A Teenager and her Family
Delia Prince (the name is a pseudonym) is one of the teenagers my colleagues and I interviewed in 1978, along with their parents and teachers, in the research project later published as Making the Difference. The research was an attempt to understand the circumstances, in school, family and workplace, that lay behind the massively greater drop-out rate from working-class high schools compared with ruling-class secondary colleges.
Delia was one of a sample of students from a working-class outer suburb, where she lives with her two parents, older sister and older brother. Like a large proportion of the Australian working class the family owns its own house, a comfortable brick – veneer one, set back behind a high fence. The house was built mainly by Delia’s father and a great deal of her mother’s energy over the years has gone into keeping its interior gleaming and its garden attractive.
Delia, fifteen at the time we interviewed her, is a cheerful if rather quiet person, past puberty, and already equipped with a steady boyfriend. From her parents’ point of view she is doing well, especially as she has come through some serious medical problems and periods in hospital. She ‘chatters’ with her mother in the kitchen about what goes on at school, does her share of housework without much grumbling and, unlike many of her peers who sneak out at night, observes the family rules about when she can go out. ‘Basically just a normal kid’ is her mother’s summary. Certainly Delia seems everyone’s picture of a nice girl.
She loves animals and so would like to become a vet. That is, if she gets good enough marks at school; otherwise she will try for a clerical job in a bank. Her school test results at present are no better than moderate; she is having trouble with maths. She gets along easily with most of her teachers, though there are a couple she has disliked. From their point of view she is not very visible – not a problem, not a star. Apart from her parents’ wishes and her own vague ambition to be a veterinarian, there is nothing much to attach her to the school. She confesses that she would prefer to leave this year, though she expects to go on to the School Certificate assessment and leave at sixteen.
‘Just a normal kid’, yes; but where does that ‘normality’ come from? How is it produced? And isn’t there a little too much of it? If we push back behind the somewhat bland appearance of Delia’s adolescence, some more complex and tension-laden processes might come into view.
To start with the economic circumstances of Delia’s life, Fred Prince, her father, is a tradesman with a certified skill. He does not use this trade in his current job working for a public authority as leading hand in maintenance, in charge of a gang of five men. He left his trade a good many years ago to cash in on the television boom, setting up a small business installing aerials. Working very long hours he made enough money to buy a block of land and starting building a house. He eventually gave that job up because it kept him away from the family too much, and went back to work for wages. Rae, Delia’s mother, also has a paid job. She is clerk, typist and office dogsbody for a small business selling motor parts. As a young woman in the late 1950s she started clerical work in a bank but was dismissed, as a matter of bank routine, when she married. She took other jobs and kept up paid work even when the children came along, in order to finance the house. Her current job is (theoretically) part time. She does the family’s cooking and cleaning, washing, ironing and most of the childcare.
While there is a strong element of‘tradition’ in this arrangement, it is also economically rational for the Princes to organize their employment this way. The base rate of pay in Fred’s occupation is $10 a week more than in Rae’s, and actual earnings differ much more than that because of overtime and various penalty rates. Equally important in a recession, Fred’s job is much more secure. He is a member of a strong, though not exceptionally militant, trade union, run by men with experience much like his own, which has established virtually lifetime tenure for jobs at his level. Rae is covered by a union also run by men (though about two-thirds of its members are women). As it happens, this is a union dominated by conservative Catholic men who are not very keen about women being permanent members of the work-force at all. It has not established any rights of tenure or redundancy entitlements in jobs like hers.
When I first arrived at their house to arrange the interviews, Fred came to meet me with his hands covered with oil. He had been stripping down his lawnmower which had broken down because he was trying to mow wet grass in time for a christening party. Rae was inside the house cooking for the party. As this illustrates, Delia is growing up among clear-cut definitions of what is men’s work and what is women’s, at home as in the workplace. The sense of what work is appropriate for a woman feeds into Delia’s ideas of possible futures. This is evident in her sex-typed interest in animals, and her idea of an alternative as a bank clerk, which is modelled directly on her mother’s work history.
Despite a formal commitment to ‘equal opportunity’, her schooling does little in practice to change these ideas about work and the assumptions about marriage to which they are closely tied. Most of Delia’s female friends and peers expect to get married fairly young and have children quite soon. So does she; she can even name the age – twenty — at which she expects to get married. There are some feminist teachers at her school who have different notions of what women might aim for. But as their ideas centre on ‘careers’ for women and advancement through higher education, they only make much sense to the girls in the ‘A’ stream – who are the only ones, in a working-class school, likely to have any chance of going to college or university. Delia is not one of them.
