Helen Taylor, Professor Emerita, curator & author, talks about her experiences in the ESU Schools’ Mace debating competition.
It was 1966 and I was part of a two-girl team from King Edward’s Camp Hill School for Girls and I don’t think any other girls’ team had ever progressed beyond the regional contest. The motion, presumably designed especially for us, was ‘This House believes in equal pay for women’. I had no idea women weren’t paid equally, so this was my first introduction to feminist issues, and made me a feminist for life. I don’t remember much about the event – but I do recall the thrill of having my photo in The Observer [which ran the competition from 1957-1995], being fêted for our female triumph, and being interviewed on the Today programme. The male presenter patronised me horribly then asked ‘Don’t you think boys might be put off by your success?’ Thrown by this absurd question, I responded in a way that made me the laughing-stock of my fellow schoolgirls, saying, ‘Well that’s not the only thing they’re interested in’. I think my headmistress and parents were shocked to the core.
This success was a wonderful boost to my confidence and career. I developed debating and public speaking skills that have stood me in good stead all my life – in my career as an academic, literary festival curator, broadcaster and speaker.
I went on to University College London to read English and in my final year I saw on a notice board an advertisement for a scheme run by the English-Speaking Union. This was for teaching and research assistantship places at American universities, and I decided that would be a great next move. I applied and was interviewed by a Board of what to me was a terrifyingly large number of men (who seemed very old – they may only have been middle-aged, though one of them was asleep throughout my interview). I was successful, but that year – for some reason, probably economic – few American universities were offering places. Louisiana State University offered me a research assistantship for what sounded like a huge amount of money; the ESU warned me not to accept as they knew it was rather meagre. But it sounded exotic and I liked the idea of being 80 miles from New Orleans.
I went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and spent two great years taking an MA in English and American literature, becoming deeply involved in feminist and black politics. I also fell in love with southern literature and returned to the UK wanting to research and teach it.
I got my first lectureship in Bristol (1972), then went to the Universities of Warwick (1990-99) and Exeter (1999-2014). My final post was Professor and Head of the School of English at Exeter and in recent years I have set up an Arts and Culture Strategy working with Devon’s theatres, museums, literary festivals and artists. I established the first children’s literature festival in Exeter, and in 2016 directed the inaugural Liverpool Literary Festival. I’ve published widely on southern and British writing and culture, and am best known for two popular books: Scarlett’s Women: Gone With the Wind and its Female Fans (1989, reprinted 2014) and The Daphne du Maurier Companion (2007). I have also published a great deal about New Orleans, especially the cultural revival since Hurricane Katrina.
Debating is a great skill. You should be able to create and shape arguments, even against your better judgement, to flex your intellectual muscles and learn how to persuade and cajole. Public speaking is something all young people – the younger the better! – should learn because whether making a case against your local councillors, addressing senior staff at work or simply challenging your friends around a table about Brexit, you need the skills to listen, respond and make coherent arguments.
My experience at school and in the Mace competition gave me the confidence to challenge people and fight for what I believe is right.
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