly, isn't bothered about getting the prince?

Because life isn't about about looking pretty, or finding true love. It's about all the things spoken here; bravery, loyalty and friendship. It's about trust, kindness, overcoming fear and obstacles and about standing up for what we believe in. Only when we know, believe and live all these things will we really live happily ever after.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

How Guiding Changed My Life

Eight years ago, I found myself the victim of gender-based violence. 

One of the things that amazes me is not just how hard it is to say that in a public forum, but how uncomfortable that disclosure will make you as a reader. 

Statistically, that fact is far from shocking. 1 in 5 women experiences domestic violence, 23% of women face sexual assault as adults (it's 33% for teenagers) and 75% of teenagers face emotional violence in their relationships. All these statistics are from right here in the UK.

Yet society's taboos make all this hard to stomach and hard to accept. Violence doesn't happen to us, it doesn't happen in our nice, suburban communities, it doesn't happen to the people we know. Except it does.

I did what a lot of women do (not that I knew it back then), I holed myself up. It's a natural defence when you lose that ability to trust, even to trust your own safeguards and instincts. I missed most of my fourth year lectures, very much struggled through my PGCE year, and had a horrific time as a Newly Qualified Teacher.

I haven't been a complete recluse for those eight years, though. The journey started with conventions, as I was (and still am!) a huge sci-fi fan. I began to socialise and to trust again, and I met a wonderful group of friends, who all happened to be involved in Guiding, as well as crewing these events.

Over time, they began to convince me that rejoining Guiding would be a great thing. But it was co-incidence that got me volunteering. After a school reunion in 2010, I received a phone call from the mother of one of my old classmates, who happened to be a local commissioner.

The thing is, I probably shouldn't have said yes. I was still operating behind a very fragile facade; my teacher mask that operated as an everyday front to hide the pain. I had never been for counselling, never regained my life properly. But as the mask worked well enough in my daily pattern, I figured it would be good enough for Guiding.

What I didn't bank on was Guiding's penchant for getting under your skin. If you know people in the organisation, they will tell you that it's not just an hour a week (or if they do, it will be heavily laced with sarcasm or recruitment posters!) but that it's a way of life. I soon found myself at the local Guide unit as well as the Brownies, and that entailed a whole new set of problems.

I was meeting in a large church hall with separate rooms, where I was expected to go into isolated parts of the building to do tasks. I was supposed to be able to lead clue trails on winter evenings, supposed to be able to camp - the mere thought of which sent me into blind panic. I was supposed to be Wonder Woman, or so it seemed.

The cracks in that well-practised facade began to widen, and I really struggled. It felt like all the things I had learnt to control were spiralling, the problems resurfacing, when really I hadn't dealt with the issues in the first place. I confided in M, our Unit Leader, who slowly helped me get the support I needed.

Some people might be skeptical at this point, say that I would have reached that point anyway. Perhaps that's true, though as I hadn't sought help in six years at that point, I doubt it. Besides, the weekly challenges that Guiding presented me, and my determination to provide the best experience I could for the girls, were what really motivated me to make that change.

It took another year before I got the regular, face-to-face counselling, but that has been difficult in itself and I've felt like giving up so often. I always feel like I'm not making progress, or at least not making it fast enough, and that is compounded by the attitude of certain leaders in my area. But the evidence is irrefutable.

I lead a Senior Section group now, meeting in another large building in a village I don't know very well. I'm often the last person to leave, on my own with just an occasional caretaker around. Week after week, I poke my head into unknown rooms, walk down the dark corridors, lock up after everyone. It will sound so simple to most, but for me that's a huge achievement.

Last year, I led several sessions at Guides for the Personal Safety badge, even running a question and answer session that touched close to home. I think M and the other leaders were far more stressed about it than I was - they really didn't think I'd cope! I've also run a couple of research activities on gender-based violence and girls' opinions - another thing M didn't think I'd cope with!

I went to Roverway in Finland. On paper, that should have been a complete and utter disaster! Terrified of camping, terrified of woodland. But it was a fantastic opportunity and one of the most memorable events of my life. 

I slept in a box at a local stately home, went camping with the unit, even reassured a girl who had the same fears that I had!

The biggest change, though, came through the girls. My Senior Section unit approached me, telling me that they wanted to be involved in the WAGGGS Stop The Violence campaign. They gave me the contact details for the local Women's Centre, with whom they wanted to work, and spoke to me of empowerment and the power of girls' voices.

I was terrified. This was worlds colliding. Especially the Women's Centre, where I go on a weekly basis for my counselling sessions. Not that I told them that. 

I went on a seminar, learnt about educating others, acting for change, working with men, working with young children. I came back and, with the girls' help, began contacting the organisations they had spoken about, and making contacts.

In September, the city is holding a conference about violence against women and girls. We've been invited to attend, and also to run related fringe events. We've got contacts with the Women's Centre, Women's Aid, Platform 51, Rape Crisis and even with a women's kickboxing group! We have a professional photographer on board who will come to all our events. And on International Women's Day, a group of us from Girlguiding joined the Soroptimist Group on their bridge campaign, raising awareness of gender-based violence.

I still get attitude from certain people. People who think I've bitten off more than I can chew, that Guiding and the work against violence is going to break me and send me on a spiral to a place far worse than when I started. But I know different. Because it's not just about me, and it's not just about my life. 

It's about empowering others, giving them a voice, and making sure that girls in the future don't have to go through what I have. If I can change the course of just one life, give just one woman the courage to speak out or give her the knowledge that she's not alone, then it's absolutely worth it.

People don't realise the impact of their actions, or how much their volunteering means to the people around them. For me, the responsibility and privilege of providing for these girls and young women gave me the strength to change and the support of leaders around me provided me with a safe environment in which to make that change. 

I suppose, strictly speaking, that would have been the place to end the post. It was neat, came back to the title, and it was inspirational (as far as anything of mine can be!). But I'm not one to play by the rules, not when there's another bit to the story.

Last week, after seeing the local Gang Show, I was invited out with the cast and crew. I was hesitant. I was tired, ill, and, quite frankly, terrified. I hadn't gone out clubbing properly since the night before "it all went wrong". The few attempts I've made at going out over the years have either ended in quick retreats, or me sitting quietly on the smoking terrace, praying for them all to call it a night. 

But this was different. This was family. For the first time in eight years, I went out and I had fun. It was my night out, why should he still control my life? And when a guy got over-friendly? He got one hell of an ear-bashing.

Though I hadn't seen these people since I was fifteen,it was like nothing had changed. They showed me that I was still the same person behind the fear and self-loathing, that I was cared for and loved. They were family. My Guiding and Scouting family.

You see, the real way that Guiding has changed my life is that it's allowed me to be myself. It's changed me because it hasn't changed me at all. It's not just motivation, but revelation. Guiding is me, it's my story, it's the story of how I've grown over the years, from being an obnoxious little Brownie, to being a German Ranger in the DPSG, to being a Leader. Guiding is the thread that has brought me back to the beginning; a little older, a bit wiser (sometimes), but still the same person.

And that is a point I'd never have reached alone.