Yet Delia’s future is not being constructed in a closed system. There are changes going on, even in small details. Her mother Rae, for instance, has taught Delia’s brother, as well as the two girls, to cook. On larger issues there is significant tension, even contradiction. Rae herself had done well at school and was obliged to leave before she wanted to, to help her widowed mother. She had wanted to become a nurse but her boyfriend (Fred) did not like the idea, so she gave it up. Her mild comment, ‘it’s my only regret now’, is the nearest she gets in the interview to expressing anger against Fred.
Even more striking is the fact that Rae kept a job when the children were young. This was for a ‘good’ reason, to pay for the house, but still violated an almost universal Australian doctrine that mothers should stay home with their pre-school children — a doctrine duly recited and endorsed by Delia. Rae was defensive and ‘guilty’ (her word) about this and has probably come in for a lot of criticism from relatives. She seems to have tried to compensate by being the perfect wife-and-mother ever since. One result is overload, doing a full-time job at home and a nearly fulltime job at work. At thirty-eight she already looks worn and her manner is a little stressed and abrupt. Even Delia, with perception unusual in a fifteen year old, thinks that the job is good for Rae but that she is working too hard.
Both Rae and Fred have a clear idea of what a good family is. Both have sacrificed something in their own lives to make it possible and both have invested a lot of emotion and energy in trying to produce it. Delia, the youngest child, is now the focus of that process. Where Rae’s mother had never spoken of sex, Rae and Fred have organized ‘round-table sex talks’ with their children. They have tried to be more humane than their own parents without losing control of the kids. They closely monitor what is going on in the teenage peer groups. Fred heard rumours of ‘sex, drugs, playing up in toilets’ at the school, so he went and challenged the teachers about it, to be reassured that Delia and her sister were not involved. Earlier this year Rae leant that Delia was in a group that smoked and got drunk at weekends; she exerted herself, successfully, to separate Delia from them. Yet Fred and Rae are not opposed to Delia having an active social life. The boyfriend is not only approved of, but, astonishingly, he seems to have been chosen by the parents. At least they introduced him to Delia.
Behind this constant management of the children is a structure of authority that makes Fred, very definitely, the ‘head of the household’ and Rae the second-in-command. He is self-confident in public, she is not. He contrasts his own behaviour with that of his father, ‘a hard man’ (read: violent) who would belt even an eighteen year old for bad manners at table. Fred reports with some complacency that he has thrashed each of his children once, hard, and never needed to again. Now he is able to control them by ‘applied psychology’. We did not ask if Rae was included in the thrashings. (Statistics on domestic violence suggest that at least a quarter of all wives have been assaulted by their husbands at some time.) Fred puts a lot of energy into coaching local junior football teams and is president of their club; Rae is the treasurer. He takes, as a right, a couple of nights out for beers with the boys each week. Rae, even if she felt it the thing to do, does not have the time.
Clearly this is only the beginning of an analysis of Delia’s circumstances. It is perhaps enough to show that what lies behind her relationship with school and intentions about leaving, the original question in our research, is a very complex interplay of personal and social forces. Much of this has to do with her family’s class situation, as educational sociology has long insisted. But as much has to do with the fact that she is a young woman, growing up in a setting where relations between women and men work in a particular way.
We cannot understand Delia’s life without having a way of understanding the division of labour between women and men in her household, in other families she encounters, in Rae’s and Fred’s workplaces and in the school. We need to understand the power relations between husbands and wives, between men and women in trade unions and companies and in voluntary organizations like the football club. We need to understand how Rae’s femininity and Fred’s masculinity are constructed, how Delia’s sexual awakening is being managed, how images of
femininity are conveyed to her. We cannot understand Delia without having some grasp of the tensions and contradictions in these processes and the ways they change between generations.
These are not independent issues. They interact; indeed they define a sphere of social life that is strongly patterned. As soon as this is recognized, it is obvious that the pattern is not peculiar to Delia, Rae and Fred. What happens in their milieu is part of a much wider set of social processes, which must be analyzed to understand what is happening in Delia’s life. Let us turn, therefore, to evidence about these patterns on the larger scale.