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About this book

This collection by three generations of women from predominantly working-class backgrounds explores the production of the classed, gendered and racialized subject with powerful, engaging, funny and moving stories of transitions through family relationships, education, friendships and work. The developments that take place across a life in processes of ‘becoming’ are examined through the fifteen autoethnographies that form the core of the book, set within an elaboration of the social, educational and geo-political developments that constitute the backdrop to contributors’ lives. Clever Girls discusses the status of personal experience as ‘research data’ and the memory work that goes into the making of autoethnography-as-poiesis. The collection illustrates the huge potential of autoethnography as research method, mode of inquiry and creative practice to illuminate the specificities and commonalities of experiences of growing up as ‘clever girls’ and to sound a ‘call to action’ against inequality and discrimination.

Table of Contents


1. Introduction

This chapter lays the ground covered in the collection, which brings together autoethnographic accounts by a diverse group of three generations of women from predominantly working-class backgrounds, to explore the production of the classed, gendered and racialised subject. It poses the question of whether socially mobile clever girls from relatively modest backgrounds still experience the kind of tensions documented by contributors to Liz Heron’s Truth, Dare or Promise? Girls Growing Up in the Fifties. If so, how, do they inhabit a ‘psychic economy’ of class, gender and ethnicity and the ways these intersect in complex ways that position the individual in a ‘liminal space’? When and where do such tensions manifest themselves, how do we manage those moments and at what cost? This chapter identifies the landscape inhabited by contributors who are the children of the Welfare State/Butler’s 1944 Education Act, Thatcher/Blair’s children and Cameron/May/Johnson’s post-EU referendum/Trump-era children at another moment of radical change; explains the genesis, rationale and structure of the book; and introduces the contributors and their stories.
Jackie Goode

2. The Classed, Gendered and Racialised Subject

The book is organised around notions of ‘formations’ and ‘developments’ through time and across place/space, in three braided strands: the social, educational and geo-political developments over historical time; developments in academic theorisations of class, gender, race and other systems of power and processes of subject formation during the period in question; and developments that take place across an individual life in processes of ‘becoming’, examined through contributors’ autoethnographies. This chapter covers the first two of these. It traces the huge changes that have taken place in relation to educational policy and provision and patterns of immigration in the period during which contributors grew up, and the political mobilisation of discourses first of meritocracy and social mobility and more recently of excellence, resilience and the entrepreneurial self, before discussing the way theorisations of classificatory systems have progressed—from a focus on social class as a form of stratification (and in particular on how ‘the working class’ has been conceived of and represented); through approaches which distinguished between ‘the economic’ and ‘the cultural’ (with the latter seen as critical in the analysis of gendered and racialised inequalities); the importance of psychological and ‘affective’ factors in the formation of subjects; the concept of ‘intersectionality’; the historical legacies of colonialism and global movements of people through migration and how these are integral to conceptualisations of class, gender, race and practices of ‘othering’; to approaches that focus on space/place, movement and time.
Jackie Goode

3. On Autoethnography

In this chapter autoethnography is conceived of as a research practice located within the ethnographic tradition. ‘Analytic’ and ‘evocative’ variations are seen as being on a continuum, the crucial component with both being the links that are made, explicitly or implicitly, between the personal and wider social and cultural issues, particularly those pertaining to a social justice agenda. Using ethnographic fieldwork as a ‘model’, the chapter identifies and discusses three components of autoethnographic inquiry: the status of the ‘data’ that autoethnography ‘collects’ in the ‘field’—that is the ‘personal experience’ collected from the ‘self’; the ‘method’ of data collection upon which the researcher-self/self-researcher is reliant—that is, the operation of memory; and the production of a ‘report’ about what was ‘found’ (uncovered or revealed) in the field—where the report (autoethnographic text, performance etc.) eventuates from what is conceived of here as a process of ‘cultural production’ or ‘making practice’ referred to as ‘poiesis’.
Jackie Goode

