In 1992, I started at an all-girls secondary school, and I LOVED it! For the first time in my school life, I no longer had to compete with half the class, just for the right to be allowed to join the start line. For the first time in my school life, I realised just how much of my energy had been spent in fighting for my right just to start!
To be fair, I never blamed the boys – they were merely the beneficiaries of a hugely rigged and unfair system. The person I held firmly responsible was the instigator, and enthusiastic enforcer of that system; my male headteacher.
An early example of sexism
Boys were allowed to change into trainers at playtime, girls weren’t.
This was because boys (and in fairness, only year 5 and 6 boys) were allowed to play football on the netball court marked out on the hard surface playground. Girls weren’t.
Girls were never allowed to play netball on this netball court at playtime.
So, that’s about 180 kids on a playground, roughly 150 of whom are relegated to the outsides of the netball court (which took up the vast majority of the playground), while roughly 30 of the chosen few (the eldest males) were allowed free reign to run and play.
If you got hit with the ball, it was your fault for being too close to the netball court.
I sh*t you not, this was the response you got when you went crying to the teacher having been hit full force in the face with a football. That and, go put a wet paper towel on it. Talk about victim blaming!
In the summer months, things got a bit better because we were allowed on the grass field, meaning that there was more room for everyone.
Of course, the year 5 and 6 boys’ football was also moved to the field, and so they still dominated the biggest space.
Even at this point in the year, when pressure on the hard surface playground had been relieved some, girls were not allowed to play netball on the netball court outside of the official netball club run by the teachers.
Instead, the younger boys were allowed to play football here, presumably so they could practice for when they reached the dizzying heights of year 5 and 6, and could play football all year round.
And girls were still not allowed to play football with the boys, on the field or on the playground.
To say that my head teacher had stereotypical gendered ideas would be accurate! Those ideas did not limit themselves to sport.
Awareness of unfairness
Even aged 7, I was aware of just how unfair things were, and just how much I was being denied, simply because I was a girl. I did voice my objections to teachers, and even to the scary head, but to no avail. I was firmly put back in my place as a mere female. And a young, stupid female at that (like I said, his views weren’t limited to sport…)
However, I like to think my agitation and awareness raising of the rigged system did help those who came after me. My sister, two years my junior, did succeed in being allowed to join the football club and play with the boys, at least once a week.
Life has a funny way of returning you to unfinished business, and so it was that 14 years after I had enthusiastically left that school, with ne’er a backwards glance, I found myself back there working as a TA, with the same head teacher still in role!
I was dismayed to discover that what hadn’t been acceptable in the late 1980s and early 1990s was still going on, now in the 2000s! I took on a one-woman mission of awareness raising and agitation around all the sexist and unfair rules still in play, and my first target was the ‘only boys get to change into trainers at playtime’ rule!
I advocated and spoke up for the girls, pointed out the everyday sexism that most of the teaching staff seemed either blind to, or prepared to turn a blind eye to, spoke up for myself and challenged every sexist remark made towards me, and generally caused life to get uncomfortable for those happy to maintain the 1980s status quo. Not everything changed, but girls got to change into trainers at playtime if they wanted to, and I celebrated that small win!
The problem with the patriarchy is not men
The problem with the patriarchy is not men. The problem is that it’s a system that unfairly benefits some men in some ways. My primary school football example shows that in play in micro, with a single example.
But the way this system infiltrates and impacts on all our beliefs, values, thoughts, stories, emotions and behaviours is really important. As with all things, the first stage to change, is awareness of what is.
A few years after I had returned to my former primary school to work, my elder cousin sent me a fantastic sticker for our bathroom.
It was so simple and so spot on.
It felt utterly empowering to me.
So much so, that I photocopied it and stuck it on all the female bathroom doors at school for International Women’s Day that year. The year 6 girls were the first to notice – and they loved it too!
Signs are difficult to create to be simple and effective (easily understood), and this one, created around 1924, but not popularized until 1960/1970s as the standard ‘female’ pictogram, is still the standard used across most of Europe, Asia and The Americas.
The message that is contained in that sign, while perhaps never intended, is huge in an era when sexualisation and external appearance are the standards by which women are often judged and assessed. This is generally said to have gotten worse since the advent of Social Media. I wonder if it has, or whether SM has merely helped raise our awareness of what was already there.
I actually had this debate with my dad, whilst waiting for a show to begin a number of years ago. He couldn’t see the problem with the dress wearing female stick figure sign, or the need to redraw it or redefine what it might actually be saying, or the power in that.
So I suggested that it’d be like using a beard sign to represent men. To which he responded, without irony or sarcasm,
‘But not all men wear beards’.
‘Exactly!’ I near exploded, ‘but at least facial hair is a secondary sexual characteristic of males. Dresses and skirts have literally NOTHING to do with women!’
And I was disappointed to see that he still didn’t get my point. Or, perhaps more accurately, my needs to be seen, heard and understood were not fulfilled with his reaction.
