littlemavis

Little_Mavis' rants and musings


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Privilege and Oxbridge

This may not be a well written blog because I’m trying to write it quickly and I’m trying to put over an idea that I think is quite simple but others find more complicated.

It’s to do with access to Oxbridge and other forms of success and privilege and how many people still don’t understand how it works. I’ll illustrate this with my own story. It’s from quite a while ago – I took A levels in 1972 but I’ve taught in an inner city sixth form in the naughties so I do know that many of the issues still exist.

First, background.

I come from a working class community. My dad was a train driver (started as a cleaner, as you did back then, and worked his way up through fireman etc as the older drivers retired). My grandads were both miners and my mum worked in a factory until she left work to bring us up – women did that then). Nobody, even in my extended family had ever gone to university, A couple of cousins a few years older than me had gone to teacher training college (before teaching was all graduate), my parents had both left school at 14, this was during the war.

I passed my 11+ and went to the local grammar school. I was in the top set of the top mgsstream. I didn’t work particularly hard. I wasn’t nagged at home because my parents had no real idea what these exams were and certainly no idea what university even was. O level results (1970) were good but not spectacular (9 with a range of grades from 1 to 5 (passes were then 1-6) in today’s money I think they’d translate as 1 A*, 4A, 2B, 2C. I took 4 took A levels in Physics, Chemistry, Biology & Maths, also sat General Studies. My mock results were truly dreadful and I realised – in the January of the year I was taking my exams – that I wouldn’t be able to get by on native wit. Another issue, worth mentioning at this point, is that the teachers’ careers didn’t hinge on our results. They taught us. They told us what we needed to do to get the results we should but after that it was on our own heads. When I got reports that said things like

“Capable of a much better mark. Has not worked as hard as is necessary this year relying far too much on her natural ability” 

My parents expressed disappointment but honestly, not much else.

Anyway, the results scared me enough to work much harder in the remaining 4 months, but it turns out that you can’t catch up on 2 years work in that time, especially in Maths.

Meanwhile, I had applied to university. I had decided that I wanted to take Chemistry and I was particularly keen on modular courses that allowed a broader range of topics. I applied mostly to what were then new universities and the most common offer I got, even from the only established uni (Newcastle), was CD. Yes, you read that right CD.

The combination of working to improve my grade from appalling to meeting requirements but only having to reach CD meant that the panic receded. I ended up with 3 Cs, an A in General Studies and an E in Maths (An improvement from the 25% I achieved in my mock) and got the place at Warwick.grad 2

I did not even think of applying to Oxbridge. I have no idea if I’d have got in if I had. But the clumsy point I’m making here is that it wasn’t even on the horizon.

If I’d had middle-class, graduate parents would it have made a difference? They would have had higher expectations for a start. The best I managed was that my parents didn’t stop me from carrying on into 6th form and applying to university (That may sound odd but there were 2 girls in my class, top stream at a grammar school remember, who were made to leave after they passed O levels because their parents didn’t feel it was worth continuing). They would have known their way around the system and given encouragement and advice rather than the hands-off slightly bewildered approach my parents had. The school tried, obviously, and there was an expectation that we would all apply to and go to university but, honestly, that was mostly it.

Maybe I wasn’t clever enough anyway? I certainly didn’t work hard enough which I suppose is my fault. There were people in my year who went. One friend who did had a father who was a manager, did that make a difference? We don’t know. BUT the knowledge, encouragement, space and opportunity to work are definitely different in middle class families.

I’m sure the middle class kids who go to Oxbridge are clever and work hard. There is only an issue when they claim that that is the sole reason they made it. There are many, many other kids who are just as clever, many of them will have worked just as hard. The reason they haven’t made it isn’t because they are less clever or less hardworking, it’s because they don’t have the specific knowledge and contacts that would have made the difference.

What some people are missing here is what Rumsfeld was talking about

Rumsfeld stated:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Working class students, their parents and, to some extent, their teachers have a problem  unknown unknowns. They lack the knowledge that would enable them to succeed but they don’t know what it is they lack or even that there is something they lack.

Middle class success stories (JHB for instance) have a different blind spot. They have unknown knowns. They know stuff that those working class families don’t but it is such second nature to them that they don’t realise that not everyone knows it.

