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School for Women
Jane Miller

School for Women
Jane Miller
London 1996

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Jane Miller’s School For Women is an in depth exploration of the role of women in education, in which a broad historical context is comfortably combined with the author’s personal perspective. It investigates the development of the female teacher from the archetypal ‘Jane Eyre’ governess to the 1970s feminist, fighting for the right to wear trousers to work, and of course the modern professional woman, struggling within a declining educational system.

Miller’s book raises many interesting and provocative points, such as the cultural paradox that women, whilst being regarded as intellectually inferior to men, have traditionally been entrusted with the education of children, and the way in which female teachers are by turns demonised and canonised by society and the media. Particularly thought provoking is Miller’s discussion of the stereotypes that hamper women teachers. The ineffectual, incompetent female and the somehow masculine ‘battleaxe’ are the most common depictions although they are joined by others, such as the ‘femme-fatale’ teacher, corrupter of innocent schoolboys. The implication of these prevalent images is clear: women cannot, in the eyes of society, be both good teachers and ‘acceptable’ representatives of their gender.

In addition to these more universal issues, Miller presents an interesting and articulate discussion of the gender related problems facing contemporary educationalists, for example, the growing tendency in our schools for girls to outshine boys in all subjects. Although she acknowledges the dominant and ever growing number of women in teaching, Miller gives little time to the suggestion that there may be a link between these situations, dismissing it as a paranoid male conspiracy theory. Perhaps she does so a little hastily, but for the most part, her writing shows an unbiased commitment to and understanding of the needs of pupils of both sexes.

Miller’s text is liberally scattered with the first-person accounts of women teachers and the memories of former pupils. These often touching, and occasionally funny accounts frequently serve to provide relief from the fairly humourless business of statistical and social analysis that makes up much of the work. The author’s own prose fluctuates between being overly dry and academic and beautifully fluent, enthusiastic and readable. It is at its most animated when she is writing of her own career and experiences and when she gets drawn into the worlds of her historical and literary sources. Aside from the issues under discussion, there is a great deal of fascinating material reproduced within the text, for example, the clumsy schoolgirl writings of Mary Anne Evans (later to ‘become’ George Eliot). Miller also gives fresh insights into other works ranging from Richardson’s Pamela to The Color Purple which suggest that her enthusiasm for literature is at least as great as her professional dedication.

School for Women is a very thorough and seemingly well researched book that should prove an invaluable source for sociologists and educationalists at all levels, as well as many parents and professional women in other fields. As a woman considering teaching as a profession, I found it by turns encouraging and demoralising but generally engaging and potentially useful. However, for the reader with only a passing interest in either schooling or gender issues it might at times feel like reading a three hundred page long version of the Guardian education supplement – a fairly indigestible prospect for most, I would guess. Nevertheless, I would recommend Miller’s book to anyone truly concerned about schooling in Britain: her intelligence, energy and compassion are a fine advertisment for her profession.

Reviewed by Polly Rance


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