It's International Women's Day. Let's not dwell on the rather depressing fact that the readers of Metro have voted no less a person than Leona Lewis has been named the most influential woman to live or work in London in the last 100 years -- above such no marks as Virginia Woolf, Rosalind Franklin, Millicent Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Mrs Thatch and...er... Kate Moss.
Instead, allow me to take you back to a story from my school days, some twenty years ago. I went to a mostly all-boys school... I say mostly because girls only turned up in the sixth form, at which point they were hopelessly outnumbered and generally regarded as oddities by all the boys; at best to be tolerated, but mostly to be roundly abused. The sight of 13 year old boys walking behind 17 year old girls making loud coughing and retching noises was sadly a common one on the streets around my school.
It was a rather strange environment, and not one that I think produced a particularly healthy attitude towards women amongst those impressionable boys. I was certainly somewhat emotionally scarred by the experience, and went off to University almost entirely unable to hold together a meaningful conversation - never mind a full-blown relationship - with a woman. To be honest, that only really changed - if it really has - when someone decided, in the face of all the available evidence, that I was worth persevering with.
Reader, I married her.
Anyway, if I found the whole process emotionally damaging, can you imagine what it must have been like to be one of the girls? Some were accepted immediately, of course, because they were deemed pretty and hung out with the rugby team. Many others were outcasts from the start, judged without mercy from the moment they arrived on the basis of their looks. All were subject to the immature whims and casual abuse of a majority of idiot boys who outnumbered them in almost every situation by about ten to one. I'm still friends with a girl I went to school with, actually, and to this day I am in awe of the strength of character and resilience she showed to make it through a full two years of this bizarre environment and to emerge (relatively) unscathed.
One thing above all others sticks in my head. There was a uniform code of course: the boys wore jackets and ties, and the girls wore similar... with the obvious difference that the girls wore skirts. There were rules, of course, about the length of skirt. The rule was that a skirt should be knee-length i.e. long enough that it would touch the ground if you were kneeling. Most girls would - by choice and possibly out of a very sensible desire not to draw attention to themselves - wear long, flowing skirts that reached their ankles and practically touched the ground. Rules, of course, exist expressly for people to test them, and there were girls who liked to push the boundaries.
You know how the rule was enforced? If any master -- almost all men -- felt that a girl was wearing a skirt that was too short, he would call them over and make them kneel before him to see if the hem touched the ground. Yup, you heard me. In front of everyone, they were made to kneel.
Twenty years down the line, the school is fully co-educational and I'm sure things are completely different. That image has rather stayed with me though as rather summing up the whole antiquated, misogynist and unthinking attitude of my alma mater.
Alma mater; nourishing mother. How richly ironic that phrase is.