I saw this earlier today at Feministing, and I had mixed feelings about it at first. Participants in the Miss Hartford High pageant were being taught etiquette — including six proper seating positions and how to be quiet and wear makeup and act properly at a tea service — on the theory that learning manners and etiquette was something that would help the contestants when they enter the business world. And that, for some reason unknown to me, the business world is apparently having tea a lot these days.
Jessica was fine with the etiquette, but thought the lessons went too far into enforcing proper gender roles:
“Elegant” sitting positions, not talking, wearing makeup: clearly the recipe for a lucrative career.
I wasn’t willing to get too down on the program, given that these girls already have so many strikes against them in terms of how they’re perceived by people who can give them entree into the business world — most of Hartford High’s students are poor and black or Hispanic, and will undoubtedly be trying to get jobs in insurance companies run by white people from the suburbs. What harm, I figured, could come from giving them the tools to increase the chance to be taken seriously as a job candidate? After all, I knew from observing my best friend from law school interact with potential employers at the dog and pony shows recruiting programs put on that white people will regard even a very well-educated, “articulate” black woman with impeccable manners and perfect grammar and crisp enunciation as just one “aks” away from the ghetto. If she experienced slight stiffening and frozen smiles and evident watchfulness, how would a poor kid from the North End fare? Is it worth focusing on the gender stereotyping when it might help her get a job?
But then I looked a little more closely at the article, which I hadn’t had time to read earlier. And the first thing I noticed* was that my assumption that this whole pageant was a school-related thing wasn’t quite right:
The pageant isn’t until the spring, but throughout the school year the 11 contestants are learning the behavior and etiquette that transforms a girl into a young lady. Mastering the poise to carry themselves at a tea party, such as the one Sunday, is a primary goal of the program run by Catholic Charities with a 21st Century state grant.
Um, exactly why is Catholic Charities in the business of running high-school beauty pageants?
And why are they getting government funding for it?
While looking for information on the 21st Century grants, I came across this and this, which described the grant program:
The 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program is a nationwide program of the U.S. Department of Education to provide learning and recreational opportunities for children and adults during non-school hours in a safe and drug-free environment.
If teaching kids etiquette is a worthy goal — and it is — then why is it tied into a) a Catholic Charities grant and b) a beauty pageant? Because it’s nice that there are a select group of young women learning to take small bites and use the right fork at a business lunch, but you’d think it would be a skill many of the students might want some instruction in, given the reaction of local business leaders to Hartford High students:
Three years ago this month, I. Michael Borrero, a former school board chairman, gathered Hartford business leaders for a lunch and asked them what they thought the school system should teach students to help them succeed in the business world.
Teach them etiquette, the business leaders said.
Throughout most of the lunch, employers talked about the woeful table manners, style of dress, speech, attendance, punctuality and overall behavior of many Hartford teenagers that made it hard for them to succeed in internships or entry-level jobs. The business leaders said they wanted employees who know how to work as part of a team and can fit in with the dominant business culture.
Leaving aside the question of just how many actual Hartford teenagers these business leaders know well enough to know that they’re not punctual and don’t work as part of a team, this little snippet illustrates what these kids are up against before they even get in the door. If this religious group is going to be getting government grant money to teach kids etiquette, they should make the program available to anyone who’s interested.
* Actually, my first thought was, “Ohmigod! Rachel! She’s still at the Courant!” I worked with her on another newspaper a hundred years ago.