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Globalisation, Societies and Education

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Privileged girls: the place of femininity

and femininity in place
Johannah Fahey

Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

Published online: 03 Apr 2014.

To cite this article: Johannah Fahey (2014) Privileged girls: the place of femininity
and femininity in place, Globalisation, Societies and Education, 12:2, 228-243, DOI:
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Globalisation, Societies and Education, 2014

Vol. 12, No. 2, 228243,

Privileged girls: the place of femininity and femininity in place

Johannah Fahey*
Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

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(Received 24 November 2013; accepted 17 January 2014)

Constructions of femininity and attendant notions of feminism are being

produced in different ways in different places around the world. This is a
complicated global process that cannot be reduced to analyses that take
place in nation states. This paper seeks to respond to and enhance Angela
McRobbies compelling argument about understandings of contemporary
girlhood, primarily in the UK context, by drawing into the fold Aihwa
Ongs powerful thinking around theories of transnationality. Rather than
repeating arguments about constructions of femininity that are invariably
articulated within national confines, the discussion demonstrates the
transnational nature of these subjective constructions by referring to recent
ethnographic research undertaken in two elite schools in England and
India, and focusing particularly on in-depth interviews and focus groups
conducted with some of the young women who attend these schools.
Keywords: elite schools; femininity; feminism; transnationality; globalisation; social class

it will be difficult especially if I want to go back home because I am a girl,
as sad as that is, its true. I wont be taken as seriously as I would like to be, so I
will need to earn the respect and prove it. Rather than what it is over here, which
is equal, equal, equal If I am qualified enough, then that is one hurdle. I know
it will be difficult. But they take foreigners more seriously, so my education here
may work in my favour. (Interview with Rukaiyah, an international student from
Pakistan attending Highbury Hall, November 2011)

How are constructions of femininity and attendant notions of feminism being

produced in different ways in different places around the world? And how can
we begin to understand this complicated global process? In seeking to both
answer these questions and more broadly understand the links between gender,
class and race in the context of contemporary globalisation, I will use in-depth
interviews and focus groups conducted over a two-year period with female
students attending two elite secondary schools in England (Highbury Hall) and
2014 Taylor & Francis

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Globalisation, Societies and Education


India (Ripon College) to frame my argument.1 Elite schools privilege their

students in particular ways (see Kenway and Fahey, this issue; see also Walford
1986, 1991; McDonald, Pini, and Mayes 2012). It is also my contention that
privilege enables particular constructions of femininity for female students in
attendance at these elite schools (see Maxwell and Aggleton 2010, 2013; Allan
and Charles 2012; Walford 1993).2 To show the transnational nature of these
subjective constructions of femininity, my discussion will respond to and
enhance the work of two pertinent thinkers: Angela McRobbie (2009) and
Aihwa Ong (1999).
McRobbie discerns everyday governmentality within commercial discourses and in the neoliberal rhetoric of New Labour,3 particularly in
governmental discourses directed at young women that espouse notions of
individualisation, self-entrepreneurship, talent and competition. Ong is interested in the disciplinary effects of regimes such as the family and the state.
More specifically, she focuses on the ways in which transnationality is integral
to an understanding of how nation-states articulate with capitalism in late
modernity (1999, 3). Both are therefore interested in the machinations of
contemporary political economies; however, whilst McRobbie deploys
discourse analysis as a means to frame this engagement, Ong in contrast
uses a methodology that mobilises an engagement with situated ethnography.
She focuses on the Asia Pacific region, particularly diasporic Chinese economic
elites, to demonstrate the cultural specificity of transnational processes. Her key
contention is that the cultural logics that determine governmentality are
different in different places. In her more recent work with Roy they reiterate
this argument, stating that there is great variability in geographies of actually
existing neoliberalism (Roy and Ong 2011, 4). In this paper, however,
I deliberately focus on Ongs earlier writing, whereby she makes a connection
between transnationality and flexibility (with regard to citizenship), as the
articulation of both these notions is an important springboard from which to
respond to McRobbies work and is therefore seminal to my discussion.
By drawing into the fold recent ethnographic research (undertaken as part of
a research team), I seek to enrich both McRobbies and Ongs arguments. In the
first instance, the very act of utilising ethnographic work as a scaffold for my
theorising serves to enhance McRobbies own analysis, which she readily
admits is presented as suggestive in relation to the terrain [and] not based
on specific fieldwork undertaken, [it is] neither empirical nor ethnographic
(2009, 6). Second, by bringing into the same analytical framework the
economic rationalities of globalisation and the cultural dynamics that shape
human and political responses (Ong 1999, 45, my emphasis), Ongs work
offers a theoretical counterpoint to what I maintain is, in McRobbies work, a
tendency towards methodological nationalism; i.e., her analysis is focused
on a particular historical period unique to England. And yet, whilst Ongs
conceptualisation of transnationality and flexibility are useful, I nonetheless also

