Does the colour pink imprison women? The case of Arundel School

Arundel School was a giant pink bubble in which young girls were taught to be “prim and proper”. Deportment – a term most teenagers go through high school not knowing how to spell, let alone use – was the mark of a true Arundel girl. It symbolised a manner of personal conduct synonymous with Austenesque behaviour: ladylike, well-groomed and intelligent. Pupils were enjoined to cultivate a fierce work ethic and obey a long list of rules – “to prepare one for the real world”, it was suggested. Some of the rules made perfect sense: ‘wear your hat outdoors or else you will potentially expose yourself to too much sun which may lead to skin cancer’. Other rules – ‘thou shall not wear thine jersey in the car park because it doesn’t look good‘, not so much (bearing in mind that the school colours were a jarring and clumsy combination of dark brown and turquoise). Talking too much or too loud was frowned upon. To top it all off, all the school walls were painted pink.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the school was half-affectionately known as the “Pink Prison”- double entendre? Yes.

The use of pink as distinctive of girls can be dated back at least to 1868, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when Laurie used a pink and a blue ribbon to distinguish girl and boy twins respectively. To date, many things pink are associated with women – girls’ toys, girls’ clothes, girls’ bathrooms, girls’ gyms, the list goes on. However, pink as a feminine color is a relatively modern phenomenon. Before the 20th century, it was a male color. It may change again. But right now, pink is female and has a weird effect. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, pink triggers a defensive response in most women, particularly when used to convey messages to women about causes which affect them such as breast cancer. And to be fair, nothing makes pink a feminine color except what society has been engineered to think. Jude Stewart calls pink “the most politicized color of our age.” Today, “when we think pink, we think Disney Princess, Barbie and Fifi the poodle.” Pink is pretty. And it is nice. Pink is the term I ascribe to the “good Arundel girl” – obedient, unquestioning, neat, tidy and hardworking. She feeds the stereotype that being sweet, delicate and soft spoken is the ‘ladylike’ thing to do. Pink is safe. Pink won’t rock the boat. Pink is nice.

Yet, it is in being so “nice” that most women imprison themselves. If we teach girls to be pink and propagate this Austenesque behaviour – and stop it at that – are we not teaching girls in a variety of ways that being nice, avoiding conflict, not upsetting others and not challenging the status quo are all part of being a likeable, desirable, successful girl – and one day woman?

The world is changing and the danger is that such young women will enter the real world and discover that, unless one has an inquiring mind, that constantly questions and challenges the status quo, and in addition, vocalizes one’s opinions (with tact and discretion), one cannot get ahead – be it at home, at work or in society at large. Research has found that women – including those who work in senior positions for some of the world’s leading firms – are held back from reaching the very highest levels at work because of the difficulties they find in striking the right tone of language during high pressure meetings, for example. Often this is due to the fact that women are raised to believe that to argue or assert one’s self is not proper.

It is beyond question that Arundel School has produced some of the finest female scholars in Zimbabwe over the last five to six decades – alumni of this fine institution are no strangers to Oxbridge and Ivy League universities and many have fared exceptionally well in various professional disciplines, music, sport and art. Many have become wonderful mothers.

However, we need to move away from the classical approach to bringing up young women. In order to succeed in the boardroom, Parliament or wherever a woman feels called to be, she must be able to speak out against the status quo when the situation calls for her to do so. She must not be held back by the belief that it is not proper to do so. Julie Steinberg writing for the Wall Street Journal contends that, despite their talent, education and hard work, many women simply aren’t chosen for roles that lead to greater success later. Women often don’t have the “intangible skills” needed to gain the attention of higher-ups at the company, says Elena Rand Kaspi, a former consultant to law firm White & Case.

In sum, we need to add a bit more of an edge to the Arundel virtues of grace and knowledge, perhaps fine tune them to the demands of the 21st century.

“Forget conventionalisms; forget what the world thinks of you stepping out of your place; think your best thoughts, speak your best words, work your best works, looking to your own conscience for approval.”

~Susan B. Anthony~

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2 thoughts on “Does the colour pink imprison women? The case of Arundel School

  1. Very insightful and interesting Fadzi. Knowing how to question the ‘status quo’ intelligently and respectfully without being told you are a rebel is a skill we sorely need. I always thought Arundel was good for a specific type of personality. Those who weren’t in the bracket were sure to leave lost and confused ( some without even knowing it).

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