As I’m typing this, I am anxious to do justice to the women who have helped me so much, often without knowing it. I’m not writing this as some kind of ‘shout out’ to the women in my life (though these have their place). Rather, this is an account of how two women have helped make me a better person, encouraged self-acceptance, and made my life a better thing, both for myself, and for others. To avoid causing embarrassment, I have avoided naming one of these.
One who I cannot anonymise, however, is my own mum.
As I have got older, I have seen more and more clearly what kind of human being my mother is. From an early age I regarded her as a firebrand, a dragon, a juggernaut crashing into the domineering figures of her life, and my own. My mum left school without qualifications because her father refused to pay or offer any support. She grew up in a very dysfunctional family. Today, she has a first-class degree in Social History, decades of experience working for a city council (where she helped people in one of the poorest parts of the UK), and has finally been able to ‘wind down’ a little. When my dad was denied disability benefits, she went to tribunal and independently represented my dad, without any formal education in law. She won, and was told by the judge that she was one of the best representatives they had ever seen. This is a woman who was effectively forced to leave school, brought up two children working full time (with my dad), and who has dealt with different health problems throughout.
She was the one who told me to fight back when I was being pushed around at primary school. A boy pushed me in a queue. I pushed him back. The entire queue behind him tumbled in startled confusion. I was quickly sent to the head teacher. I remember it now, seeing that man making a judgement of me. He didn’t like my attitude. He lamented I was such a ‘pleasant girl’ before, what had happened? He didn’t like this ‘new attitude’, he said. He asked me why I had done it. I said my mum had told me to hit back, which he didn’t believe. A phone call to my mum proved him wrong (she remembers this with glee).
In teaching me to stand up for myself (regardless of who the other person is), my mum gave me one of the most important lessons of my life: often, people do not notice a woman, or girl, unless she ‘acts out’, or ‘steps out of line’. Unwittingly, I had brought both turns of phrase into living action, including knocking the line down. I learned then, and have learned since, that people enjoy having a quiet, pleasant woman around (including some other women, actually). They like having a passive audience to accept their ideas, and sometimes their dominance. They don’t like it, by which I mean ‘her’, when she refuses to acquiece. I am grateful to my mum for introducing me to this reality supportively, and for encouraging my indignation and rage, helping me to channel these usefully.
Of course, me and my mum have had our fair share of shouting matches, impulsively unkind moments regretted, and all the other awkward moments of the typical mother-daughter relationship (if there is such a thing). However, she has done me far more good than harm. Sometimes, when I have to stand up for myself in different situations, I have heard my own mum’s voice coming through me. It’s a cliché, but it’s true, and I trust I will always hear it there
Now I’m going to tell you a little bit about one woman academic in particular, who has shaped how I see academia in theology and religious studies. More widely than that, she has inspired me to help other women and girls as much as I can, and always to try my best to help them find new opportunities. Again, I am not going to name her, but my close friends, and probably other Leeds alumni, may be able to identify her by the nature of her actions alone.
In autumn 2012, I began to suffer with depression in a new way. My studies suffered, and I had to go to the doctors and student counselling centre regularly, to manage my symptoms and feelings. The afore-mentioned academic was the first person at the University I told about my problems, and her response was incredible. She helped me get in touch with different people around the University who could help me with different issues, and herself was so sympathetic and encouraging. I can’t remember much from that time at all (for me, depressive episodes seem to be thieves of my memory), but what I can remember is that academic helping me remember how to study again, how to spark my enthusiasm again, and in a way, how to fight to think positively. She also helped me as my dissertation supervisor in final year, being firm enough to motivate me, without applying excessive pressure. She was also one of the first people beside my mum and friends, who I spoke to about suspecting having ADHD. I am still very grateful for her understanding, because it took over two years to be diagnosed with ADHD after that point, and her understanding was one of the things that kept me fighting for clinical assessment, after being dismissed by various other people.
There’s another thing that she has done, throughout the time I’ve known her. She has always, without fail, been excited about my research ideas, little pipe dreams, and various crumbs of interest that I’ve rambled to her about. I couldn’t fail to notice her enthusiasm throughout her time as my dissertation supervisor. To me, it’s perfectly obvious that it’s not down to my abilities or ideas being particularly original, but because she cares about people learning, and always wants to help people enjoy their studies. A month or so after submitting my dissertation, I was reading the first chapter of her latest book, and suddenly I saw my name in the book. I looked again, and found she had included a small footnote about our discussions regarding my dissertation. It made my day, and is still one of my best memories of University so far.
I could have written about so many women in my life here. If I had written about more than two, however, this piece could have gone on for a very long time indeed. I never fail to be touched by their support in my life, and patient faith in my abilities and ideas. They help me lift myself up from the floor again and again. They help me help others. I hope that I can do this much for the other women and girls in my life.