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J. Fahey

seek to augment her understanding of transnationality by raising issues around

the gendering of mobility more broadly in todays world and enhancing her
notion of flexible citizenship through what I am calling flexible feminism and
flexible femininity. Through these concepts, I am then able to respond to
McRobbies problematic distinction between the A1 girl and the global girl,
both of whom she sees as epitomising female individualism within New
Labours Britain.
My ethnographic research is broadly informed by a global ethnography
methodology (see McCarthy and Kenway, this issue); however, in terms of the
ethnographic data, I use in this paper, I draw particularly on two strands of the
wider inquiry: the student interviews and focus groups (with no more than
eight participants). I focus more specifically on the interviews and focus
groups I conducted with some of the girls at Highbury Hall in England and
Ripon College in India. This interview material was generated in the former
school over two years and the latter school over one year. In the interviews at
Highbury Hall, the students were asked directly: do you ever think about the
generations of women that have come before you? Can you talk about
the similiarities or differences you think they may have experienced? In the
interviews at Ripon College, the students were asked more broadly about
the intersections between class, caste and gender. In both the focus groups the
discussion was self-directed, but when the girls talked about constructions of
femininity I did seek elaboration from them about this notion. The interviews
and focus groups are complemented by other ethnographic data, including
long periods of observation undertaken in my serial visits to the schools for a
duration of three weeks each over a period of three years (in England) and two
years (in India), and field notes compiled on a daily basis. Overall, in this
context, I mobilise interview data collected from individual students and
focus groups as a means to develop both McRobbies and Ongs theoretical
A1 girls and global girls
In The Aftermath of Feminism (2009), McRobbie contributes to understandings
of contemporary girlhood (Harris 2004; Aapola, Gonick, and Harris 2005),
primarily in the context of England, by viewing new forms of gender power
through the lens of popular culture, the media and public debate. Of particular
interest within this discussion are her characterisations of two variations of
girlhood, namely the A1 girl and the global girl, in the context of
contemporary constructions of femininity and neoliberal capitalism (see also
Walkerdine 2003). Both models of girl provide a useful starting point from
which to consider the construction of femininity in relation to class and race in
the two elite schools under discussion. But before I look specifically at
McRobbies characterisations of girlhood in contemporary Britain, let me first
give a brief overview of her broader argument.

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In her most recent book, McRobbie writes with reference to a particular place
and a particular time: England between 1997 and 2007. This so-called postfeminist decade does not coincidently coincide with the years in which Tony
Blair was the Prime Minister of England. McRobbie understands Englands
political culture of the late 1990s and beyond in terms of the articulation of a
form of neoliberal capitalism that constructs a new gender regime. Built on the
junction between popular and political culture, she maintains that such a regime
advocates a discourse of female individualism for western women that whilst
lauding gender equity (evidenced in womens increasing visibility in the labour
market) at the same time condemns the figure of the feminist from previous
generations. McRobbie ultimately argues that young women are the exemplary
subjects of [this] new form of neoliberal governmentality in England (2012
online). According to her, these exemplary young women are also a metaphor
for social change (2009, 15) within commercial and governmental discourses.
Deemed to be possessed with agency (2009, 88), educational capacity (2009,
76) and self-responsibility (2009, 77), and empowered with competitive
female individualisation (2009, 76), the activities of these motivated young
women are viewed as a new form of social mobility (2009, 75). McRobbie
suggests this government-dictated technocratic style of corporate managerialism (2009, 88) serves to discursively produce these young women as
participants in a new meritocracy, whereas substantial degrees of [gender]
equality [are assumed to] have been won (2009, 74) feminism now disappears.
She refers to this as a kind of sexual contract. Within this contract as the
residue of sexual politics fades away (2009, 88), the void left in its wake is
filled by economic imperatives, and young women are thus positioned as
feminine consumer citizens (2009). Overall, McRobbie seeks to show the
links between governmental and commercial discourse to demonstrate
how sexual politics is presented as irrelevant (2009, 88). In this context,
McRobbie contends that New Labours governmentality (2009, 2) extols the
values of neo-liberalised global capitalism (2009, 76) at the expense of an
engagement with gender politics (see also Scharff 2011).4 How then does
McRobbies argument relate to the girls who attend Highbury Hall? Let me
focus here on her two characterisations of the young women who inhabit this
so-called post-feminist domain: the A1 girl and the global girl. And let me
return to the relevance of feminism within this argument at a later point when I
discuss Ongs notion of flexibility in relation to transnationality.
A1 girls
According to McRobbie, A1 girls, as featured in the pages of the right wing
press in the UK, in particular the Daily Mail, are glamorous high-achievers
destined for Oxford or Cambridge usually pictured clutching A-level
examination certificates. For her, A1 girls have certain productive capacities
(McRobbie 2011 online), they embody female individualisation (2009, 15),

