Urgent: Message to Girls Leaving School. Find your inner rod of steel

Recently I gave a talk to almost 800 people…girls, staff, pupils and parents at St Mary’s Calne, the Wiltshire Girls’ School celebrating  its 140th birthday this year with a new, dynamic American headmistress.  Reflecting on wishy washy prizegivings of my youth, I wanted to strike as stirring a note as possible because we all know the stats; girls seem to outperform boys in schools, universities and early training courses. Yet why are more of them not running major Global Corporations, Banks or Arts Institutions? What happens?  Some blame all- girl schools for feeding their pupils a diet of so called skills which ultimately damage them in the workplace. “They are not so much skills, I think, as dating tips for women who will grow to live – or, if you prefer, die – by the rules.” Here is what Tanya Gold says:

And here is an edited version of what I said to the girls of St Mary’s Calne:

“For the last 30 years I’ve been writing books about what publishers like to call ‘strong women’. Writing about a strong woman means looking at women who cannot openly exert their power, although sometimes they are dubbed ‘the power behind the throne’. But I think it is more subtle than that. It means using influence, it means believing in yourself often against the odds and never forgetting that you have an important contribution to make.

In the last century it became very fashionable for publishers to commission biographies about so called forgotten women … those overshadowed by husbands, friends or brothers such as Alice James, sister of Henry, Mary Shelley, wife of Percy, for example, but the list also includes professional women who at the time may never have achieved the same fame as the men they were working alongside. Rosalind Franklin for example, now recognised as one of the key scientists involved in the discovery of the double helix, is perhaps the most prominent of these. Her story made all the more tragic because she died so young of radiation-induced cancer in 1958. And there are literally dozens of women writers who provided enormous stimulation and pleasure in their day but were damned as being ‘Middlebrow,’ never considered ‘Great’ writers… To name but a few who have been rediscovered …Willa Cather, Rose Macauley, Zora Neale Thurston, the other Elizabeth Taylor and let’s not forget the wonderful Dorothy Whipple, completely forgotten until she was republished by Persephone Books but who was once described by JB Priestley as ‘the Jane Austen of the 20th century.’

The women I have written about by and large have exerted their influence in unobtrusive ways. And I would put Enid Bagnold, the subject of my first biography, into that category. She had a very small output but each work was a polished gem. Mostly she is known today for her children’s novel (although it was never intended to be a children’s novel) National Velvet. This was a richly imagined story of how a girl, disguised as a male jockey, might win the Grand National race at Aintree. Shocking at the time it was written -1935 – yet now we think nothing of women jockeys – although one has yet to win the Grand National!  Bagnold’s play, The Chalk Garden, is also an autobiographical masterpiece all about women having control in that most crucial but subtle of areas, the domestic sphere. The ineffectual man of the house is upstairs, in bed, away from all the action. The household is run by women. The play is regularly revived (most recently at the Donmar with Margaret Tyzack and Penelope Wilton) but had the misfortune to appear the day after John Osborne’s Kitchen sink drama, Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court and changed British Theatre for ever. One of the most significant characteristics that defined Bagnold was her confidence. She took many knocks in her life, both personal and professional, when critics savaged her later plays. Yet as a child she knew she would amount to something…she kept all her letters and early photographs waiting for a biographer (me!) to document her life. Her school days at Prior’s Field, then a new school run by the brilliant Julia Huxley, niece of the poet Matthew Arnold and granddaughter of Dr Thomas Arnold of Rugby, was absolutely critical in giving her that inner rod of steel. As a child she wrote poetry, the whole time, day and night, mostly in secret. But then there was a poetry competition and when the great day came to announce the prizes at the end of term – an event not unlike yours here today – Enid waited… with barely contained excitement. She had written a long poem, five pages of it, with choruses and constant changes of metre. “I knew I had written the best poem” she wrote in her autobiography with unabashed immodesty. ”But I wondered if they knew.”

Well, ‘they’ did, and the moment when they called – ‘Stand up Enid Bagnold’ – she described 60 odd years later with a raw freshness as if it had happened yesterday.
Heady fame tasted young was never quite as sweet again. But it strengthened her inner rod throughout a long life. I hope that will happen to some of you today.

And after Enid I wrote about Laura Ashley – a wife who pretended that her role was merely to keep the workforce happy with home baked cakes, who pretended she never attended board meetings … ‘oh, no that’s for the men” …but manipulated frantically outside them, a wife who had to send back an award offered from the Queen lest it upset her husband but actually she was the inspiration for the multi-million dollar global fashion and interior design business that bore her name.

