Diamond jubilee: writers reflect on growing up Elizabethan

From The Guardian:

Hilary-Mantel-001Hilary Mantel

I count myself less a child of the Elizabethan age than a child of the 1944 Education Act, which gave a free grammar school education to those selected at 11. It was bad in that it wrote off most children as second-class. But it was a golden chance for a few, and it is what has made my life different from the lives of my eloquent foremothers. They were storytellers but I could become a writer. At the age I was studying Hard Times and Great Expectations they were minding looms; “mill girls,” they were called, even when they had left girlhood behind. My cousin, 10 years my senior, was the first in our family to have a secondary education. But at 16 she needed to get out and earn, so she became a secretary. In 1970, my way was clear to university and whatever lay beyond. I try not to idealise those days. I don't forget the intense pressure and anxiety, the furiously competitive nature of my schooling, the need not to let my family down; and also the difficulty of moving between classes. I find it hard to decide whether Britain is less divided now. It's still true that you are judged as soon as you open your mouth. If you are asked: “Where do you come from?” it's because you're not white or have a regional accent. Those whose accent is heard as neutral are seen to come from a social class, not a place. Geography does not define or limit them. If no one enquires after your origins, it means you hold, unquestioned, the centre ground in life.

When I left university in 1973 I was already married; that was early, but not unthinkably early for those days. I graduated into the Womb Wars. “First comes love, then comes marriage / Then comes the baby in the baby carriage.” In the 1970s, when a young woman was interviewed for a job, she was asked when she hoped to wed. “And when do you plan to start your family?” If you admitted you had such plans, you wouldn't get the job. If you disclaimed them, up would go the eyebrow. “What! A pretty girl like you! Of course you'll want to get married!” It is hard now to convey how demeaning this exchange was to all concerned: the more demeaning, because both parties saw it as perfectly normal. It drove many of us into the women's trades, the “caring professions,” ill-paid and low-status. It used to be routine to recommend that a clever girl became a teacher, “because it's something to fall back on”. I think the assumption was that if you were bright, then in the course of time your husband would probably leave you. I have great admiration for those who can sustain a teaching career, but there was something profoundly depressing about the idea that women were a sort of recycling facility; girls grew up and taught girls who taught girls, and so on to the crack of doom.

More here.