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J. Fahey

with a concentration on talent, ambition and competition, and a rejection of

feminism within the frame of neoliberal governmentality in England. They are
ideal girls, subjects par excellence, and also subjects of excellence. One
place to find these ideal girls who are destined for Oxbridge is in elite English
schools (Sutton Trust 2011). Indeed, Highbury Hall is one example of such an
elite English school. The A1 girl is therefore a useful figure to contemplate
when thinking about the privileged girls who attend Highbury Hall.
McRobbie talks about female individualisation in terms of excellence and
meritocracy, but clearly there are class dimensions to such achievements.5 It
is therefore important to remain cognisant of the ways in which the power and
the privilege of certain institutions, such as Highbury Hall, perpetuate the
power and privilege of certain female groups. McRobbie alludes to as much
when she says this image of female success indicates a break-through
into the social and political elite for women who are by and large already
extremely privileged (McRobbie 2012 online).
Of course, within this context, the nexus McRobbie recognises between
gender and class also includes interrelated discussions about race. She states
white women in the UK increasingly live out their class positions, to rephrase Stuart Hall, through the modality of gender and femininity. They have
also become more autonomously feminised in their class identity (2009, 6).
In other words, what McRobbie is suggesting is that there are emerging
hierarchies based on gendered aspiration, the idea that female success is fast
becoming a classed attribute. At the same time, she also talks about the
coming forward of young black or Asian women, along these individualised
pathways [as entailing] the granting of unusual, if not exceptional, and
exemplary status (2009, 6). Therefore, whilst female success may be classed,
it is not necessarily determined by a particular race. And yet, as her
understanding of the A1 girl is arguably restricted to British women (whatever
their race) in a British context, there are limitations to her characterisation of
the A1 girl nonetheless. Some of these limitations come to light in relation to
her characterisation of so-called global girls, who not only inhabit a place,
namely the third world, that is somewhere beyond Britain, but who are also
aligned as a cohort that is classed in a particular way.
Global girls
Again informed by commercial and governmental discourse (of which the
latter is my focus), McRobbies global girl is a figure subjected to new
constraining forms of gender power, which operate through the granting of
capacity to young women (2009, 7). In terms of contemporary capitalism,
McRobbie suggests that the global girl is now a figure who promises a great
deal within the new international division of labour as global capital look[s]
to ensur[e] the right quality of offshore labour (McRobbie 2011 online). She
states where once she was simply known for her nimble fingers, the global

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Globalisation, Societies and Education


girl now emerges as a subject of micro-credit worthiness, gender training [and]

enterprise culture (2009, 77). She describes these government initiatives
to demonstrate the subtle positioning of the global girl: a re-colonisation
and re-making of racial hierarchy within the field of normative femininity
(2009, 88).
In terms of education more specifically, McRobbie maintains that in
governmental discourse the global girl is seen to benefit from Western aid
programmes that support girls education in the impoverished Third World
(2009, 76) and corporate culture initiatives that become a mark of compassion
and concern as well as ethnical responsibility (McRobbie 2012 online). At the
same time, McRobbie also recognises that some global girls are excluded
from [the] privileged model of freedom based on the state provision of
education and are thus instead relegated to the undesignated spaces and
liminal zones marked out by brutalities, cruelties and hardship (2009, 88)
Here she points:
to the global flows of young women, who, as they somehow find the means of
moving from the country to the city, or from the east to the West or from south
to north, they also find themselves in various border zones, [and] are the subjects
of a globalised political economy. (2009, 88)

