Is it true that the most important career choice you’ll make is the man that you marry? Inspired by this declaration from Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, Helen Fraser, announced recently that she believes ‘ambition’ in relationships should be taught to girls at school from a young age. Failure to learn about choosing a man who doesn’t hide you behind a ‘nappy wall’ once you have kids could be just as destructive as any number of other, more obvious factors, according to Fraser – and getting the dude who doesn’t consign you to that festering tower of impenetrable diapers should be seen as a genuine, teachable life skill by the UK curriculum.
Fraser’s interesting points in this speech are somewhat dampened by the fact that she then encouraged everyone to throw away their smartphones and admit that the internet is bad for learning. However, her point does echo serious research by worthwhile organisations such as the domestic violence charity Refuge, which claimed that most teenage women stated they would find lessons in recognising abusive relationships helpful, although an even greater majority had never received any such information at all. One-on-one relationships give rise to some of the most challenging situations that we will ever experience as human beings, so it makes sense that they should feature at some point amongst all the ‘put you off for life’ childbirth videos and STD checklists of standard sex education. So why does Fraser’s up-front suggestion to treat a marriage proposal like a job interview feel depressingly cynical?
Now, I know what you’re going to say. I’m so predictably young, western, and still relatively unscathed by the kind of relationship breakdown where you throw your puppy out the window and set fire to your partner’s hipster record collection in an uncontrollable fit of jealous rage. I’ve been softened up by the cast of Love Actually and left to believe that romance is forever, and the kind of love that’s like heroin is the best foundation for a relationship. Generations before me have seen the benefit of tactical relationships, built on familial connections and carefully observed compatibilities in lifestyle and principles. Etcetera, etcetera, for the rest of time. And before you waste anymore of your breath, let me just say: there’s a hell of a lot to consider there. Something in it may be true. But that’s not my beef with what Ms Fraser is saying.
Although I personally believe that I won’t marry someone unless I feel like I want to clone them, barricade them in my bedroom for all eternity, and then wear their clone’s skin as a onesie (i.e. the insane-making kind of adoration), I can see the point of also making sure that they’re an all right bloke and they don’t want to raise their future children on a fruitarian diet in the Forest of Dean. Teaching women and men alike what functional, healthy relationships look like seems like one hell of a good idea. But approaching young girls with the idea that their husbands might hold them back seems a bit like, well, scare-mongering. And it also seems like potentially encouraging a colossal shift in responsibility.
Having been shoved behind Ms Fraser’s ‘nappy wall’ – or indeed, under an entire nappy avalanche – for the better part of history, should girls now be handed the task of identifying relationships that might disadvantage them in other areas of their lives? Sniffing out a man who ends up not liking the size of your pay packet twenty years down the line seems like a dangerous guessing game, and one that we really shouldn’t be aspiring to teach. Because surely this is another spin on placing the fault of socially entrenched sexism into the hands of the people who it is directed against: you chose this, and you were therefore complicit in your own oppression. If you really want to navigate the world of glass ceilings, we’d better concentrate on making you savvy to the obstacles – rather than removing the obstacles themselves.
Teaching the intricacies of a sexist society to future generations of young women doesn’t sit right with me, because I don’t believe that we should be preparing them for this sort of future. Educational suspicion of women’s partners is a sad way of going about redressing the balance between the sexes, and it wouldn’t be necessary if we shifted the focus onto educating boys. After all, relationship-oriented life skills sessions are even scarcer in single sex boys’ schools than they are in girls’. We can tell girls to choose the right husband until we’re blue in the face, but if reams of clueless boys are being poured out the school hallways every year, it really doesn’t matter what choice the poor saps, their female counterparts, make: they’re resigned to marrying men who are clones of their fathers, again and again and again.
Finally, the idea that a husband is a necessary addition to one’s life, and that if he doesn’t ‘let’ you follow your career aspirations, you’ll be entirely helpless to follow his commands, seems like a whole load of bullshit that we shouldn’t be heaping onto the next load of schoolkids to arrive on planet earth. Assertiveness, career advice, and basic training in relationship-making all sound beneficial to the people learning about them. ‘Finding the right man to let your job aspirations come true’ sounds like the worst kind of modern fairytale: the Prince Charming who will even entertain your wacky insistence on making money.
We’ve fought (and continue to find) a long, hard battle for gender equality – and what’s just as important is normalising the developments that we achieve. Schoolchildren of all genders need to be taught less about the differences between their peers and more about human beings in general and functional societies. Not only does Ms Fraser’s suggestion make the star-crossed lover inside me sad for a marriage contract a little bit more devoid of romance, but it makes me sad to think that building trenches against men in the nappy wall is how we should go about enacting social changes. Lessons like ‘how to stop your hubby holding you back’ are a suspect way to go about things – and I can’t help but feel that they’re educating the wrong side.