If you did grow up in a middle class family, think of those times when you’ve spoken to a friend or colleague and been surprised that there was something you took for granted that they didn’t seem to be aware of. Privilege is that. Writ large.

I especially salute all those who have succeeded from a working class background. I’m pleased you had the drive to succeed anyway (Look at Diane Abbott for a brilliant example of this and imagine how much harder it was for her to get to where she is than it was for, say, George Osborne)

Anyway, I’m rambling and I’ve told you all far more about myself than I’m really comfortable with. But my point is this. Just because you have worked hard and succeeded, it doesn’t mean that people with fewer advantages than you could have been just as successful if only they had been as clever as you and worked as hard. They will have had to be cleverer, worked harder or been much luckier.

And finally, as an aside, we shouldn’t be valuing only people who are clever or work hard anyway. We should value people for what & who they are. The kind people, the empathic people, the diligent people, the plumber, the cheerful barman, the taxi driver, the Englishman, the immigrant. We can’t all be academically clever, we can’t all go to Oxbridge. That doesn’t mean we aren’t deserving of respect.

 

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Joyless

On the whole, I’m an optimistic sort of person. Or, at least, I thought I was. I have tried not to be, because I always reckoned that if you expected the worst, you were unlikely to be disappointed. But I never quite convinced myself that the worst would ever really happen.

My optimism is being tested to breaking point right now. I’ve been trying, and failing, as I suspect many of you have, to get inside the heads of those who look at the current government, Brexit and Donald Trump as President as positive things that offer a bright future. I just can’t see it. The best I can envisage is that they expect either some personal improvement at the expense of others, or bringing everyone else down to your level which will just serve them right.

The idea seems to be of a life that comprises working hard (apparently starting at 3, 4 at the very latest) and indulging in competitive education where you strive to learn more than the next child in order to succeed at the norm referenced exams. This will be a ticket to more striving at higher education then competing for jobs where you compete with fellow employees to impress your boss in order to be promoted and watch your minions compete.

You do this so you can earn money to buy various things that you buy based on targeted adverts on your social media platforms which are based on your likes, comments and what items you searched for last week. “You bought a bed! Here are some other beds you may like!”. Whether or not you need these items seems to be irrelevant. You are supposed to want them because others want them because they were targeted last month (they are innovators).

If you have a partner, they too will need to work to fuel this aspirational lifestyle. What do you mean, you want time off to look after your children. There are others to do that. In these new nurseries. They’re brilliant. The children there aren’t allowed to slack off like they did in those old-fashioned nurseries, playing with plastic cows and dinosaurs and the like. None of this finger painting rubbish. They will be taught to hold their paintbrushes properly in week 2 and will need to paint a butterfly that meets our precise specifications. (and no, you cannot paint a ladybird instead)

When your parents are old and frail we expect you to take time off to deal with that. No carers paid for by the state to help. We cannot afford such luxuries. Money? What do you mean money? Have you not been saving for this eventuality since you were 16? What do you mean you spent it on iPhones and fashion and games and holidays? Yes, I know we told you to so our friends could make a profit but you should have saved too. You should have known. What do you mean you couldn’t even afford those things? You must be a skiver then. You don’t deserve money paid by hard-working families.

It’s all so bloody joyless isn’t it? I know life often has been but when I was small we were told. Promised almost, that with technology, if would be easier and we’d have more leisure time. What happened? Where did that ambition for life to be easier go? When did we start to fetishise “striving” and “hard work” and why? Is it all just so that a lucky, ambitious & often ruthless few could live in obscene luxury while the rest of us struggle? At least in relative terms.

I suspect this post wouldn’t pass muster at Key Stage 2. I’ve got rhetorical questions, fronted adverbials and subordinate clauses but I suspect my tenses are all over the place, I have sentences that are not truly sentences and the overall structure leaves a lot to be desired but I’m writing quickly and crossly.

Is this all there is? Working, growing up, having children, giving them to others to bring up so we can work more, buying things we may not need to fill the coffers of those who exploit us, fuelled by fear and insecurity without even a quiet retirement to look forward to?