Clearly, it is important to acknowledge the disadvantages so-called global girls

from developing countries face in relation to access to education and labour
markets in a global economy. It is, however, highly problematic when global
girls are viewed, from an essentialised perspective, as wholly occupying a
class position that fails to take into account stratifications of class. In other
words, within McRobbies characterisation of the global girl, which is clearly
her own appellation, but which is admittedly based on discourse analysis of
governmental documents, there are certain class assumptions being made.
These assumptions about the global girl relate to both her location in the
developing world and her transnational status that marks her out as part of an
emerging, aspirational lower middle-class, a class that has a particular wageearning capacity within the international division of labour (1999, 88).
Before I address this issue, let me first acknowledge that McRobbies
characterisations of these different kinds of girls are helpful for identifying
different discursive representations of feminine subjectivities; however, the
ways in which she has separated one from the other is debatable. Rather than
making a distinction between A1 girls and global girls, I instead want to
begin to account for A1 girls from elsewhere in a UK framework, and to think
about subjects of excellence in a global context. Such a focus leads to certain
questions arising, such as: on what scale of excellence do we measure an A1
girl? And what relationship does a global girl have to the world at large?

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J. Fahey

A1 girls from elsewhere

In 2011, 87% of the girls completing their A-levels at Highbury Hall received
A* or A grades and secured 18 places at Oxbridge in Philosophy, Politics and
Economics (PPE), Law, Science, Medicine and Classics. These girls also
received offers from Russell Group and 1994 universities including Bristol
(19), Durham (25), Edinburgh (20), Exeter (42), Leeds (40), LSE (17),
Manchester (25), Nottingham (22) and UCL (28), in comparison to a small
number of offers from US universities, including some Ivy Leagues (Highbury
Hall 2011, 12). Suffice it to say, the majority of the girls graduating from
Highbury Hall in 2011 intended to pursue their tertiary studies within the UK,
some were indeed A1 girls destined for Oxbridge, whilst others were A1 girls
destined to attend other notable British universities. However, although
Highbury Hall is a pathway to both Oxbridge and other British universities,
whilst it was once a bastion for British students, 31% of the schools students
are now from overseas.6 This therefore means that we need to reconsider the
representation of the A1 girl (that McRobbie alerts us to) as a provincial
subject, and this then has implications with regard to McRobbies claims about
the in/significance of feminism in contemporary global circumstances.
Blake is an international student from Hong Kong who attends Highbury
Hall. In her opinion, it is international girls, and not British girls, who make up
the majority of these A1 girls. She says:
Do I agree that it is an elite school? To be frank, if they get rid of all the girls
from Asia, it wont be as good as it is, because apparently students from Hong
Kong, Korea, India or Pakistan get the school the better grades, at least in
science subjects. And then I asked some of the girls and they told me that last
year half of the girls who got into Oxford are from Asia . So, I mean, there is
a big community of girls like me, like so-called international students here, but
actually we support a huge part of the school and if were not here, I mean the
school is not going to be as good as it is now. (Interview, November 2010)

Also of note is what the writer in residence at Highbury Hall says about the
English girls, he states: in one class the African and Chinese girls were
hanging around together And, I thought, you know, they are the future and
then you have the English girls who are the past (Interview, November 2010).
And yet, the English girls to whom Highbury Halls writer in residence refers
need not be left behind in contemporary times. But this does mean
reconsidering the frames of reference for the A1 girl. In terms of curriculum,
it means moving thinking beyond a national context and thinking about
excellence on a global scale. In this regard, it might be suggested that
Highbury Hall is already thinking in this way, for in relation to curriculum it
offers both A-levels and the International Baccalaureate.7 Another example
that this school is moving with the times is the modern foreign languages it
offers. The school once limited the languages it taught to those spoken in the
immediate region, i.e., Europe, and offered French, German, Spanish and

Globalisation, Societies and Education


Italian. However, Mandarin Chinese is now part of the curriculum. Sally,

an international student from Korea, acknowledges the significance of this
curriculum innovation, when she says:

