PETRONELLA WYATT reviews the high-flyers shaped by the Old Girls’ network

The high-flyers shaped by the Old Girls’ network: As a study reveals which schools produce Britain’s elite women, PETRONELLA WYATT recalls the alchemy that forges them

Most people have a teacher who changed their lives — mine was Heather Brigstocke.

Mrs Brigstocke was not called the Head of my school St Paul’s, but the High Mistress. (She was well-named: I later found out she got high on vintage champagne.)

Female intellectuals don’t always possess physical distinction, but she was a swan; the peer of Lauren Bacall or Zelda Fitzgerald. Her blonde hair formed an airy cap around a face that seemed saturated by dew. Her eyes were the colour of Anatolian waters and her figure was often encased in leather.

In her own way, Mrs Brigstocke did as much for women as the feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft or suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Respectable daughters of my parents’ friends who attended more traditional schools learned how to cook, sew and recite poetry, with bespectacled headmistresses who called them ‘gals’. The first words Mrs Brigstocke spoke to us new girls — at a time, in the early 1980s, that produced more trophy wives than the novels of Ira Levin — were simply electrifying.

‘Paulinas don’t cook,’ she told our expectant faces. ‘They think.’ I have never forgotten this, as many of my exes have complained whenever they felt hungry. But this new mantra excited me. I felt an urgent desire to live up to the high expectations of this Goddess-like creature.

Looking back, those five words of hers liberated me, and so many other girls given similar inspiration at similar schools, from the restricted lives of our mothers.

Mrs Brigstocke, later Baroness Brigstocke, came to mind this week when I read about new research that finally, and perhaps inevitably, identified something called ‘The Old Girls’ Network’. As it sounds, this is the distaff equivalent of the Old Boys’ Network and apparently affords the same privileges and ‘unfair’ advantages.

Female alumnae from 12 British public schools, including my alma mater St Paul’s, are 20 times more likely to ‘reach elite positions in society’, reveal the researchers. Cue a howl of outrage at this from the woke warriors who believe it reveals yet more evidence of a disgustingly class-ridden Britain. But as usual they are wrong.

The education my old school provided me may be responsible, in great part, for whatever success I have achieved, but the ‘Old Girls’ Network’ is a lazy misnomer.

Social class and misplaced loyalty to ancient places of education played no part in my career as a journalist. On leaving our schools, there were no clubbable old pupils, their wits sodden by Martinis, cheerfully opening the door for those of us who weren’t playing with full decks simply because our feet once trod the same halls.

No. We had to kick the door open, as women have always had to do. The difference was that schools like St Paul’s were the first to give us the ammunition. Often led by fierce and brilliant women, these were the schools that gave girls the confidence to believe our sex was no hindrance to ambition.

We didn’t belong to clubs, but we had clubs that belonged to us; forged of academic achievement, pride in our abilities, and a new kind of trailblazing feminism.

No one believes in another person absolutely, but they believe in ideas. As a Paulina, as girls who attended my school were called, we were taught the then radical notion that not only were we as good as men, we were probably their superiors.

In those days, my sex still carried a morbid baggage of inadequacy, made heavier by chauvinism. It was impolite, ungrateful even, to be seen to be grabbing for too much. Husbands and children were the destination of many young women, and the most one could hope for was a detour of independence before you got there.

Schools like St Paul’s cured us of this, producing courageous, brilliant and pioneering women like Vogue editor Anna Wintour (North London Collegiate), divorce lawyer Fiona Shackleton (Benenden), TV cook Nigella Lawson (Godolphin and Latymer) and Kate Bingham (St Paul’s), who headed Britain’s vaccine task force.

I often think my general distaste for all prejudice is due to an incapacity for envy, which is a quality I acquired at St Paul’s. We had regular female lecturers from all professions. These included the marvellous Shirley Conran, scientists, authors, and Britain’s first female Rabbi, Jackie Tabick. They removed from us the taint of envy by allowing us to believe that we could be great — and the only thing stopping us was male-induced fear.

St Paul’s and schools like it were not only Viagra for the mind but for the character. In being told to pretend a self-confidence we had not yet acquired, we began to assume it in real life. I loved it. It made me independent.

Princess Anne, Princess Royal attends day 2 of Royal Ascot at Ascot Racecourse on June 15, 2022

Princess Anne, Princess Royal attends day 2 of Royal Ascot at Ascot Racecourse on June 15, 2022

Carrie Johnson, wife of Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, reacts as she arrives at the Midland Hotel on the third day of the annual Conservative Party Conference being held at the Manchester Central convention centre in Manchester

Anna Wintour is a British journalist based in New York City who has served as editor-in-Chief of Vogue since 1988 and Global Chief Content Officer for Condé Nast since 2020

Carrie Johnson, wife of Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left. British journalist and editor Anna Wintour, right

Less commendably, perhaps, St Paul’s did make me feel entitled. I was, at times, a horror. I refused to speak to boys my own age, telling them they were morons. My poor, conventional mother used to scream at my father: ‘It’s that school you send her to. She’ll never get married!’

My mother was right. I was educated out of a desire to marry, and independence can be lonely.

Does the Old Girls’ Network support us? It isn’t like the Old Boys’ one, which continues to give succour and financial aid to every depressive and wino because they all shared rooms an eon ago. The Old Girls’ Network doesn’t work like that.

Career women are often on their own, like most intelligent women have been throughout history. But your successful female friends provide an invaluable gift; an intuitive understanding, borne of shared experience. The Old Girls’ Network comprehends all those things women have been forced to drop along the way to make our ascent of the professional ladder. These include some of the cliches of femininity, which, more often than not, are seen as weaknesses in the workplace. It is with these people that I find true empathy and emotional support.

And as we dissect this new report, as one side screams inequity at the other, it’s instructive to remember what truly holds females back. Because what continues to nip at the heels of bright women is not our education, or lack of it, but that old prejudice called sexism.

  • Additional reporting: Antonia Lenon

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