'Bunnies with steel tails?' : an exploration of gender identities within an independent single-sex girls' school

Moore, John (2005). 'Bunnies with steel tails?' : an exploration of gender identities within an independent single-sex girls' school. EdD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000c089


This research was carried out in an independent 11-18 girls' school in West London. It explores the way girls construct their gender identities within the single-sex school. The starting point for the research was an interest in the popular perceptions of gender differences in achievement. The girls in this school achieve impressive examination results and the popular debate compared girls' 'success' with boys' 'failure' and 'underachievement'. In order to explain this differential, recent gender research has been much more concerned with boys and masculinities than with girls because it is assumed that girls are all doing well. Initially, I adopted a quantitative approach seeking to compare girls, boys and mixed school achievement but with the aim of uncovering the problems in generalising and comparing gender groups. However, the research shifted due to the unrevealing nature of the initial quantitative analysis within the girls' school. It indicated that girls did well regardless of subculture or ethnicity. Much more interesting was the way in which the girls constructed identities within the school and eliciting their voices through semi-structured interviewing became the main research method. My findings suggest that, in some senses, the single-sex school is strongly feminist supporting a 'girls can do anything' ethos where girls can be 'bunnies with steel tails', combining traditional femininities with a masculine desire to compete and succeed. Yet the school also reproduces traditional, accepted ways of being feminine that can limit the range of gender identities a girl can adopt. This is partly due to gendered discourses present in wider society. The school is not free from such knowledges. Girls constructed their gender identities in the midst of these conflicting messages and I wanted to focus on the girls' voices to illuminate both the liberatory and also the limiting aspects of the single-sex school experience, to show the complexities of gender identities construction and refocus the gender debate back onto girls' experiences. As a teacher at the school, I was an insider but I am also an outsider through my own masculine identity. This dual position was carefully considered during the research as I eventually adopted a qualitative research method that could incorporate this reflexivity. My theoretical perspective draws on the work of Bourdieu who emphasizes reflexivity and examines the structured and structuring nature of individuals and institutions. My view of gender identities is that they are socially constructed and that gender is performed rather than biologically assigned. Butler's work, particularly her notion of performativity, has been utilised to help understand how femininities are constructed and maintained. Foucault and the work of post-structural feminists has also been useful in supporting the specificity of the case study approach adopted and in allowing me to explain why some performances are prioritised over others.

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