Nobody asked you, sir she said

My first ever memory of a ‘feminist’ reaction was to this nursery rhyme

“WHERE are you going, my pretty maid?”
“I am going a-milking, sir,” she said.
“May I go with you, my pretty maid?”
“You ’re kindly welcome, sir,” she said.
“What is your father, my pretty maid?”         5
“My father ’s a farmer, sir,” she said.
“What is your fortune, my pretty maid?”
“My face is my fortune, sir,” she said.
“Then I won’t marry you, my pretty maid.”
“Nobody asked you, sir,” she said.

On the one hand I liked the attitude displayed in the last line, but on the other hand I reacted badly to the thought that my face was my fortune. The memory of my reaction was submerged and only revived by coming across the rhyme when I bought a book of nursery rhymes to sing and say to my own children. I remember the rhyme being sung but I don’t think it was sung to me by my parents – the cultural conditioning that wealth counts and women’s bodies are part of a socio-economic market was broader and embedded in school and media.

I had heard of bell hooks but never read her so Teaching to Transgress is a revelation to me. I couldn’t and wouldn’t claim to identify with her experience of education as a black woman: white privilege is a big difference between our experiences. When she spoke of the contrast between segregated and desegregated education, it reminded me of the re-evaluation I made of my single-sex secondary school education after starting to teach in a co-educational secondary school about ten years later. There were more safe spaces for women to learn in my schooling than I could ensure for the women I was teaching.

So going back to the rhyme, this got me wondering  what others had made of the rhyme and its messages. So I googled it.

There were quite a few painful videos of people using the rhyme for learning of the English language but also a couple of gems that I will share with you.

This article links women’s social and economic valuation to what they have done to their bodies. Laurie Essig’s  research into cosmetic surgery helped her to identify what she called “the subprime mortgage crisis of the body”.  Cosmetic surgery as a business in USA grew by 465% in the first decade of the 21st Century and 85% of its costs are financed by borrowing.  Business was not damaged by the financial downturn.  Essig found that some women were opting for cosmetic surgery in an effort to become more employable or more lovable, and financing  it by remortgaging their homes.

Another site uses an 18th century example “There is long tradition of suffusing the female countenance with the woman’s moral record”  that links forward to what bell hooks and Anita Sarkeesian have to say.

Anita Sarkeesian’s videos made for interesting if slightly chilling viewing. I played with Lego in the late 50s/ early 60s and it never occurred to me that Lego was just for boys. The difference that I noticed when my own children started playing with it was the trend towards sets that were a bit like airfoil kits with ‘instructions’.  Viewing the videos has made me think about the links with marketing – maybe product development is tending towards identifiable products that can be marketed in place of components like the original Lego bricks that had to serve as roof tiles, furniture, whatever was in the child’s imagination.  Every generation inscribes the ‘place’ of men, of women, of black and brown and white people in its cultural practices and artefacts but in an age of mass and connected media, the technology that enables Anita Sarkeesian to create and share her ideas also enables the vicious push back she experiences from those whose blindfolds are threatened.  It also enabled Lori Day to track down the girl from the 1981 ad.

Then and now


Laurie Essig, American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection, Beacon Press, Boston, 2011.