How quickly we, in the so-called developed world, forget our own recent history. As we mark International Women’s Day there is a blizzard of blogs about aid projects in the developing world aimed at empowering women and girls through education. Yet, it wasn’t that long ago that women and girls in the industrialised world were struggling to take charge of their destinies.
This blog celebrates Gwen Cleghorn, a teacher from Atlanta, who made it her life’s work to give girls the confidence to expect more from life than domestic servitude. Although it is rarely mentioned now, girls growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s enjoyed few of the choices offered to young women today. Marriage was the conventional, respectable path. How soon we forget the courageous trailblazers who demanded more options.
Gwen began teaching in 1954, and using a combination of courtesy, intellect and determination, she set thousands of young imaginations on fire. She was a Southern Belle, born on a farm in what she called “Faulkner Country” in Mississippi in 1930. (For the benefit of non-US readers, Gwen was referring to the great writer William Faulkner, whose novels so vividly described life in the American South in the early twentieth century). She watched as her hard-working parents’ savings were stolen by a bank raider during the Depression (a common occurrence). But her mother instilled in her children a love of education: all three daughters would become teachers.
Gwen taught at several private girls’ schools in Atlanta during her long career, becoming principal of one and the champion of and consultant to another, the Atlanta Girls School (with a mission to raise up smart, confident girls from a racially diverse background). In the words of one of her former students, “I went on to Harvard and Yale, but it is Mrs Cleghorn’s teaching I will always remember.”
While they were married Gwen and her husband, the campaigning journalist Reese Cleghorn, worked together for change in the Deep South. Reese was one of no more than a dozen newspaper reporters in the 1950s and ‘60s who shone a light on racial discrimination, and who championed the civil rights movement. Together they consistently pushed their fellow citizens to envisage a different future. As a teacher to the offspring of Georgia’s elite, Gwen was especially well placed to influence five decades of future decision-makers.
Ever gracious and courteous, Gwen nudged her students to find the right answer, rather than beating them over the head. She often used literature to make important points for her. She is remembered for leading by example, rather than preaching.
Showing girls they should not be confined by conventional home-making roles was revolutionary enough without also confronting them with what Professor Elizabeth Coleman has called “the Big American Lie”: that the Constitution and Bill of Rights considered all people equal – except ethnic minorities and women.
Gwen’s Southern graciousness coexisted with a steely determination, or, as her son, the Reverend John Cleghorn, puts it, “a strong intentionality.” He recalls visiting an education project for abandoned HIV+ children in Zambia with his mother, picking their way through a slum, with Gwen in her high heels and elegant skirt suit, a “steel magnolia” before the term was coined.
Gwen opened the previously sealed doors and windows of possibility for thousands of young women. Hers was a life of purpose. She was also a kind friend to Network for Africa, thrilled at our efforts to open the same doors and windows in Rwanda and Uganda. We will miss her. She died in February 2015, aged 84.