What’s the point? Really? If we aren’t even going to try to make the world a better place?

Where do we go from here?

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When I were a lass

After my Infant School post I was going to move straight on to Junior School but I thought some background context might be useful.

This isn’t going to be a carefully structured, well-thought-out post, more random musings as I remember things.

I grew up in a small market town in South Yorkshire that was surrounded by pits. Back

cadeby

This is the pit where both my grandfathers worked

then, it was reasonably prosperous as such places go. (When I went back last year it was dingy and run down. I already knew that all the places I played as a child had been built on but there wasn’t really anything left. Every school I had attended had been demolished. But that’s all beside the point)

The vast majority (of men) were employed and it was normal for women to leave work after they had children. The jobs were mainly in mining, both my grandfathers and one of my uncles were miners, and there was a large locomotive loco (railway locomotive maintenance and stabling depot), though this closed in the mid sixties. My dad was a railway fireman. He started as a cleaner at 17 or so after leaving the local technical college and ended up, before he retired in the early 90s driving InterCity 125s. My mum went back to work in some kind of factory after I was born and I was looked after by my grandma. She gave up work after my brother was born four years later. For the first three or four years we lived with my grandma (My granddad died when I was 2 or so) in a council house but then bought a small terraced house.

The house we moved into was a terrace with three bedrooms a front room and a living kitchen. No bathroom (It had been built in 1924) and no heating apart from coal fires. I’m not sure if there were fireplaces in the bedrooms. For cooking, we had a built in coal oven in an enamelled range (rather than the cast iron ones that were still in some houses) ovenThe nearest I can find to what it looked like was this. We also had a 2 ring gas burner and a geyser for hot water. There was only a cold tap. Over time (don’t ask me when) we had a bath installed in the kitchen in the alcove next to the chimney. And a back boiler installed to heat water. My dad boxed it in with a lid to cover it when it wasn’t in use and when we had a bath we used a clothes horse covered in a blackout curtain to screen us off from the rest of the family.

There was an outside toilet, not too far from the back door rather than across a yard. We kept a paraffin lamp in there to heat the pipes in winter.

Again, over time a bathroom was added, with some sort of government grant, and eventually central heating, though that may not have been until after I left home. We had no phone (hardly anyone did. If we needed to we used the phone box at the bottom of the street), no fridge and the TV had 2 channels.

We played out a lot. You had to be careful where you played and often be careful how much noise you made as there were always people on night shift. As well as in the street, where it was reasonably safe to play because there were very few people in the street with cars, there was plenty of waste ground to play on. Having looked at old maps these tended to be places that had previously been used as quarries or clay pits though there was a big park nearby with hawthorn bushes along the side to make dens.

Kids tended to play out together in mixed age groups. The older ones looked after the smaller ones. Any adults around kept half an eye on everybody. Disagreements sometimes ended in physical fights without any serious harm done.

We walked to school from quite an early age, but there was far less traffic then. Lots of corner shops, in fact they were on pretty much every corner. Within easy walking distance of our house I can remember a couple of grocers, a post office, an off-licence (beer-off), a butchers, a newsagents a chip shop, 2 cobblers, a Co-op which was a big grocers where you could buy sugar or “best” butter by the pound.

We also had a “potato man” come round every Friday delivering vegetables with one side of his van open & laid out like a market stall. The milk was delivered by a woman pulling a sort of electric handcart.

I spent a lot of time at the library in town and had pretty much read my way through the children’s library by about 11, not difficult if you’re getting through a book a day. You encyclopediaweren’t allowed to have an adult ticket until you were 14 so my dad let me use one of his tickets. You weren’t allowed to join until 5 (I think?) but although I was too young I proved I could read so they let me. I did have books of my own and I got a lot of information from Arthur Mees’s Children’s’ Encyclopaedia which was in 10 large volumes (most of Volume 10 was the Index) which I think had been published in 1920 something. At first I was only allowed Volume 1 but that got so tatty from my reading it my parents eventually relented and let me have the rest.

buntyI also was given comics by the boy who lived next door to my Grandma so I was well versed in boys’ comics such as Hotspur, Valiant and (possibly) Rover which was mostly text stories. At home I got Bunty (best bit was Bunty’s Cut Out wardrobe on the back page)

I went to Brownies at St George’s Church Hall. After the meeting we used to go to the nearby shop & buy a bag of crisps. When you bought them they had a small screw of blue paper with salt. I remember getting excited when you could first but cheese & onion crisps as well as plain. Other sweets Spangles, Penny Arrows (I liked the banana split ones), Kayli (sp?) A summer treat was frozen Jubbly.

