A girl and boy going to a highschool formal

School Formals and How They’ve Changed

Too many years ago to remember, I made my debut on a stage in an old showgrounds hall in Dalby.

It was a big deal. For weeks, I had fittings for an outfit now I’d rather forget.

For months, I considered what boy I could ask; this person would serve as my “coming out to society” partner, as my parents explained.

How – or where – do you find one of them? Well, to be honest, I asked the boy who made my heart go ‘thump’.

It didn’t take him long to consider my request. His turndown was hasty and firm. Later I found out it wasn’t really about me, or the fact that he didn’t know what a debut was; it was that he was keen to go with my sassy and attractive girlfriend.

So I asked a friend, Tim, who Facebook shows three decades later is just as lovely and down-to-earth as he was back then.

But what I never considered, in the 1980s, was that my four brothers never did this, and that it wasn’t a “coming out’’ for Tim. In fact, I was so grateful that he would attend the compulsory dance lessons and practices to ensure I “came out” correctly!

My teenage daughters are aghast at that story, as they should be; and I wonder now why I didn’t take issue with it at 17.

But perspective can be a solid teacher, and they need to understand the succession of recent decisions that have helped ensure they’re on the same stage as their brothers.

The moves by many schools to do away with skirts, or to offer pants as an alternative in girls’ uniforms, is a step in that direction.

So too is the fact that, whether or not you believe “Godself” is better than “himself” – we are now considering non-gender-specific language, in Catholic teachings.

And news that girls are no longer required to present their partners to the principal in some old fashioned tradition at another school is also a step in the right direction.

But these moves are not just about equality. The adoption of gender-neutral uniforms is sensible and long overdue. Doing cartwheels in skirts can bring unintended consequences.

Using gender-neutral language in prayers is common sense – and the deafening silence of the Catholic Church in this public debate shows both the power of girls’ schools now, and perhaps even an acknowledgement by the Church that it needs to change, modernise and dare I say it, feminise.

There’s a lesson in here for boys’ schools, and their leaders, too. They need to change, along with the changes to girls’ schools.

Let’s hope the next move is that the wealthy bequests to boys’ schools are soon shared with their sisters’ schools.

Yesterday, a big group of Gold Coast public school principals got together to discuss our teen girls, and how they can better help them grow into the strong, wise and warm women we all want.

One male educator raised his hand and asked this: we are seeing strides forward with girls, and equality, but when will we see that spill into boardrooms and public office?

Not soon enough.

I didn’t stop to think about what making my debut in the 1980s even meant. My daughters and their friends are much wiser.

But we need to urge them too, to stop and consider who is standing with them, and behind them, and in front of them, as they forge new frontiers and take on their rightful place.

Their mothers are there, nearly always. And their schools are now playing a more powerful role in the equality debate than ever before.

But they need to know that so many of their fathers, too often dismissed as “pale, stale and male”, are urging change too. They’re just not seeking a stage to do it.

Photograph of Madonna King

Madonna King is a leading journalist and commentator. An award-winning presenter of 612 ABC Brisbane, she has authored 12 books and now works across radio, television and online.

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