In general I have spent my life bucking the trend on what girls and women are expected to do (sports, hobbies, career, temperament, family – well lack if it). For most of my ringing career although I would call myself a strong feminist I had not really thought about sexism in ringing. I think this is because like in so many areas it is implicit rather than explicit. It reflects society at large and so we do not notice it unless we try hard. I learnt to ring as a teenager. I was relatively small (still am having just about made it to a slightly built 5’4”) and although encouraged to develop my method ringing was never really encouraged to ring the heavier bells, this being at a 12 cwt eight so not exactly big. There were no boys learning at the same time so no comparison as to whether this was my age, my size or my gender.
At uni I did a bit of ringing but not a lot and no real encouragement to ring round the back or conduct. Then did a bit of ringing in my twenties. A move north in my early thirties found me doing a lot more ringing as other hobbies that had taken up time were less available in my new location. I found myself ringing at a heavy 10. Again all was generally positive but not much encouragement to ring round the back.
More recently, maybe the last 6 years or so there has been a strong focus to give female ringers opportunities and to push those, like me, who are not that keen to push themselves forward into such things as ringing in the back four in peals. I have got to be a much better big bell ringer but have still not really got into tenor ringing. This has been a conscious and concerted effort from a number of women and men to make these opportunities for conducting and big bell ringing happen and has definitely changed things.
In thinking about my own current position I am fairly confident of my ability to turn in bigger bells (15-25 cwt) but I feel that if I grab hold of a tenor or a “big” bell that I am on show and representing the whole of womenkind so I had better not mess up. I feel that if I am less than perfect that everyone (men and women) will be saying to themselves, “well that proves women / small people cannot ring tenors / big bells” and I will be reinforcing all the existing stereotypes. This pressure to succeed sometime still puts me off trying. I also need to add that I have a male ringing friend who is also not that tall and very slightly built and although an excellent ringer and conductor and perfectly capable of ringing large tenors was not really given the opportunities afforded to other men. He seemed to be pigeon-holed as a front bell ringer purely based on his size so it is not only women that suffer from the preconceptions about the strength and size needed for back bell ringing. Also due to ringing round the front he was not given conducting opportunities as they are often linked to ringing a back bell.
Specific good and bad things:
* Ringing with females who seem to be able to ring anything and any tenor is inspiring and makes you believe it is possible and you should try.
* After being at a tower with a heavy tenor for a number of years and never having been asked to ring the tenor, a new young male turned up and was immediately asked. It turned out he had learnt at a tower of similar weight to me and had never rung anything nearly as heavy as that tenor so was no better equipped than me!
* A male conductor who in a touch on twelve shouted at every women in the band whether they were right or wrong but made no comments on any of the men who were hunting past me in completely the wrong place for the entire touch.
* Sexist band placing in Ringing Room, where I have been to a couple of sessions where men rang the tenor and most of the back bells, all the time, which I guess indicates how ingrained the problem is.
* Visiting a tower on an outing for Sunday service ringing that was being run by a very young male where you would hope there was a more open mind. The band placement of the local ringers was extremely traditional – women round the front and men round the back. For us as visitors there was the assumption that our least experienced male ringer would ring something difficult round the back while much more competent females were asked to only ring round the front. This split band placement was then followed by lots of heaving and jumping around on boxes from the back end, presumably just to confirm that only really strong blokes could ring big bells. Really rather depressing as the future of the exercise.
* Being encouraged by two very good male tenor ringers to have a go at turning in a large tenor on practice nights and have a good male conductor asking me to ring a much bigger bell than I would take for a difficult peal – and then managing it – has given me lots more confidence in my ability. I have also been encouraged out of my comfort zone by very good female tenor ringers and conductors and so have improved my ringing further.