By Angelica Chong (14A01B), Daniella Low (14A01B) and Gao Wenxin (14A03A)
A monumental moment in our Institution’s history occurred in 1969, when RI finally opened its doors to female students attending its Pre-University classes. Although there had been intermittent batches of girls admitted to the Pre-U classes before this, this particular cohort was special in that they first donned the white blouse and green skirt uniform still in mode today.
Those green-skirters brought many ‘colourful’ changes to the campus, including a new column in the Rafflesian Times—the Feminine Eye. One of the first articles, titled ‘Dreamboy’ (31 July 1969), was actually a survey on the girls’ ‘idea of an ideal boy’, and amusingly enough, many girls chose to withhold comment on their opinion of their RI counterparts!
We caught up with Ms Tan Su Yuen, a former editor of the Feminine Eye. She shared with us what it was like to take charge of the column back in 1978, describing it to be rather good fun: ‘I don’t recall any censorship, we wrote whatever we wanted to write, whatever was of interest to us. We could be trusted to be sensible.’
An editorial from 10 February 1978 illustrates the history of how Rafflesian Times went from being a weekly cyclostyle print publication with no photographs to a fledgling newspaper with pictures and artwork. A commercial printer did the printing, and by 1978 it had ‘evolved into a very professional organisation—canvassing for advertisements, layout planning, proofreading, on-the-spot news coverage, photography, we did them all as students!’
Ms Tan is but one in a long line of editors that have worked at its helm, with female writers penning quirky anecdotes about changing in the classrooms after PE (14 April 1977) and giving advice on personal grooming (5 June 1971). She recalled the Press Room—‘small, but it was where we did most of our brainstorming’—where the editors would draft their articles and columns. As the column was one of the most prominent ways to express their views, it quickly caught on with the girls, who were the stark minority.
As Ms Tan reminisced, back in those days, there was also no such thing as Raffles Junior College. Instead, she had to compete her way to obtain one place out of a mere hundred in the previously all-male Pre-U cohort. There was, however, no leftover animosity from the tough competition in the two years of education to come. After all, she mused, ‘friends you made then were friends for life’.
Indeed, since there were only a hundred girls in the entire cohort, the batch was a bonded one, with Ms Tan making arrangements with ex-classmates for outings even as we spoke! With only four girls to the 36 boys in her class, she inevitably found herself relegated to the girls’ team for inter-class games like javelin throwing, squash, and the ubiquitous 400m run—with a dearth of female participation, the girls were encouraged to try a wide range of sports.
A picture is painted of a school community that, while overwhelmingly patriarchal in terms of the gender stereotypes present, did not impede the contributions and experiences of its girls. An article in April 1970 discussing ‘gender isolationism’ in RI then, was quick to generalise that ‘It’s the rugged type [of boys] who sweep [the girls] off their feet’, in an attempt to convince more boys to interact with the girls.
Rather, such ‘isolationism’ sometimes even served as added motivation for the girls to step up. The writer of the October 1981 column made a strong statement, rallying the girls to ‘be one and united, so as to form a strong, solid foundation’, in keeping the school flag flying high in the sports arena.
But surely there were some difficulties in adapting to the testosterone-fueled crowd? For example, the subconscious gender segregation in each class, the teasing one received when one approached a member of the opposite sex? At this point, Ms Tan said, ‘for many of us girls who had come from girls’ schools, yes, it was a bit of a culture shock for us. but that’s why we had the Feminine Eye—for the female population to air their views.’ The Feminine Eye was thus incorporated into the Rafflesian Times—a column for female students, by female students.
With such an unbalanced gender ratio in the past, there needed to be some sort of representation in the school publication. The column was undoubtedly a first step in empowering the female population with the written word, by discussing the problems of the minority on a majority platform.
One article in the 16 Oct 1975 edition discusses the apparent lack of enthusiasm of the Pre-U 1 girls, attributing it to the lack in numbers and, more significantly, the common yet unfair expectations of female behaviour. As an ex-Feminine Eye writer, Lim Swee Kim, points out, ‘There also seems to be a tacit understanding that the girls are more sensible, industrious and quiet than boys. No one has yet tried to topple this axiom. The girls find that they are getting demure, more ladylike and staid. I suspect they are getting a bit repressed too.’
Today, with the balanced gender ratio in RI, some might consider the Feminine Eye outdated. After all, why is there a need for an exclusively ‘feminine’ perspective when all students’ voices can now be heard? Well, with times changing and perceptions evolving, we are able to take it a step further—what the Feminine Eye aims to do now is not just to give a ‘feminine’ perspective, but also a ‘feminist’ perspective. Rather than just giving women a voice or providing an ‘exclusively female’ perspective, it emphasises the need for gender equality (which is more than just women’s issues), and encourages women to be self-assured in their own identity.
The Feminine Eye column of today is a markedly different one of the 1960s and 70s, just as its writers are. Yet instead of making arbitrary comparisons or one-sided judgements, let us acknowledge the insights of those that have come before us, and look to the future for new stories to tell.