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I think China is coming up. Both as a super power and economically, and when
we actually graduate I believe just the minimum standard of Chinese will
actually help in our future career. Its like speaking English. English is the
global language. Chinese is soon to become the global language, I think.
(Interview, November 2010)

Rukaiyah, an international student from Pakistan, also realises the far-reaching

impact of this curriculum innovation. She had learnt Mandarin Chinese in the
General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and wanted to keep up
her skill rather than lose it. When I asked her if she spoke any other languages
she said Yes, Urdo and when I asked her why she had chosen Mandarin
Chinese she said two sixths of the world is Chinese and two sixths of the
world is Indian, that means I will be able to speak to more than half the world
(Interview, November 2011).
Having acknowledged A1 girls from elsewhere in a UK framework, and
having thought about subjects of excellence in a global context, let me now
consider the problematic distinction that McRobbie makes between the British
A1 girl and the global girl based on an implied class distinction. As my
ethnographic data indicates, the majority of A1 girls at Highbury Hall are from
Hong Kong and Korea or from developing countries such as India, Pakistan,
China, Nigeria and Ghana. But given not only the initial high costs of
attending Highbury Hall,8 but also the educational capital these girls will have
acquired at Highbury Hall, readily demonstrated by their attendance at
Oxbridge and other highly ranked universities in Britain and around the
world, the only assumption we can make about these girls particular wageearning capacity within contemporary global capitalism, is that they will
likely be positioned at the apex of this international division of labour. This
therefore calls into question the class distinction McRobbie makes between the
A1 girl and the global girl. For, as is evident, at Highbury Hall A1 girls are
wealthy global girls. In this context, beginning to take account of these elite
mobile girls becomes a means with which to illustrate elite femininities and
feminised mobility in relation to globalised understandings of gender and
social class.
In terms of enhancing McRobbies argument, in global times there is a
need to think about the horizontal and relational nature of the contemporary
economic, social and cultural processes that stream across spaces (Ong 1999,
45), rather than simply considering the UK framework (McRobbie 2009,
6). This requires, for example, careful consideration of the ways in which the
world outside is portrayed from within a UK framework, and of the ways in
which the world outside comes into the UK context. When discussing the


J. Fahey

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global girl, McRobbie does talk about changing representations of young

women in countries outside the affluent West, but what about wealthy young
women from other countries (including developing countries) who come to the
affluent West? In this respect, I am thinking specifically about privileged girls
who travel to England for schooling from other parts of the world. This entails
considering the complex relationship between gender, class, race and
transnationality within Highbury Hall. In order to help me understand elite
global girls in a way that contributes to McRobbies analysis, I will now turn
to Ongs theories of transnationality.
Transnationality, mobility and flexibility
Ong is interested in the human practices and cultural logics at the centre
of discussions of globalization (1999, 45) and seeks to express their
embeddedness in differently configured regimes of power (1999, 45) by
offering an ethnography of transnational practice (5) that focuses on
flexibility, mobility and displacement. Therefore, whilst McRobbie is clearly
concerned with the ways in which neoliberal capitalism has settled specifically
in the context of England, Ong takes a global dynamic view of capitalism. She
is interested in the ways in which class, race, ethnicity, gender and nation
intersect as she considers the everyday effects of transnationality in terms of
the tensions between capital and state power (1999, 23). And yet, although
she is keenly focused on transnationality in her analysis, this is not to suggest
that she is not spatially specific, as Ongs own biography, as a Chinese
person whose primary frame of cultural identification is insular Southeast
Asia (1999, 23), also influences the direction of her work.
When discussing diasporic Chinese economic elites more particularly, Ong
maintains that it is not simply the imperatives of mobile capitalism but also
the powerful effects of a cultural regime that contributes to defining what it
means to be Chinese in late modernity. She says:
cultural norms dictate the formation of translocal business networks, putting
men in charge of mobility while women and children are the disciplinable
subjects of familial regimes. Over the past century, Chinese emigration to sites
throughout the Asia Pacific region, including North America, has entailed
localizing the women at home, where they care for their families, thus freeing
the men to work abroad. (1999, 20)

