FIRST-HAND / It was quite a shock for the boys when we girls arrived at Rugby

Isabel Wolff, one of the first, learnt just how sexist schoolboys can be
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I FELT STRANGE walking into chapel on that first morning, knowing that all eyes were on us. I don't think the boys were impressed, and I was told afterwards they had taken one look at us and said, "Yuk, no thanks."

The girls they saw most of were pin-ups in their studies, so it must have been quite a shock to meet 10 pudgy-faced, self-conscious 16-year- olds.

It did feel as if we were breaking the mould, although I would hesitate to say that I felt like a pioneer - more an agent of change. I don't think 10 was enough, really. I wish, looking back, that there had been more. I also think we should have worn uniforms. Our clothes gave the boys something else to judge us on and bitch about. I remember all these Laura Ashley skirts and black velvet jackets - well, it was 1976, after all.

The boys in the house next door to ours would yell and whistle from the windows as we walked past. I used to get howled at because of my name, and the bigger girls used to get called "Thunder-thighs" and "Fatty".

Pre-pubescent public schoolboys are not very kind. And sometimes they would mutter "boing, boing" as we walked by, because of our bosoms - they thought this was a huge joke.

Some of the prefects, known as Levee, gave us a hard time. There was one who gave me a very hard time. He was about 14 stone, in the 1st XV and very intimidating. The Levee were allowed to impose fines, and he used to fine me the whole time, for being late for chapel, for walking on the grass, anything he could think of.

The fines were usually 50p or pounds 1, and I used to pay him in bags of half- pence coins. After I left I discovered he was quite nice. At that time we used to wonder how long it would take before there was a girl prefect, or a girl Head of School. A lot of the boys were keen to be seen talking to a girl. It would raise their status in the house, although I think it also damaged friendships between boys.

Many of them would pretend that we didn't exist. I remember some even turned their backs.

A lot of the boys were jealous of the girls - and I can understand it. They slept in huge, freezing dormitories, while Crescent House - that was the girls' house - was incredibly luxurious by comparison.

The boarders had nice bedrooms with pretty duvets, flowery curtains and wall-to-wall carpets, and there was a lovely kitchen full of mod cons.

I remember being very depressed when, within a week of arriving, one of the masters' wives told us we would never be able to make friends with any of the boys, as they would only be interested in sex. There undoubtedly was sex, and at least one pregnancy scare, which was quite exciting. Not mine, I hasten to add. I think I was a slow developer. I did go out with the captain of the 1st XV for a while, and I remember thinking it would probably be a bad idea to go into his study alone. I remember our housemaster telling us it was his intention to prevent sexual intercourse taking place between any of "his" girls and the boys.

We all had nicknames and mine was Izzy Innocent, because I spent a lot of time staring at the ground in embarrassment.

The attention we got was nice in a way; being one of 10 girls in a school of 700 boys gives you a peculiar, almost celebrity-like status. It could be quite head-turning. I remember thinking I would never again get this kind of attention. Sometimes I enjoyed it, at other times I loathed it and just wanted to stay inside. Mostly it was embarrassing. St Valentine's Day was always a good bet. Once I got this amazing poem. I think it must have been from a master, as it was written in such a complex way and it was very long and beautifully typed.

Some of the masters did have crushes on the girls, although there were plenty who were hostile. Some bachelor housemasters would ring up and complain. The comments were always fairly sexist: a shirt was "too transparent", or skirts "too tight". There were no female teachers then; that's changed now.

Most "beaks" (teachers) called us by our Christian names, but not my French master. There were three girls in his set and he treated us as though we were boys. "Hurry up Wolff, you're late," he'd bark. It was brilliant.

The sporting facilities weren't geared to girls then. We had a few half- hearted attempts to play hockey. We'd get changed in the house and then rush round to the field with coats over our gym skirts. There were quite a few "sophisticated" boys who were into drugs, mostly dope. Some got kicked out. I didn't have a clue about that sort of thing; if I'd seen someone shooting up in a corridor I'd probably have thought they were diabetic.

I respected everyone who taught me. They were first-rate and really cared about us doing well. It was almost better than being at university in that way. I think all the girls worked hard.

I did feel responsible being one of so few girls, being part of an experiment that might not have worked. If we had all been failures they might have abandoned the whole idea. It's odd to think that Rugby's almost fully co-educational now. But I'm glad I was there when I was. It was a very special time.

Interview by Matthew Brace

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