Consider two of the best-known women school leaders in books and film, and their dress.
Miss Trunchbull is unnatural; she is physically masculinist, formidable and repulsive. Roald Dahl, the author of Matilda, the book in which Miss Trunchbull features, describes her body as muscular, with a bull neck, big shoulders, thick arms, massive thighs, sinewy wrists and powerful legs. She is alleged to have acquired these characteristics in a previous career as an athlete. She has an obstinate chin, a cruel mouth and small arrogant eyes and wears an outlandish outfit of smock, breeches and brogues. Miss Trunchbull is fond of whirling small girls around by their pigtails and incarcerating small boys in nail-studded cupboards.
Author Dahl is careful to note, in this morality tale of the triumph of kindness over cruelty, that Miss Trunchbull is an exceptional headteacher:
… most headteachers are chosen because they possess a number of fine qualities. They understand children and have the children’s best interests at heart. They are sympathetic. They are fair and they are deeply interested in education. Miss Trunchbull possessed none of these qualities and how she ever got her present job was a mystery. (Dahl 1989 p. 76)
But the super-feminine Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter books is equally vile.
On her very first evening at Hogwarts, Umbridge interrupted Dumbledore’s introductory welcome to students to make a speech about a new era of openness, effectiveness and accountability. In her initial Defence against the Dark Arts class, she told students that they would be following a carefully structured, theory-centred Ministry-approved course: this meant reading a textbook on which they were to be regularly tested.
Umbridge had a thorough knowledge of current education policy. Before long, the Ministry of Magic had appointed Umbridge as a High Inquisitor. Her task was to assist ‘school reform’ by inspecting all of the teaching staff and ensuring that Dumbeldore’s decision-making capacity was curtailed. The more powerful Umbridge had the requisite accountability skills in school self-evaluation and matching practices of school management.
Umbridge set herself up as a rival to Dumbledore. Her authority was obtained from the government and exercised bureaucratically. She made life miserable for the staff loyal to Dumbledore and ignored the moral code he espoused and to which the vast majority of staff were committed. The power she had was translated into a plethora of petty, officious decrees, the prescription of new rules and the application of partial punishments which allowed some toadying students to unfairly accumulate privileges. She outlawed student clubs, observed lessons with a checklist and a bitter smile, read students’ mail, ensured that many long-serving teachers were put on probation, gave the power to inflict physical punishment to the unpleasant but formerly harmless caretaker and established a cadre of student leaders, aka a student ‘secret police’, whose powers to punish were equal to Prefects.
It is always interesting to speculate about highly gendered portrayals of school leaders and what their hideous clothes signify.
And we wonder… What do children conclude from these texts? That to be a woman in leadership requires particular kinds of exceptionality? That this is all fiction and has no relationship to reality in any way at all? That authors can’t help but find a woman in power difficult to portray?
What do you think?
Extract One from (2014) The uses and abuses of power: teaching school leadership through children’s literature, Journal of Educational Administration and History, 46:4, 367-386,
Extract Two from Chapter Four of Thomson, P ( 2009) School leadership: Heads on the block? London: Routledge