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Training starts early/Ain’t I A Woman


This morning I listened to a discussion on BBC 1 Breakfast regarding the inclusion of women on the front line in the RAF. The argument ‘for’ was strong and upheld by Durham’s chief of police. Although stating that he was not and never had been part of the army, he had seen only positivity from the many years of women serving on the front line for police. Naga responded with a blatantly sexist comment hidden under the cloak of devil’s advocate:


‘It is said that men are distracted by the need to protect the weaker sex.’ She corrects herself, ‘physically weaker sex.’


It is this attitude and opinion that has frustrated women for years. This assumption of weakness, of tenderness; a screaming scared woman unable to lift her gun. Are backpacks and camouflage tarpaulin being laid over trench puddles for women soldiers to pass over?


The speech Ain’t I A Woman by Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) screams in my ear. These cultural standards that contain and inhibit the ability of women never made it to the slave trade or the cotton fields. Nor does it recognize that women have been on the front line for many war stricken years all over the world, defending their family from the war at their doors, and their bodies from rape, only a recently acknowledged as a war weapon.


The story of Ann Bonny and Mary Read spring positively to mind. Both women were brought up as boys when children, either to hide the father’s illegitimate affair with servants or for funding from a family that thought their nephew was still alive.


Once adult, both women found it impossible to conform to the restraints of the woman’s role in society. Mary Read ran off to join the army under a fake name and under the guise of a male; and Anne, after rejecting the marriage set up by her father, fled with a man of her choosing and became one of the world’s most notorious pirates in the golden age of piracy. Later, Mary Read joined Anne Bonny on the ship and they were known to have fought harder than any man. Indeed, Anne Bonny reportedly put a man in hospital for 3 days when defending herself from a sexually motivated attack.


Their piracy reign ended upon the capture of Anne and Mary and the ship’s crew. Ann and Mary were left to single handedly defend their ship from capture as the men slept below becks too intoxicated to fight. Subsequently they were all caught, once in prison awaiting their fate Anne Bonny stated to her captain ‘If you had fought like a man, you wouldn’t hang like a dog.’


With these empowering recordings of women rejecting conformity, I expected a celebration highlighting the defiance in the write-up of their history. This was not the case. The final sentence that told Anne’s story in the National Maritime Museum,

stated that Anne after her capture was released and ‘became a respectable woman’, marrying a local man and mothering her 8 children. This ideal of what is a respectable woman, the measure of what is good- the mother, the wife, the compliant, I feel with the omission of contradictory history like Anne Bonny, or the mining industry’s domestic life in Wales, builds the walls that control cultural expectations on the woman.


Cultural training starts early. Pink is the first sign and it points us to everything that is ‘ours’. Like the pink tea set that I had as a child. The pink tea set I bought my daughter and which we played with most mornings at making and serving tea. These games uphold the serve, mother, nurture, feed, ideal. Yet this is a game I never played with my sons.


I wonder. If I had known, like they did in the mining valleys of Wales, that that kettle used to be made of cast iron, that it was lifted 100’s of times each day filled with scalding water that took the skin off themselves and off their babies. I wonder, that if I knew the serving started one hour before each man rose, and ended one hour after the last man rested whether I would have encouraged it so. If I knew to serve someone else puts yourself second or last in the queue of much needed food, rest, sleep. That serving and being last meant death from malnutrition, starvation, and sleep deprivation.

I wonder if that play tea set was cast in the reality of iron, would it ever be played with?