4. On Be(com)ing Clever

This chapter recounts how the youngest child of a Nottingham working-class family navigated her education from failed 11-plus in 1959 to a master’s degree in 1982. First in her family to go to university, she was ‘scripted’ by her father to “go out there and show them” and nurtured by a mother to always “do your best”. She and the few others who transferred ‘late’ to grammar school at 13 were reminded that they were “just an experiment”. Her retrospective account of those formative years that led to university considers how family difficulties, working-class mores of the 1960s and 1970s and the Cuban missile crisis all affected her journey into higher education, transition to middle-class status and subsequent career. She uses diary extracts, school reports and discussions with her older sister to add specificity to her memories and to work out finally what being clever means to her.
Liz Thomas

5. Too Clever by Half

Foregrounding my mother’s role in my experience of being a ‘Scholarship Girl’, this chapter traces the inter-generational transmission of gender, class and educational achievement in the life of a white woman of the ‘baby-boomer’ generation. There is a noticeable feature common to a number of women writers of my generation: that of the unkind, withholding, even cruel mother who is unloving towards, ‘exploits’ or otherwise tries to ‘thwart’ her daughter. In telling a tale through narrative, poems and diary entries, of a female pilgrim’s progress from growing up in a council flat in the post-war period of the welfare state to an academic career, I paint a more sympathetic picture of my own mother and her travails in attempting to escape a stigmatised self and to achieve the middle-class status which I now self-consciously enjoy.
Jackie Goode

6. Common Ground

My dad was influential in shaping my sense of my own ‘cleverness’ and his story is an integral part of my own class identity. This chapter explores the inter-generational transmission of a class sensibility, examining along the way where reading and football and gender fit into formations of class, place and community. Books and authors such as Richard Hoggart and Lynsey Hanley accompany me on the journey.
Nell Farrell

7. From “Too Womanish, Girl!” to Clever Womanish Woman

This Blackgirl autoethnography has empowered me to do the ‘homework of self-construction’ and to capture embodied personal experiences as a form of cultural situated knowledge that begins ‘at home’ in the bodies we live within and the social circumstances we live through. It ‘tells secrets’ and ‘reveals lives’ through the prism of my own history, told from the ‘Womanish’ standpoint of a British African Caribbean woman. I examine the interwoven strands of racialised embodiment and the tensions of ‘otherness’ related to experiences of gendered racism and classism and the ways this has impacted on my identity and sense of belonging as a ‘clever Black girl’ in Grenada and England. It reveals ways of knowing that challenge normative discourses, creating a space for listening to and understanding an ‘other’s’ lived experience and offering the transformative potential of moving away from processes of ‘othering’ towards a universalist place of common humanity.
Christa Welsh

8. “I stand with them” … United and Secure

This chapter maps the author’s life from her move from the West Riding of Yorkshire to university in the south-east as a mature student, recounting how she navigated her class identity amongst a predominantly southern and middle-class student/academic body. University offered the chance to shape her own destiny—initially by attempting to edit her past by ‘erasing’ her working-class identity. Studying feminist-oriented histories of class and gender, however, revealed links between the past and her present which challenged any need to purge her working-class roots. Re-examining the lived experiences of nineteenth century working-class women uncovered not only the stories of victimhood, vulnerability and ignorance, but also ‘hidden histories’ of power, independence, control, capability and works-based ‘rights’—a ‘new narrative’ providing ‘foundational knowledge’ on which to build a more secure working-class academic identity in the present.
Melanie Reynolds

9. Things You Wouldn’t Say to Your Daughter

This is the journey of a descendant of eco-migrant pioneers from the Windrush generation—one that believed education to be a route to social mobility. But what class was/am I when colour speaks so visibly? I speak for girls like me who had to learn a new language and culture before accessing the education system, who negotiated negative stereotypes only to be marginalised and who eventually found hope and redemption by storing herself away in silence. I highlight prominent experiences on the journey to becoming a clever girl—being an elective mute, my relationship with my father, and the hostile environment that surrounded me—before I took my place in the academy. Although the colour of my skin is different to the majority population, I am British and have a right to learn. I share moments of weakness but more importantly moments of strength through vignettes and poetry.
Panya Banjoko

