Being a girl

Letter about whether being a girl affected my education for the worse


People sometimes ask if being a girl contributed to my education going wrong. It certainly didn’t help, and since it took such a great accumulation of negative factors I suppose one has to say that if the extra negativity which it constituted had been removed, I would not have been left at the end debarred from entry into a career and with my parents’ lives ruined by the breakdown of my father’s health.

Of course people assume that your being able to do a certain kind of academic job is a consequence of the official ‘educational’ process, and dependent upon that being successful at the end. Actually that was not the case, but the lack of a paper qualification and the hostility of my college to my getting a usable qualification under my own auspices (from which I extrapolated that there would be a universal hostility on the part of the establishment to anyone, at any rate to me, returning from the wilderness once ejected) have been effective ever since in keeping me in exile. I have thought bitterly when meeting most senior academics that they had the sort of career and living circumstances that I needed to have, and that I could do their job better than they were doing it if only I were allowed to get started on doing so.

It has always been bitterly frustrating that, since the period of official education was over, there was no effort which it was open to me to make in my disadvantaged position by which I could establish any claim on a Fellowship or Professorship that could be recognised on social terms.

How far did being female contribute to this outcome? The basic problem arose from my precocity being particularly extreme, so that the hostility aroused by it was at a maximum and it was particularly easy for the realities of the situation to be ignored. No one was likely to have previous experience of anyone with the same level of academic aptitude, and generalising from the cleverest people they had encountered previously would justify them in frustrating me. An off -the -scale IQ, especially in combination with autonomous drive and initiative, was even more unexpected in a girl than in a boy.

When the concept of IQ was more acceptable than it is now, it used to be said that the female bellcurve was narrower than the male, more compactly distributed around the average.  So women were less likely to be geniuses, but also less likely to be idiots.  An IQ that might be guessed at about 300 on the basis of my early reading would be a rarity in any population but was even more so in a girl.

As I sometimes say, I was and am quite probably the person in the country with the greatest claim on an academic career; but it is most unlikely that such a person should be female. There are still very few women anywhere near the top in the subjects I was most likely to want to work in. Possibly that, as well as the fact that he preferred languages himself, was why my father was always opposed to my doing science and was always trying to make me change to languages. There are a lot more female academics doing languages than doing theoretical physics.

So I really needed people to have a lot of willingness to accept that I was the way I was and make concessions to it, rather than insisting that I conform to some probabilistic model. In fact quite the reverse was the case, and this owed something to the greater submissiveness and approval-dependence expected from girls.  A modern textbook on child development points out that more independence and disobedience is tolerated in boys than in girls, and in adolescence I certainly found that independence of mind and a drive to achieve were red rags to a bull, especially when associated with very noticeable intellectual precocity.

I often heard of boys at local schools taking more than the average number of subjects in exams, or taking them younger, but my wanting to do so was regarded as extremely controversial, not to say wicked.  Of course one factor that probably went into this, apart from the gender factor, was that I was a lot more exceptional than they were, and if I had ever got started on taking exams, there would have been no stopping me. At least, not of my own free will.

One of the multiplicity of reasons which my father produced in attempting to extract my agreement to not taking the school certificate when I was thirteen was that I was working what he called ‘ hard’. (Actually I was working in just the way I liked to work, and in a way that I got something out of. ) My father admitted that he had worked in a similar way himself when taking a degree but, he said, ‘ I was several years older than you are now, and I was a boy, whereas you are a girl.’

Another adverse factor was that there were more women in authoritative positions in my education, on whose permissiveness I was dependent. Women are just less permissive than men, at least towards the sort of drives that I had. Both the Woodford headmistress and the Principal of Somerville were obsessed with social snobbery, resentful of any motivation but that to worship social status such as theirs, and power-crazed.  They enjoyed expressing their power by refusing people permission to do things and certainly did not mind ruining people’s lives in the process. I think this sort of enjoyment of the power to prevent people doing things is more strongly developed in women than in men, and women are far less likely to respond with generosity to an exceptional need for opportunity.

Among other instances I could give, there was a medical student at Somerville who had injured her arm at games and fallen behind with her work. The principal refused her permission to take her first BM exam, because (she said) she did not think she would pass it. Some of her men tutors thought she could and anyway ought to be allowed to try, but the Principal had the last word. As the exam approached, instead of revising for it this girl was making arrangements to get funding from her school to take the exam at a London hospital.

‘If I don’t pass it I can’t go on qualifying to be a doctor’ she said. ‘You can always become a nurse instead’ the Principal replied.

It took a great accumulation of negative factors to render my education null and void at the end (in fact not merely void, but negative, if only by virtue of the breakdown of my father’s health, which would not have happened if my education had not been ruined).  Those factors would have been less if I had been a boy, so you can say that it was being a girl that ruined my education and left me deprived of access to a career.

But you could also say that, even as a girl, my education and career could have been saved from ultimate ruin if my parents had worked out how I could take the School Certificate before the grammar school scholarship, had found a scholarship to an independent school that I could take to keep me away from the state system, not obstructed my taking of the school certificate when I got the chance to do so, or removed me from the Woodford school after the first day as I expected them to do. So you could say that the inverse of any one of those things was the cause of the ruin of my life and theirs.

Things would have been unlikely to have been plain sailing for me if I had been a boy. There is always the resentment of ability as a factor distinguishable from socially administered training  (I have never read anything about child prodigies that is not implicitly hostile and encouraging of destructive attitudes.) And I expect my parents would have found it nearly as easy, if I had been a boy, to obtain social approval and reinforcement for a policy of ‘not pushing’ me.