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Schoolgirls, identity, and agency in England, 1970-2004

GOWER, A. (2022) Schoolgirls, identity, and agency in England, 1970-2004. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00113101


This thesis examines the impact of state secondary schooling on the identities of teenage girls in late twentieth century England. Equal opportunities policies and anti-sexist pedagogies aimed to expand girls’ educational opportunities and disrupt patriarchal constraints on girls’ lives, and this work focuses on the extent of these interventions in Inner London, and Reading, Berkshire. This thesis will examine how schooling informed girls’ aspirations, expectations, and identities in relation to four major themes; motherhood, work, sex, and style. Schools aimed to prepare pupils for their futures, influencing how girls imagined their futures as mothers, as workers, and as individuals. Sex education and the imposition of school uniform rules created norms of feminine behaviour and bodies for girls. By drawing on experiential evidence from the time – girls’ writing and diaries – as well as original oral history interviews, this thesis will centre the experiences of pupils and show that girls’ agency lay in how they navigated and utilised discourses for their gain. Models of girls’ empowerment positioned education as the key means by which girls could overcome the restrictions of their gender; girls who excelled in school drew on discourses of individual merit, choice, and hard work to construct their identities as modern, autonomous, self-determining, empowered young women. However, frameworks of female empowerment through educational attainment excluded girls who were marginalised in education or did not perform highly in school, and individualised structural inequalities such as racism and classism. This experiential focus reveals that notions of individualism, meritocracy, and girlhood transmitted through schooling were crucial to girls’ understandings of their own position in the world, their awareness of the opportunities and limitations their position allowed, and the construction of their subjectivities.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Thomlinson, N.
Thesis/Report Department:School of Humanities
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Humanities > History
ID Code:113101
Date on Title Page:December 2021

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