Redrawing of a symbol
When we’re so universally represented by a symbol that doesn’t represent who we are, it is yet another example of how we have to squash our internal knowing and self in order to ‘fit’ in with how the world ‘out there’ portrays, perceives and demands us to be.
It may only be a toilet door symbol, but it’s an example of the insipid and unconscious everyday patriarchal system in practice, and how these messages are drip fed to us, causing our unconscious conditioning.
While the patriarchal system undoubtably harms both males and females, as well as those who don’t gender identify, I’m cis-female, and so I wish to talk to my experience, and the information I’m aware of for why it’s really very important that we raise awareness of this unconscious patriarchal conditioning.
Patriarchy and illness
Females are more likely that males to suffer from autoimmune, inflammatory and chronic health conditions, and I’d like to postulate that perhaps one of the reasons for this is emotional suppression, in particular of anger, that females, from a very young age, are conditioned to do.
Gabor Maté in his book, ‘When the Body Says No’, talks about character traits and ways of being around emotional suppression, in both males and females, that are noticeable in those who go on to develop certain cancers and chronic autoimmune and pain conditions.
He talks about the two driving forces of childhood as being attachment (to the care giver in order to maintain life) and authenticity (to yourself, your own feelings and needs, who you are), and that of the two, attachment ALWAYS wins.
Children who grow up having to squash their own feelings and needs in order to maintain the all important care-giver attachment, in order that they can survive to adulthood, find themselves as adults not being able to express their emotions. Oftentimes they’re not even aware of their feelings.
These feelings have a chemical signature in the body, so even if you’re not aware that you’re feeling a certain way, your body knows, and experiences that.
The only way to complete stress cycles, and end difficult feelings, is to FEEL them. Emily and Amelia Nagoski, in their book, ‘Burnout’ say this loud and clear. When emotions aren’t experienced, aren’t felt, they don’t get the chance to complete, and so they get ‘stuck’ in the body.
Stress, which can be the result of emotional suppression, is known to be a contributory factor to certain cancers (e.g. breast cancer) and chronic autoimmune and inflammatory pain health conditions, like fibromyalgia, IBS, ALS/motor-neuron disease, Alzheimer’s and Crohn’s.
Marshall Rosenberg in his book, ‘Nonviolent Communication; a Language of Life’, tells us that our feelings are our body’s way of communicating to us about our needs.
The more ‘negative’ feelings we experience are telling us that a need is going unmet, whilst the more ‘positive’ feelings, that a need is getting met.
So, what happens when we suppress anger? What happens when we suppress fear? What happens when we suppress despair?
Well, when we suppress these emotions, we suppress the needs beneath them, meaning that those needs remain unfulfilled.
It is perhaps hardly surprising then that a person who learnt in childhood that their anger (which was perhaps an indication of their need for justice or fairness going unmet) was unacceptable to their caregiver, learnt to suppress that feeling, and that need, in order to maintain attachment.
In a world unconsciously ruled by patriarchal views and beliefs, it’s also hardly surprising therefore that girls would be disproportionately suppressing their feelings and needs in order to maintain attachment to their caregivers (both male and female) who are labouring under the patriarchal teachings and system.
Awareness creates choice
When we start to raise awareness, we start to allow the adults (both male and female) to see what’s really going on, what’s really driving their behaviour, and they get to question that.
They get to consciously choose something different.
Which means they get to consciously raise their children (of all genders and none) in a different way, resulting in children who can have attachment WITHOUT compromising their authenticity.
We get to raise children who are securely attached to their caregivers AND can feel and express their emotions, allowing these emotions to move through their bodies, not getting stuck, to build up and later cause illness.
It also means we can teach our children how they can get their needs met.
Connection and authenticity
When a person is allowed to be their true selves out in the world, then there is no disconnect, no need for pretense, no shoving down deep inside of feelings and needs, in order to remain connected, in order to remain safe.
And when we are no longer suppressing our emotions and our needs, we are no longer attacking ourselves, which means we lessen the likelihood of autoimmune, inflammatory and chronic pain health conditions.
The patriarchy is literally causing us illness (and the males amongst us are not immune), and so I suggest that for the sake of our collective health, it’s time to really become aware of this system in our lives, to question it, and to change it for the better.
NVC is the how
In my opinion, NVC gives the practical HOW for this.
It teaches us HOW to recognise and feel our feelings and emotions.
It teaches us HOW to identify our needs.
It teaches us HOW to see our unconscious stories and beliefs that are colouring our perception of the world.
And it teaches us HOW to go about fulfilling our needs to enhance life for everyone.
I highly recommend reading the book, and listening to the podcast to learn more about this.
And if you’d like some guidance around the learning and implementation of this way of communicating, so that you can become secure in experiencing your feelings, holding strong boundaries around your needs and connecting authentically with the outside world, come join me on my Compassionate Communication Challenge, starting January 10th 2022.
Use code ‘earlybird’ for £20 off before 31st December 2021.