Anyway. To finish, because I don’t really know how to finish. Things change. You don’t notice them all that much while it’s happening. I grew up,  went to university (family first), discovered a whole other world. Looking back I realised this way of growing up was similar for many, many years. The war may have speeded up development of some things but may have slowed down others. Going back now, I can hardly recognise the place. It has changed, both in the way places change over time and in a wholly different way because I think the heart has been ripped out of towns like that. It’s changed from a busy bustling town with a purpose to a collection of houses and run down shops with no direction. Apparently the HS2 line is scheduled to go right through a new housing estate there. That’s pretty awful for the people living there but I think the real damage was done years ago.


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Temper Tantrum

I lost my temper (a bit) today. It was over something fairly unimportant in the greater scheme of things, but it left me upset and a somewhat shaky. I have always had a bit of a problem with a short temper. I deal with it mostly by avoiding things that I know will annoy me where I can. I do this by muting certain tweeters, avoiding some people, not watching Question Time, not reading below the line. If I cannot avoid I do my best to walk away. Pro tip here folks. If someone walks away from you saying “I’m going now before I say something I’ll regret”, DO NOT FOLLOW THEM TO CONTINUE THE DISCUSSION. It will not end well.

I realise that some people never lose their temper. I used to think they just had iron self-control but I’ve come round to the idea that some of us are wired differently. So. For those of you who have never had this problem, here’s what it’s like.

Imagine you abooksre carrying a pile of books. Every so often, someone comes & balances another book on top of the pile. They add them, not you, so they don’t do it very carefully but you still do your best to balance them. You don’t go down some roads because you know people with lots of books lurk there just waiting to add them onto your pile. When you get the chance, you dump some of the books in handy spots which are designed to help you dispose of them safely. Places like beautiful countryside, gyms, and cinemas.

But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the books will topple anyway. It may happen, for instance when you are doing all the carrying with one hand because the other is occupied looking after a toddler or an elderly parent or dealing with a troublesome client or colleague at work. It may happen because you are so busy and stressed you don’t have time to remove any books because life is getting in the way. Sometimes, you are taken completely by surprise by a sudden influx of books. Someone or something comes rushing up behind you and dumps a huge number of books suddenly. You don’t see them or hear them. You’re trundling alpicture1ong, coping nicely with the pile but you weren’t expecting this and you lose balance. That kind is especially frightening and tends to leave you shaken after the sudden and completely unexpected …well…almost an attack really.

The final kind is what I suspect happened today. The pile of books has grown for reasons entirely beyond your control. They’ve been put there by circumstances that are distant and all encompassing. My pile of books just now has built up because I’m worried about my country and the world. I’ll probably be all right, well, unless someone lets Trump too near the nuclear button. I’m worried about global warming. I’m worried about the effects of leaving the EU. I’m rather selfishly sad about that partly because we’ve only really just discovered the joys of overseas travel and I suspect this will curtail future adventures. I’m worried about the apparently rampant racism and xenophobia that seems to be taking hold in the UK, US, France and elsewhere and the sheer nastiness, selfishness and lack of compassion that seems to be all around us. So. Because of this, only one tiny extra book can cause things to tumble and my temper to snap. I’d obviously been carrying this pile around for a while and hadn’t noticed how high it had become. I know now, I’ll carry carefully and make sure I can offload. I’ll make time for minor treats (I know I am lucky I can do this) I will watch where I walk and make extra sure I know when to walk away.

Ultimately, I shouldn’t have got cross today. But then, the person who annoyed me shouldn’t have done what they did either. Almost without exception what makes me cross are people who are rude or inconsiderate. I’m not excusing myself here but I am pleading provocation. I don’t get angry with people who are polite, civil and considerate. (Apologies if you think this sounds like victim blaming) I still agree I was wrong.

