Knowing Your Place

When the Spell is Broken

(c) Paul Livingstone

To know your place should never be equated wholly with forms of submission; for many it can also represent a source of comfort. Knowing your place means that you can lay claim to some status, position and prestige, however insignificant in the wider scheme of things. A sense of place also provides some level of acknowledgement and recognition from others – to know your place is to know your value in the eyes of those you encounter. It takes away ambiguity and confusion and confers on you the right to be visible and worthy of some measure of respect. Standing, in other words.

English: Mabel Capper and Suffragettes with a ...
English: Mabel Capper and Suffragettes with a petition 1911 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A person’s standing in their community (regardless of type) is jealously guarded, built up over many years of personal and professional service. The right to some sense of respect is hard earned and hard fought. It is, as the phrase goes, not to be messed with. It is all the more astounding, then, that the women’s movement was able to blaze such a trail in the 20th century. As well as being up against economic, legal and political barriers, the women’s movement had to take on the standing of women. Contrary to so many simplistic depictions of patriarchy, women in the ‘dark days’ when tied to the kitchen sink, had, for what it’s worth, some level of standing. To be respected as a ‘good’ housewife, a ‘good’ mother and a fine upstanding citizen were for many women the only real source of recognition – recognition from their own family, peers and the wider community.

Taking on gender inequality is relatively straightforward in certain respects – the ‘enemy’ is more transparent when it comes to, for example, family and employment law. It is much more problematic to square up to relations that are invisible but potent. Asking women to break the spell of recognition and respect, to walk away from that which conferred them standing, was the most challenging and difficult task of all.

And so it still proves. Still the spell is not completely broken. Still the arguments rage (and rage is the appropriate term) about what it means to be a ‘good’ mother and a ‘good’ woman. The relational spell is a hard one to break, its strength a testimony to the binding power of the relational world. No social movement, not even the women’s movement, should ignore this basic but enduring fact of everyday life, no matter how much we want it to disappear.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.