I. We studied pretty much what we liked at university. That was the benefit of our tutorial system, with maybe two or just one undergraduate sitting in the room with the tutor – freedom to choose what we wanted to learn about next.
It was like landing in an academic holiday camp in some respects, where bright and eager girls and boys would be pointed in the direction of the Mercantilism Adventure Playground or the Manhood Suffrage Miniature Golf Course, but with probing questions concerning the nature of our amusements later. At least once a year, I would find myself on the Women's History Boating Lake.
'The Angel in the House' was the 19th century idealised form of femininity espoused by so very many dead, white males and a surprising number of dead, white females too. Naturally, for economic reasons, this mostly applied to the middle classes. The lower orders could aspire as best as they were able amidst bouts of heavy labour.
The Angel was selfless, devoted to her family, her household and to her husband. She was a delicate creature who must be protected from all manner of vileness - from the difficulties of mathematics and medicine, from politics and coarse discourse. This gentle being was the one who, following the natural order, knew better than to offer opinions, to step out of line in any way, to raise her voice. She was happy to have no vote, no property rights, no profession, not even the right to a divorce or to her own children should her husband choose to remove them from her.
To step out of line, to jump the fence in any way, was considered an offence that required the greatest censure. There were the educational pioneers much sneered at as mannish, dried up spinsters. There were suffragettes and suffragists who were considered to be hysterics, hyenas in petticoats, hellbent on disrupting society for their own addlebrained and petty ends. They would be imprisoned and force-fed if they went on hunger strike, later let out after a certain point of their starvation had been reached and re-arrested as soon as their strength had come back. Part of 1914's Defence of the Realm Act permitted unaccompanied women found within a certain distance of miltary or naval installations to be arrested in case they were prostitutes, for only a prostitute would go abroad alone. No honest angel would.
And so on and so forth.
Sitting, chewing our pens, in the late 20th century, it was easy to hear and read about this catalogue of miseries and atrocities and abhor the barbarity, the sheer waste of it all. Plenty was expected of us, gender notwithstanding. Our significant sisters had fought, argued, screamed and suffered that even the pinkest, fluffiest and girliest girl among us had got to sit through double maths followed by triple hockey, followed, in due course, by the necessity of taking a degree, joining a profession. Nothing hysterical about us and yet we still strove to be angels.
II. I was sitting in a very unladylike pub and had just bought my friend J a very unladylike drink. It was her birthday.
J was blind and had recently come out as a lesbian. Exploded out, more like it. After years of prunes and prisms, she now peppered her speech with expletives which would make a docker blush, although we assured her that it was not remotely necessary.
"Bollocks!" she said. "Gissa a feel of your arm!"
It being her birthday, I obliged.
"Rubbish!" she said, making me snigger and make a mental note to not buy her another beverage that night, since she was warming up so early.
"What's rubbish about my arm, J?" I asked.
"It's too soft! You're all lotion and bubble bath! Girly! Crap!"
I told her that I balked at cultivating manly stubble just for her and that I could moisturise my limbs just for me if I wanted, a mock telling off. Then we all laughed and she good-naturedly told us about a women's workshop she had signed up for like a good little zealot.
I non-commitally sipped my pint and felt my baby soft arms, 'feminine' at last.
III. It was the sheer quantity of bullshit talked afterwards that got me.
Two sports commentators had severely denigrated a female football official in an extraordinarily sexist way. Unbeknown to them, their remarks were broadcast. Outcry and sackings. Rightful sackings in my opinion, although I know that this does not count for much. They were abusive and that should be that.
Time to unleash a million editorials concerning sexism in sport and the work place. Time for pundits to either applaud the television station's decision or to declare that they had seriously over-reacted.
"Wouldn't have gone that way if it had been a bloke! Political correctness gone mad!" one side said.
"Would anyone have accepted this if the comments had been made about someone from an ethnic minority?" another side wept.
"The problem with many women in the work place," another commentator grimly declared, "is that they are too soft. They expect special treatment, preferential treatment, and wail when they don't get it. Toughen up, ladies! Get real!"
The latter was all the more ironic as it was uttered by a woman who, as far as I could tell, had always traded upon her sexuality to get where she wanted to go. She was rough, tough, hard, relentless, unforgiving... oh, but she seemed to know when to cross and uncross her legs, always had her hair and make up just so, was not averse to occasionally giggling and showing her flesh.
Oh, how it pained me to make that observation! So she played 'the game'? So what! She was what she was and perhaps I was only taking issue with that because I am a woman too. Would I call a man 'hard-faced' so readily? Then again, perhaps she was one of the people keeping 'the game' going. Be good at what you do, be tough, but never underestimate the power of Estée Lauder and being damned well turned out for 'the lads'.
Another programme had a presentation where the audience and a guest panel could decide whether a series of role-plays constituted sexual harassment in the work place, a world away from the original storm. An Employment Lawyer pronounced on each scenario in turn. A man with his hands full asked a woman colleague to get his keys out of his pockets, made a passing comment in friendly conversation regarding the colleague's figure, touched her waist when squeezing by in a narrow corridor.
Time and again I could barely see anything questionable. Time and again the panel held up the red card. Time and again the lawyer shook his head and talked of this case and that where the man had been sacked. I wondered how much I had just put up with the vagaries of the 'real world' or whether it was good that the rankest of locker room talk barely turns a hair on my head. Had I been missing something?
Or are we trying to return to the distorted world of the Angel in the House, the delicate flower, and really, perhaps, half of the world didn't quite believe in that either, not even when she was reputedly in vogue?