Writing this has helped. I hope it might help some of you understand what is happening when someone “snaps”.

As an extra, my advice if someone you know has this problem. Give them space. Let them rant a bit. It will pass. They (mostly) don’t mean most of what they say. They will be upset afterwards too. (I’m not expecting sympathy here btw just describing what happens). And above all, unless you want to drive someone to further fury, never, ever tell them to “calm down”calm

 

 

 


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Competition or Co-operation?

Last night, I had a dream.

Doesn’t that make you shudder at the start of a blog? But don’t worry. This isn’t going to be a detailed description of my weird and wonderful dreams. I don’t really have those. This is just what triggered my current musings.

In this dream I was in a strange place; some kind of academic institution I think. (My dreams often include a return to places like this. I think it signals a not very hidden desire to learn something new.) Still, I digress. The noticeable feature of the dream was that I was welcomed and everybody tried to help me find my way and were supportive of what I was doing. This is a good dream. When I was teaching, and to be fair, in previous jobs though to a lesser extent, my dreams were similar in location but very different in tone. I found situations and people frustrating and obstructive, I had a goal, a destination and I was constantly being prevented from getting there in various ways; thwarted at every turn. I assume this is because it was what was constantly happening in real life. I knew what I wanted to do and what was needed, but was prevented from doing it by circumstance (and to be honest often by individuals) I fought against this, and succeeded to some extent for several years but was eventually beaten into submission when a combination of circumstances at home and at work meant I had no more energy to fight.

I’m generally an optimistic kind of person. I don’t give up easily and although I actually try to expect the worst because that way you’re less likely to be disappointed, in fact I don’t do that. I still have a secret core that believes things will turn out for the best. I can find a positive in bad things that have happened and regard setbacks as an opportunity to develop rather than as an end.

But…

Just now I’m struggling to do that. There have been blogs (such as this from Sue Cowley which caused a flurry of comments both pro & con) and comments (for example this conversation ) again recently about the macho language now being used, especially noticeable in education.  (I’ve also just come across this which is making a similar point.)

But it’s not just the language that’s becoming hard and ultimately competitive. It’s actions. Look at the way exams are now graded “to prevent grade inflation”. We’re heading back to norm referencing. Not only in A levels and GCSEs (as far as I can tell) but also in SATs results. I think the fact that “pass marks” are not being published until papers are in is a hint there. ( I suspect this is what Michael Gove was really talking about when he made the all schools can be above average remark) The actual quote from the education select committee

Q98 Chair: One is: if “good” requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?

Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.

Q99 Chair: So it is possible, is it?

Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.

What he wanted was for all schools to compete to be in the right hand side of the bell curve. And Ofsted had already been doing this for years by only classifying schools as *Good* if they were above average. This is all well and good if schools, teachers and pupils are not then castigated for not being good. And, ultimately, it means that you can only improve at someone else’s expense.

Today, this was again illustrated beautifully by our own dear SMW. First he criticised a local authority being the “worst performing region in the country“. Well, if you rank regions, schools, children, some will inevitably be the worst, whatever the overall standard. Next he claimed children are nor making enough progress after primary school (Odd since the government is currently claiming it’s primary schools who aren’t doing well enough and are hiking up the expected levels) and is reasoning that because of this we should re-introduce KS3 tests.

Last year, 68% of non-selective secondary school pupils who achieved a level 5 or above (which is significantly above average) in English and maths at the end of primary school failed to attain either an A* or A in these subjects at GCSE; 27% failed to achieve the minimum expected progress, a grade B.

Now, I don’t know the details of this, but I do know that to avoid grade inflation GCSE grades are pegged Jack Marwood knows much more and if he calls foul, I trust him.

The part that really worries me now it that this is not just in education, or even just in the workplace. It’s everywhere. The far right narrative which is currently in vogue seems to want to rank everything and everybody then specifically praise those who succeed at the expense of others.

Does everything need to be about competition rather than co-operation? Do we have to divide schools, the country, the world into them and us? Does your success have to come at someone else’s expense? Is co-operation a dirty word?


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Do you explain, or just tell?