10. Being the One Good Thing

This chapter explores the ways in which cleverness provided one white working-class girl with an escape from some of the pressures of growing up female: a way of masking the pain of ‘failing’ at adolescent explorations of love and sexuality and an alternative to the perceived weakness of traditional femininity—while bringing its own set of pressures and projections. It examines a working-class family’s proud expectations of a clever girl’s apparent potential to fulfil others’ fantasies. What happens when a clever girl grows up to be an ordinary woman who doesn’t manifest the specific and exceptional ‘success’ that others projected on to her future? Snapshots of the relationship between the author and her mother provide an insight into the ways in which the escape from working-class life afforded by cleverness can be a complex interaction of growth and guilt, happiness and loss.
Sarah Ward

11. Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Mum says I was always a good wee girl…but a clever wee girl too. I could read before I went to school. Teacher said I could read as well as any of the Primary 7 girls when I joined my Primary 1B classmates at a Scottish state primary school in a steadily declining mining town in the mid-1970s. But one day, when I am still only five years old, Teacher tells Mum she is worried about me. I have become very quiet—I am isolated. I no longer read fluently—I stutter. I no longer write—I struggle to hold a pencil in my hand. Mum and Teacher nod and agree…Yes…you can’t be too careful…there is a fine line between genius and madness…and she is such a good wee girl too… And so the well-told family story about my little ‘clever-good-girl’ self was born.
Jan Bradford

12. ‘Must Try Harder’: Anxiety, Self-Shaping and Structures of Feeling, Then and Now

Reading my school reports, I am shocked by the differences between the mature, hard-working, responsible, clever and well-liked eleven-year-old and the sulky, silent, withdrawn twelve-year-old secondary school girl. The coded class prejudice of my teachers becomes clear. Thinking back on my history of self-harm, I wonder at the damage caused by the education that has also brought me much of what I value in my current life. Could earlier unhappy heterosexual relationships be viewed as self-harm of another kind rather than just part of growing up? I explore intersections of class, gender, psychological health and education in my life story, drawing on an ‘archive of the self’ that includes school reports and fiction. Autoethnography and memory work are used to place the self within social and political structures, including the current epidemic of self-harm among adolescent girls, with the aim of de-individualising the mental health struggles of today’s ‘clever girls’.
Tracey Loughran

13. Single Indian Woman; Very Accomplished but Can’t Make Round Chapatis

Mine is a story of a British Indian woman growing up in a town where my family was one of only three non-white families and where my brother and I were the only children of colour. It is a story of expectations, duties, hopes and dreams lost and found. My parents’ immigrant story was of ‘downward mobility’ and of ambiguous status in relation to social class. My story contains both familiar and unfamiliar elements—parental aspirations for a daughter to be accomplished in both classroom and kitchen; to enter a profession; to marry into a good family. I failed and succeeded: failed to conform to ‘traditional’ notions of what being ‘clever’ as a girl entailed; failed to ‘please’ my teachers, who communicated highly confusing messages about my abilities; but succeeded in making my mother and extended family proud despite following my very own path to fulfilment.
Meena Rajput

14. “But you’re not really foreign”: An Autoethnography of a Working-Class Canadian “Passing” in England

This chapter explores my lived experience as a young working-class Canadian immigrant in the twenty-first-century Britain, drawing on memory work and autoethnography to interrogate notions of class belonging inflected by race. As an immigrant during a period of heightened tension over immigration, my position as a white native English speaker from a former Commonwealth country mitigated my “foreignness”. Instead of being conceptualised as “other”, I am able to “pass” in both working- and middle-class surroundings. But my “double migration” of class and country—one always slightly obscuring the other and making me hard to place—constitutes a liminal and unstable space. Through reflexive vignettes, I chart a transition from self-conscious working-class Canadian to comfortably passing in middle-class academic environments. Through my status as not-quite-different and yet not-quite-British, I offer a broader perspective on questions of class, race, identity and the inclusions and exclusions that arise from such categories.
Kristin O’Donnell

15. ‘Untitled’

As the daughter of a Black South African father who worked with ex-offenders and a white British mother who worked as a BBC television producer, my upbringing presented me with dilemmas around which world I ‘properly’ inhabited. This autoethnographic story traces how I experienced education as a struggle to reconcile my parents’ unspoken aspirations for me to be ‘middle class’, with the contradictory messaging I received from my peers, teachers and society about being a person of colour. It encapsulates the loneliness I felt in navigating this and my struggle for the ultimate ticket to what I thought would be acceptance and belonging; becoming a ‘clever girl’.
Motsabi Rooper

16. ‘Is this yours? … Did you write this?’