First, writing about transnationality at the end of the twentieth century, when
describing the changing dynamics of gender relations in the imperatives of
family, capitalism, and mobility, Ong maintained that Chinese family
regimes that generally valorize mobile masculinity and localized femininity
shape strategies of flexible citizenship, gender division of labor, and relocation
in different sites (1999, 20). But where once mobility was coded as a
masculine property (within Chinese cultures), nowadays, as the international

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Globalisation, Societies and Education


students (who are by no means limited to Chinese students) at Highbury Hall

demonstrate, we are bearing witness to the emergence of an elite feminised
Ong defines transnationality as the condition of cultural interconnectedness and mobility across space which has been intensified under late
capitalism It denotes both moving through space or across lines, as well as
changing the nature of something (1999, 4). Obviously spatial mobility is
crucial to Ongs understanding of transnationality, but it is one thing to travel
extensively and quite another to consider oneself transnational.9 What then is
the difference? Integral to Ongs theorising of transnationality is her notion of
flexibility. Of course, much has been written about womens roles in the
flexible capitalist economy, but for the purposes of my argument I am
interested in Ongs framing of flexibility as it pertains to human agency and
the flexible citizen, not pace Harvey, in relation to late capitalisms production
systems, labour markets and consumption practices alone (1989, 2007) a
decidedly economically rationalist approach.
For Ong, flexible citizenship refers to a mode of human agency that
negotiates the cultural logics of late capitalism (including capital accumulation, travel and displacement) and responds fluidly and opportunistically to
changing political-economic conditions (1999, 6; see also Waters 2009). The
flexible citizen is adept at strategically re/positioning themselves with regard
to certain cultural regimes (including structures of meaning such as nationality,
class mobility and social power), governments and markets in order to accrue
social and economic gains. In other words, flexible citizenship identifies
intertwined transnational practices of ambitious individuals and of nation
states (Kenway and Fahey 2009, 94).10
Ong maintains that flexibility in geographical positionings is itself an
effect of novel articulations between the regimes of the family, the state, and
capital (1999, 3). In relation to the elite global girls who attend Highbury
Hall, there is no doubt that most of them are attending the school because their
parents believe to do so is to take advantage of the opportunities that a British
elite education will provide them with, against a backdrop of global capitalism,
in the future. Particularly in relation to them gaining entrance to elite universities
in the UK and the USA and the implications that such university qualifications
will have for their future employment prospects on a global scale. (Furthermore,
given the current economic conditions in England, Highbury Hall [and the state]
also benefits from marketing itself to international students, as it is these
students that can readily afford to attend this school.) Blake, for example, says:
my parents want me to be international. Okay, so basically everyone knows that
China is growing really rapidly and I stand a good chance of getting into Beijing
University or Tsinghua University, which is the best in China. But my parents
dont want me to stay there and they really dont want me to stay in Hong Kong
and go to Hong Kong University. The thing is, they want to send me to


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university in other places. Thats why they sent me here because there is a better
chance of getting in to a better university when applying from here and from this
school than staying in Hong Kong.

Some of this strategic flexibility, as previously indicated, involves considering

the advantages that the location and status of the education institution will give
these students, other kinds of flexibility or opportunistic decision-making
is influenced by the difference between education systems. For instance,
Rosemary, an international student from Korea, decided to come to England to
study as she was aware of the faults in the Korean education system
(Interview, November 2010). Although she acknowledges that Highbury Hall
is a very competitive school, she maintains that the Korean education system
is much more harsh on students. She illustrates this point with reference to
the Korean university entrance exam, she says:
Yesterday was the university entrance exam and on that day the whole nation
sits for the entrance exam in the final year of the high school. And it must be a
very scary experience, even though I wasnt there. And you dont get anything
like A-levels, you just sit one exam and thats it. You only get given one chance.

Blake and Rosemarys transnational status is not simply evidenced by the fact
that they have travelled from Hong Kong and Korea, respectively, to take
advantage of the benefits afforded them by studying at an elite school in
England. For once they have completed their studies, they also hope to remain
highly mobile, a flexible strategy dependent on privilege that is linked to
their career choices. Blake states: I could choose to stay here or go back. Or
basically the whole world is in front of me and I can go to wherever, basically
really wherever I want to. Rosemary too says:
I dont think I want to settle in one country Ill see where I get my first job
because I dont know whether Im going to get my first job in Korea or in
England or if I get into UN there a lot of headquarters elsewhere in the world. So
Ill see where I initially get work. (Interview, November 2010)