I got annoyed today. I get annoyed quite often really. There is a pattern to the things that annoy me. It’s acts of selfishness or thoughtlessness for which I cannot imagine any mitigation.

  • Cars that park on double yellow lines and cause long queues of traffic. As far as I can tell, usually so someone can go in a shop without the inconvenience of walking ten metres from somewhere it is safe and legal to park.
  • Finding someone has bunged a bag of rubbish in your bin leaving not enough room for the  two full sacks you need to put in (actually what triggered this blog).
  • Noisy smelly barbecues that mean you cannot leave your windows open or your washing out on warm Summer evenings (fingers crossed eh?).

If there is a good reason for inconveniencing me, I can live with it.

  • An elderly mother recovering from a broken leg needed to call in to buy some wool.
  • You were clearing out your cupboards and thought I was away for the week so you could use the space in my bin.
  • Sorry. No excuse for barbecues but you should at least warn neighbours!

What I’m building up to here is a plea for thoughtfulness and a bit of consideration, obviously, life would be smoother if we were all a bit nicer, but also, if you are going to do something that is potentially annoying, tell the person you may annoy why you are doing it. Don’t assume it wont bother them. Don’t assume it doesn’t matter.

And if you’re a teacher, explain rules, especially those that seem initially pointless to the students. They won’t all be convinced, but there will be some, who were initially resentful who will have second thoughts and cooperate rather than sullenly comply.

I know there are many teachers who feel no desire to “justify” themselves to students. They believe fact that something is a rule and the teacher is in charge is enough. I have some sympathy with that desire. It would make life so much easier. Maybe my problem is that I identify too much with the kids. I can remember getting cross at pointless annoying rules. But I still think cooperation is preferable to sullen resentment. Just try it. You may be pleasantly surprised.


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Is Patriarchy throwing a final tantrum?

There is a general adage in childcare manuals (see pg 12 here pdf) that if you take steps to correct bad behaviour, things will get worse before they get better. This seems especially noticeable if it is a behaviour they have been previously getting away with. You can imagine the mental workings on this.

“But they let me do this yesterday, why won’t they let me do it today?”

“That’s not fair. I like doing it.”

“They don’t mean it do they? They love me. Why won’t they let me do what I want?”

So. They repeat the behaviour. And you carry on with whatever form of discipline you’ve chosen. If the behaviour persists, you may step up your discipline a notch. You may move from 5 minutes time out to sending to their room. (Not my approach but a popular one)

Sometimes this appears to work. Behaviour settles, you relax on the discipline and things seem to be progressing just fine.

Then They go to school, or make a new friend and they discover that their friend appears to be allowed to do the thing you have successfully stopped them from doing. So they begin a campaign to return to their previous, preferred state where they could demand toys or hit their little sister, or whatever. And you repeat your original reaction, But now, they’re older, and bigger and they have their new friend egging them on. It’s harder this time round, and it isn’t helped by their friend’s parent telling you that this behaviour doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s just fine, children need to stand up for themselves in this hurly-burly world.

Ultimately, if you believe in a world where children (not all children) do not go around taking anything they want and hitting other children they do not like, you need to persist. Sometimes in the face of criticism from other parents.

So. Where am I going with this?

Just now, women seem to be fighting many of the battles that I thought we had won ages ago and part of me wonders if it is just that men (not all men), or patriarchy throwing their renewed tantrums to try to regain what they believe they have lost. They have been forced to accept equality in so many ways but they are still fighting back in a different way. For women to be equal we must become like them, because that is how you become successful. I honestly thought we had gone through all of this, as I said, years ago. I remember discussions and articles about how having women in business and in charge would change the narrative. I thought it was happening but somehow we are being dragged back to this.

Yes, women can be tough. But we shouldn’t need to be tough in the way that has been defined in the past by men. I’m not an expert on feminism or history but I want to be allowed to be who I want to be. And I want men to have that option too.

I don’t want to see life solely as a competition and like it or not, for historical reasons we do see competition as masculine and cooperation as feminine. And even if you reject those labels, in an evolutionary sense, it makes sense. We need to embrace both aspects to be successful as a human community.

This blog was prompted by Twitter discussions and by this blog and its follow-up from @sue_cowley