Without laying claim to a working-class background, my experience of educational achievement was accompanied at school by a characteristic refrain from teachers in response to any work of mine which was of a particularly high standard. The underlying assumption seemed to be that being a high achiever and a Black girl were mutually exclusive. The acquisition of a first and a higher degree belie this. Nevertheless, my efforts to build a freelance creative career in London can only be undertaken by still living at home and these efforts certainly don’t offer any guarantee of the kind of security my parents’ paths gave them. That early refrain established an awareness that has grown over time of others’ low expectations of my abilities that continues to inform and shape the way I move through the world as a Black woman—movements illustrated here through poems.
Victoria Adukwei Bulley

17. A Letter to My Younger Self

This chapter uses a letter format to highlight experiences of growing up as a working-class ‘clever girl’ struggling through poverty to achieve ‘success’ and ‘security’ within/through higher education. Growing access to higher education has been promoted as a means of reducing class inequalities through improving social mobility. I describe a contrasting reality in which inequities are exacerbated by scarcity of money and time, and in which what Skeggs refers to as ‘techniques of selfhood’ take their toll. Moving between past and the present, I compare childhood memories of my mother’s time in education with my own experience at university. I connect personal experiences with sociological issues in order to challenge discourses of upward social mobility. Illuminating what achieving ‘success’ looks like in practice, the letter raises a question about the promises of higher education as a route to security for those from poorer backgrounds: ‘Is it all worth it?’
Claire Mitchell

18. Fractured Lives and Border Crossings

This chapter features two kinds of ‘transition’: a geographical one that gave impetus to my cognizance of class transition and notions of belonging; and a significant conversation with an educator that highlighted the part that mental health may have played in my crossing from one side of the educational fence to the other. Tracing a path across a shifting geographic, linguistic and emotional landscape of hills and valleys, the chapter recounts my state of flux and unease as I moved through the class and education systems, dealt with my father’s suicide in my early twenties, and began to understand the impact that has had on my professional career as a further education lecturer in a seaside town with a low socio-economic profile. Through its telling, I not only re-claim my early promise as a ‘clever girl’ but challenge stereotypes of who can and who should ‘achieve’ educational success.
Emily Green

19. Clever Girls in Conversation

Once completed, contributors shared their autoethnographies so that each writer could compare their own experiences to others’, could reflect on similarities and differences, discover resonances, be surprised, stimulated, shocked, moved, have expectations overturned—in other words, so that we could learn from each other. We shared our responses via a ‘chain’ of emails. This ‘conversation’ is reproduced in this chapter as a kind of ‘modelling’ for readers of the power of autoethnography. For the contributors them(our)selves, this process felt transformative, turning the ‘making’ of the book into a collaborative autoethnography in itself that embodied more than the sum of its parts. The space between the book’s ‘covers’ became a place in which a diverse group of women met to examine the relationalities that shape our world, to address the constitution of alterity in social and political relations, to reflect upon sameness and recognise our different ways of perceiving and conceptualising the world, inflected as they are by the relations of inequality through which we face the world and each other—and to be empowered in the process.
Jackie Goode

20. Conclusion

This chapter’s conclusions reflect, in the light of contributors’ stories and the conversation they engaged in after sharing them, on the potential of bringing diverse autoethnographic voices together in a collection like this, for illuminating: the lived experiences of intersections of class, gender and ethnicity as experienced by three generations of ‘clever’ girls/women; notions of transition, ‘liminality’ and becoming; and imaginings of what it might mean to be ‘ordinary’ in a society characterised by increasing levels of inequality, polarisation and practices of ‘othering’. Gail Lewis has referred to the creation of spaces ‘where the erstwhile unspeakable may be spoken, and the established norms of intelligibility (whatever their specific shape in specific sites and arena) may no longer provide the traction determining what is deemed legible and comprehensible’. This chapter reviews how far the ‘assemblage’ of the edited collection, made up of a rich and stimulating set of autoethnographic stories set in their broader social, cultural and economic contexts, might act as a ‘jumping off point’ for readers’ own memories, reflections, analyses, theorising and writing—a transformative ‘line of flight’ perhaps, away from ever-widening inequalities and towards new connections.
Jackie Goode


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