For these ambitious global girls, transnationality, the condition of cultural

interconnectedness and mobility across space, is a highly normalised part of
their lives.
Flexible feminism
If we return to McRobbies claims about the repudiation of feminism within
popular gender debates, what then can our ethnographic data tell us about the
significance of feminism for A1 girls from elsewhere and elite global girls? So
far I have sought to enhance McRobbies characterisations of A1 girls and
global girls by introducing Ongs notion of transnationality into the discussion.
But perhaps a development of Ongs thinking is also helpful for reconsidering

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Globalisation, Societies and Education


McRobbies argument regarding the post-feminist realm in which these girls

purportedly inhabit. This would entail questioning McRobbies notion that
these girls repudiate feminism by introducing the notion of flexible
feminism. So what then does flexible feminism mean? Following Ong, it
takes into account how transnational travel intersects with gender, race,
ethnicity and class. It considers how feminism travels and is lived in terms
of transnational mobility. Of course, to entertain flexible feminism as a
possibility is not to suggest that feminist movements do not exist in other
countries. Neither is it to suggest that the girls at Highbury Hall take back
feminism to their home countries, for clearly there is no tabula rasa with
regard to feminism around the world.
Alba is an international student from Hong Kong with an Indian heritage.
When asked about Highbury Hall and the schools traditions and the
generations of women that have come before her, she says:
This [school] feels really, really feminist Back in my old school we didnt
really have much feminism, like womanpower. Because a lot of the kids were
Sindhi kids and traditionally, you know, we get married instead of working. I
remember my first Prayers, where the Principal was talking about feminism, and
I remember thinking wow, feminism all the way And I remember telling my
dad something and he made a comment about girls not working and if you want
you can come home and relax and everything. (Interview, November 2010)

Alba talks about feminism in terms of being an independent woman and she
relates this independence to her ability to join the workforce. Therefore, it is
possible to suggest that the feminism that Alba has adopted may well have been
co-opted by the UKs neoliberal govermentality and discursively repackaged as
freedom and choice, as McRobbie suggests. However, although these
feminist tenets are framed in terms of a form of neoliberalese (i.e.,
independence), within this context gender politics is not a residual notion as
Alba explicitly identifies with feminism. This is indicated when she talks about
the conversation that she has had with her father and when she recounts her
resistance to his conventional ideas, ideas which Alba implies are culturally
informed, about womanhood, work and marriage. Perhaps then, feminism is
flexible. Perhaps when feminist discourse is open to a range of re-articulations in
historically and geographically distinct locales, and when it is transported into
different geopolitical contexts, it does become meaningful in different ways.
To reiterate McRobbies argument, she suggests that within commercial and
governmental discourse in Britain today, young women [are] a metaphor for
social change (2009, 15), positioned within a meritocratic system where gender
equality is assumed and where there is therefore disengagement with feminism
and gender politics. But when we think about McRobbies claims in relation to
the girls who attend Ripon College in India some intricacies emerge. In one of
the focus groups we conducted with students at the school, Chapr, talked about
Indian culture, saying: India is a male dominated society Why does a woman

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J. Fahey

have to leave her house and go to her husbands house? (Focus Group, March
2012). Saba then contributed to this discussion by suggesting that it is a mental
setup, a mentality, and slowly it is changing thanks to globalisation (Focus
Group, March 2012).
Some of these changes can already be witnessed in the capacities of the
girls at this school, for although (as Chapr points out) India is a male-dominated
society, the girls at Ripon College are nonetheless achieving better academic
and sports results than their male counterparts, are more proficient in speaking
English, and are also more engaged globally, as they are more likely to be
involved in student exchange programmes. As such, we might say that these
young women are also emerging as a metaphor for social change. But there are
certain qualifications that need to be made in an Indian context. In the first
place, as both Chaprs and Sabas comments indicate, neither of these girls are
disengaged from gender politics. Furthermore, the emergence of these young
women as a metaphor for social change is not discursively determined, as
McRobbies examples are, rather we are bearing witness to a particular historical
moment where in relation to an expanding middle-class, it is [women] who [are] at
the centre of changes taking place in contemporary Indian society [initiated in part
by] Indias encounter with the West (Kakar and Kakar 2007, 42).
Of course, these changes are incremental. As Saba indicates, if a man and
woman are both working, the woman still has to come home and cook.
Furthermore, in terms of Ripon College specifically, Saba says:
if you talk about the school then there is no inequality, but the thing is the guys,
they are allowed to roam around the school whenever they want to. We have
restrictions, we have to go out with our maam, we cant go out of the house
without a reason, we cant leave the house after 6pm and on holidays. (Focus
Group, March 2012)