And of the many pioneering women I have written about in my history of women reporters one of the most interesting is surely Clare Hollingworth, the young journalist who first reported on the German military build-up on the Polish border in 1939, and who had dreamed of being a war reporter ever since her father took her as a child on regular visits to ancient battlefields. She always praised her headmistress for her dedication to producing girls able to stand on their own feet in a masculine world “without losing any femininity!” Now I realise of course that that remark may seem terribly non PC today. But in truth, it WAS a man’s world. When Clare sent her 1939 scoop home she was not an officially accredited war correspondent because NO British women were allowed to be so she was in fact an enemy alien with no protection if captured. But Clare knew how to survive…in fact she is one of life’s survivors and is still alive at 102.

Then there was Audrey Russell, who became one of the first officially accredited women war correspondents once they were allowed. But when I wrote to her former boss at the BBC asking for further details for my book he wrote back to me “Ah, but she wasn’t a real war reporter. She just did things behind the lines…”

Goodness, how I bristled on her behalf when I received that letter! I have bristled, too, on behalf of Jennie Churchill, the American wife of Lord Randolph, who campaigned for him to become an MP when he simply couldn’t be bothered. Jennie always believed in her destiny to make a great marriage and when Randolph died, 20 years after they’d married, she transferred all her energies and ambitions on to her son Winston. She instilled in him that he was born to be a great leader,  that it was his destiny to survive. ‘I believe in your lucky star’, she told him repeatedly. In another era she would have succeeded in having her own great career (and it might have been any one of a number of things including a concert pianist, a newspaper editor or playwright) But as it was, she turned her son Winston into her greatest creative act.

Jennie attended a school in Paris in the 1860s, just at the time that this school was founded. There she learnt everything that mattered in her life – not only to speak French fluently. But she never lost sight of that belief that she’d been born to achieve something great – even when things were pretty tough. And she never gave up trying until she died, tragically young, after a fall in 1921.

Most recently there was my book on Wallis Simpson That Woman & I wondered if there were any lessons I could draw from her life that might be useful to my audience today. I concluded probably not!

Clearly St Mary’s is a place where girls are inspired and encouraged … I did a little bit of homework on you all as my own daughter had friends here so I thought I’d ask them why they think it’s such a special school and was told: ‘Teachers who inspired me in their subject and inspired me to test and trust in my own abilities.’

And how important that is. While you are here I know you’ll have teachers, and a Headmistress, as well as parents who support you to the nth degree. But ultimately YOU have to believe in yourself– it is only YOU who believes in your absolutely limitless potential. You know, don’t you, just like Enid Bagnold that you can achieve anything you want …

I think that is what it really means today to be a strong woman. Not someone who shouts, or insists on their own point of view. Nor someone who feels they must not show emotion.  Of course I know strong currently has many meanings, especially now that women work out regularly at the gym and can be weightlifters as well as front line combat soldiers. But, as we all know, Women still don’t run as many arts organisations or banks as men do. They could and some do. Some don’t want to – and that’s fine too!

So I suppose my main message today is that whatever you want to do, keep hold of that inner rod of steel.

I was lucky in that I always knew that I wanted to be a writer … a journalist OR an author … but to tell stories, to communicate. At the same time I admit it was a bit of a fluke that Reuters took me on as a foreign correspondent, the first woman on their graduate trainee scheme, when I hadn’t the slightest idea of what a foreign correspondent actually did. BUT … I just had that confidence fostered by my parents and my school, that if you want to do something badly enough, what’s to lose from trying? And then keep trying and don’t be floored by rejections. After all, if you aren’t receiving regular rejections perhaps you aren’t trying hard enough is a good message for any freelancer!

Then when I got pregnant Reuters did not want to keep me … that’s another story, not for today, but I did think this might be the end of my working life. My lucky break as an author came when I was asked by a magazine to interview Julia Macrae, the doyenne of children’s publishing. She did something extraordinary at the end of the interview. She turned to me and said:  ‘Now that’s enough of me …what about you Anne, what do you want in life? When I told her my dream had always been to write biographies she offered me the chance to write one for children. And that is what led to my first biographies of Margot Fonteyn and Mother Teresa for children.

From which story I draw the following important lesson. Always listen and be interested in those around you, people (especially politicians) don’t always say things directly, listen to what they leave out. By the way, one of the reasons women reporters in the early days were so successful was because they were so good at listening. In part this is because women who listen are often seen not threatening (after all, what on earth can they understand…The weaker sex?) but also because if you interview someone – (and here’s a useful tip for would be journalists, lawyers or almost anything) – listen …listen and don’t interrupt. People will say much more than if you keep plying them with questions and putting them on the defensive.

These are not contradictory messages. Yes, listen to what other people have to say …but at the same time believe in yourself so that you are ready to grasp the opportunity whenever it comes along. It may take you by surprise and if you have to wait and think and wonder ‘can I do this, or should I do this?’ You may miss that opportunity.  Today you don’t have to achieve fulfilment vicariously through husband or children or indeed anyone else. You don’t have to play games or be manipulative. You can be, in the words of the song, whatever you want to be.


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