Almost 30 years ago a bloody minded stubborn schoolgirl took one look at the boring irrelevant needlework classes offered to the girls, and managed to persuade her class-teacher, head of year and head-teacher of her co-ed comprehensive to join the boys in technical drawing. Today as I bend over my embroidery, my back aching from this intense work as I try to finish a piece in time for my client, I am laughing at that girl and hope that my needlework teacher forgives me.
At my high school all subjects were mixed except for some - the gender divide was obvious - home economics, cookery, and needlework for the girls. Woodwork & metalwork, and technical drawing for the boys. This was the 1980s, not the 1950s. I won my campaign by persuading the various teachers that i was a serious student. My intentions were questioned and my sexuality, such as it was at 12, was scrutinized. I had to persuade them that I wasn’t interested in flirting and getting in with the boys. neither did I swing the other way and identify too much with the boys.... Instead I had to show them that I was a serious student, interested in this switch for all the right reasons, I loved drawing, all types of drawing, perhaps one day would want to be an architect..... I don’t blame the teachers. who can stand up to the logic of a determined 12 year old girl? especially when she is right. One of my uncles, who was an architect, took me aside and said ‘you don’t really want to be an architect. you’re a talented girl, go to art school. and then become an art teacher. that way you will be able to make your own art. don’t go to architecture school. it isn’t a place for a girl like you....’ I thought he was just being a sexist pig. he was. but he turned out to be right. he was also voicing his own frustrated artistic ambitions. He died just after receiving his MA in painting from the royal college of art, and before I could apologise to him for not listening to his advice.
I feel I should start a support group for people who once studied architecture and survived to tell the tale. I meet them all over, in art school, at the print studio, through mutual friends. Someone would say something, give the game away, and there will be a flicker of recognition and we would be there comparing battle scars. or sometimes we don’t need to say anything just an off-hand ‘oh I studied architecture in Leeds, a long time ago. just the BA mind you....’ they would say something like ‘oh.. I was in Manchester....’ a brief eye-to-eye exchange of shared pain and torture and then hastily look down at feet.
architecture school was hell. the hours and workload were impossible. the worst was at the end of each project there was the public crits - a humiliating ritual where, you would you have to justify your designs to the entire year, panel of tutors, and invited guests. you’ve been working round the clock, not slept for days, and you try not to shake too much from all the coffee, pro-plus, diet coke, coffee (and other stuff... ) you’ve taken to stay up for days in a row to get the work done, you could barely remember your own name. and as the frantic finishing touches to your work attests - you can no longer draw in a straight line. this was education by shame and disgrace. I regularly saw fellow students weep as their ideas were ripped apart. but there was no room for condolences. we would watch whichever poor sod thinking ‘thank god that’s not me’ and take delight in their disgrace. foolishly thinking that we would be able to withstand these attacks. We would have an answer to the lack of car parking provision or the flimsy conceptual realisation... we would remember our design influences... and afterwards, in the various student bars as we slunk from unhappy hour to unhappy hour, a pub crawl of shame, we would try to forget what just happened.... We were taught to draw in a certain way, and do that funny sort of handwriting in capitals. think in a certain way - architects knew best how other people should live and thus design their lives. No one explicitly told us to wear asymmetric black clothing with statement glasses, it just was implied...
but my architecture school hell was really all about gender. out of the 70 or so of us in the year, there were about 6 women. The faculty had one female lecturer, she wore men’s suits, and only taught the post-graduates. Dumped into a large open-plan studio, we were divided up into small groups, and they separated the women. architecture school is not a place for sisterhood. But I had come from a co-ed school. I was used to being in class with guys, I was used to be seen to be too interested in traditional boys subjects’ and having my intentions questioned. the gender inbalance wasn’t something that initially bothered me. But the atmosphere in the studio quite soon resembled a boys club and became an uncomfortable place to be. and we were encouraged to be there as much as possible. the macho competition of who can stay the latest and be there the earliest. If you weren’t in the studio you just weren’t serious and were ripe for ribbing. And if you were there you had better keep up. Looking back I’m not sure exactly when it began - the tolerance of ‘ironic’ topless builder’s calendars that some students put up. The lots cast on which bloke would shag which one of us women first. because, naturally we would all end up sleeping with all of them.... The cries of ‘she just needs a good fucking’ if one of the women was upset or angry.... but it wasn’t just sexist. it was also homophobic. One gay student, called Dave kept trying to persuade me that we were in the same boat. To my shame I kept blocking him saying ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’ if architecture school was no place for sisterhood, it certainly was no place for any rainbow alliances. You had to show them that you were tough and could hack it, because that is how the real world was. apparently. The tutors were no better. And it never occurred to me to approach the tutors with how unhappy I was. they believed in the break-you-down-to-build-you-up type of mentality. To rebuild you as the macho swaggering arrogant wankers that they were. well they broke me down, crushing the over-confident bloody minded schoolgirl. the building up bit I am still working on. And I was a silly schoolgirl. young, immature and unable to handle what was going on. I hated it, and hated them. I didn’t rise above it, it didn’t make me stronger... it made me miserable. and made me hate being a girl. i hated my body. I hated the baggy clothes that I took to wearing to hide my body. I hated going to the studio, spending less and less time there. I hated architecture and learnt nothing except I was never, never ever, going to become an architect. I scrapped a useless third.
I don’t know if I had been born male, not female, I might have stuck it out, qualified as an architect and actually enjoyed it. i might have understood that macho mentality of what happens when too many alpha boys get together... perhaps I would have joined in. Or perhaps, like Dave, I might have been bullied for something else. not my for my breast size, lack of sexual availablity, maybe they still would have swaggered around posting photos of their dicks in my studio space, claiming that is what i was really after. they did that to Dave too.... but freud was wrong. i didn’t want a penis - theirs or my own. it’s just that so much of my life though i wonder that it just would have been easier to have been born a boy not a girl. I’m not gender-confused. I don’t need a sex change. I know only too well how female I am. there are days when I just wish I wasn’t. tammy wynette was right. sometimes it is hard to be a woman. but it has nothing to do with loving any man.
but here I am. a woman. who is now using embroidering thread not technical pens to draw with. who has gone back to the 1950’s as I can bake my own bread, make my own cakes, I sew, I knit and I crochet. And sometimes as I embroider, I mutter under my breath ‘fuck you. fuck you to the architects. fuck you to the tutors. fuck you to the silly immature girl who thinks she can take on the wankers. fuck you to Andy, Andy, James, Jason, Steve, Phil, Kevin, Dan, Chris, Clint, and the other arseholes whose names I have now forgotten.... fuck you. I hope you have daughters.... and to Dave, and my uncle, so so sorry for being a silly stubborn girl and not being woman enough to have listened to you.’