She then adds, because of globalisation we will slowly get more freedom and
independence. In this context, globalisation might thus be understood as
being constituted by, for instance, the force of global discourses, notions such
as freedom and choice that are outlined in governmental discourse in places
such as Britain and that are adopted and adapted within another context, such
as an elite school in India.
Clearly, these girls understandings of freedom and choice cannot be
disentangled from gender politics, and the influence of global circumstances
on these politics. More than this, for these girls, one way in which to gain such
freedom from the conventions of a decidedly male-dominated culture is to get a
good job and earn lots of money is so that [they] do not have to rely on men and
can [therefore] be independent [women] (Rekha Interview, March 2012).
Obviously, this position adds nuance to McRobbies argument, as she insists that
neoliberal imperatives, such as competitive female individualisation, which
assumes gender equality, necessarily result in a disavowal of gender politics.

Globalisation, Societies and Education


In the conclusion of her book, McRobbie states:

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we might say that it is perhaps possible to imagine a new feminist politics from
within the dictates and the requirements of this new global economy where
young women are being strongly urged and mobilized as educational
migrants These processes produce a new gender map and emergent geopolitics of work, labour and of life itself. (169170)

Here McRobbie is clearly aware of the need to consider an emerging global

context for a new feminist politics, however, maintaining that this new
feminist breed of transnational young woman simply moves backwards and
forwards, to and fro from [a] point of departure to that of arrival is to
assume that their mobility is teleological and that it has a distinct origin and an
endpoint. In order to counter McRobbies assumptions, and drawing on Roy
and Ong rather than adhering to a gender map, perhaps it is possible to
suggest that there is no particular territory to speak of, divided according to
periphery (the third world) and centre (London). This is not to suggest that
place does not matter, rather it means adopting a deparochialised perspective
and understanding constructions of femininity and the role of feminism within
such constructions as simultaneous spatialising practices, in the dual sense of
the gathering and dispersing of circulating ideas, forms and techniques, that
are constitutive of emerging global spaces (2011, 10). We are, as the data
discussed here attests, witnessing the materialisation of flexibile constructions
of femininity and flexible feminism, but the precise effects of this form of
transnationality are in an always to be determined emergent global form.
Johannah Fahey is Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at
Monash University. Her research interests focus on education and global
studies, and are informed by her expertise in cultural studies. Her most recent
jointly edited book is Globalising the Research Imagination, published by
Routledge in 2009. She is currently working on a jointly edited book called In
the Realm of the Senses: the Sensory Dynamics of Privilege.
This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [DP1093778].

1. The schools and students names have been anonymised throughout.
2. When using the concept of elite, following Dalaz I use it (fully cognizant of the
advantages and disadvantages) as a convenient way to designate categories
standing at the apex of societies (2009, 2).
3. This refers to a period in the history of the British Labour Party from the mid1990s to the early 2000s, led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

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J. Fahey

4. Arguably, McRobbies discussion can be viewed as updating Walkerdine, Lucey,

and Melody (2001) discussions about the production of young girls as neoliberal
5. Whereby I identify the concept of class with the relationship between people and
economically relevant assets or resources (Wright 2008, 26).
6. The data manager at Highbury Hall provided this information, it is important to
note that some of these students may be British and living abroad.
7. Ripon College also offers a Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE)
curriculum tailored for the All India Senior School Certificate Examination
(AISSCE) and a curriculum for the Cambridge International Examination (CIE),
which caters to students seeking an internationally recognised qualification.
8. The fees for students boarding at Highbury Hall in 20122013 are 39,228/year
(AUD $59,680). These do not include the costs for extracurricula activities, school
excursions, etc.
9. There is, of course, a nexus between social mobility and spatial mobility that is
not the focus of the argument here.
10. I acknowledge that the increasingly mobile global girl to which McRobbie refers
might be classified by Ong as a flexible citizen; however, my focus here is on
the transnational mobility of elite global girls.

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