Written by Penny Anderson

Voices

My school’s ‘period chat’… made me a feminist

Standard Issue writers are exploring when they knew they were feminist. Penny Anderson had her eyes opened when she was referred to as a ‘baby machine’. Oh hell, no.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

I was 11 years old. Just a few months into my first year at secondary school, I was already bullied for being a ‘swot’ (that is, academic) who dressed ‘weird’ (my school had no uniform).

This school was underfunded and rough, staffed by teachers who seemed dispirited and ill-equipped or unwilling to prepare any of us, especially girls, to develop our ambitions and obtain qualifications, let alone nurture a love of knowledge and learning. I was one of two people from my year to enter higher education of any kind.

The dreaded assemblies consisted of enduring the music teacher’s deadly, tuneless piano clunk-clonking of all 956 verses* of Onward Christian Soldiers. Or else we reluctantly mouthed the words from All Things Bright and Beautiful: “The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate / He made them high or lowly, and ordered their estate.
*Rough estimate

One day, after various sports practices and detentions had been announced, the girls were ordered to stay behind. The boys filed out, probably for more woodwork, because girlies were to be given a special talk.

It emerged that a lady from a sanitary product company was going to chat to us. Her talk started with words that even today, decades later, make my eyes sting with molten tears of anger. Bending over in our direction, as if addressing a room full of fractious toddlers, she brightly enunciated that we were all “baby machines”.

“I dissented again: not only was I not a baby machine, but even more than that, I was going to university. I might as well have stated that after building my own rocket from Fairy Liquid bottles I would be launching myself into space.”

That unpleasant phrase had no place in a lecture on menstruation and personal hygiene, but certainly not to a room full of girls aged 11 to 14. We were bursting with potential, our lives ahead of us, just starting out in a world oozing possibilities, until a figure of authority informed us that we were nothing more than baby machines. Oh, and just so you know, this was the 70s, not the 50s.

At that time, I’d never heard the word feminist (just ‘women’s libbers’ and only as a pejorative term) but was instinctively consumed by righteous, rightful fury. I suspect my memories of what I did next are inflated or grandiose, because I recall a scene similar to the moment when Oliver requested some more. Mastering my indignation, I raised my hand to loudly announce: “I am not a baby machine.”

Addressing me indulgently, as if admonishing a naughty poodle, the woman maintained that I was indeed a baby machine. I dissented again: not only was I not a baby machine, but even more than that, I was going to university. She seemed stunned. I might as well have stated that after building my own rocket from Fairy Liquid bottles I would be launching myself into space.

I had dreams, you see; I had plans. Nothing too excessive, just education and travel. It seemed as if I was alone in objecting to her insistence that the sole purpose of a girl like me was making babies and other girls around me mumbled dissent (towards me, not evil sanpro woman) whose bizarre (to me at least) chirpy ‘chat’ continued.

We were then told to make sure that if we wouldn’t or couldn’t bathe every day during our period, that we should (using a delightful phrase of her own) ‘top and tail ourselves’, or at least wash ‘down there’.

Not once did sanpro woman use the word vagina.

I was being taught that a girl from my background was not just stupid, but also dirty. That because I was born working-class I should accept the views of my ‘betters’ – a lesson I rejected. This included the moment at another school when I complained to my more sympathetic form teacher that a supply teacher, supposed to cover French lessons, could clearly not speak the language. After she confessed and was then sacked, I was told that she excused her lack of linguistic knowledge by saying: “What would a silly girl like that need with French, anyway?”

Well, I needed French for the A-Level I took a few years later.

Both moments are forever seared onto my memory. I became not just a feminist, but one determined to stand up for myself; to defend myself against bigotry, bullying, class and gender prejudice, along the way developing an enduring hatred of being patronised. It’s served me well.

Read about Dotty Winters’ feminist lightbulb moment here.

@pennyanderson1

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Written by Penny Anderson

Penny Anderson is an artist based in Glasgow who writes about social issues for, among others, the Guardian. Her work is widely exhibited and can be found at thebunnytrickster.blogspot.co.uk. She is known to dress up as rabbit for the sake of her art. Do not judge her.