Inspirational women

Inspirational Women: At Home and In The Academy

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.

WoNJAR Introducing

WoNJAR Introducing: Helen Lee

Hello! I’m Helen, the third co-founder of WoNJAR. Due to my relatively quiet presence on Twitter compared to Joanna and Bex, it is high time I say a little something about myself, and how I reached this point, hoping for an academic career in religious studies.

As a child, I attended church on a weekly basis from the age of four, and it became a huge part of my life. I loved absolutely everything to do with church, except from the lack of a Sunday lie in! Fast-forwarding a few years, I was a very religious teenager. I had been confirmed as a full member of the Church of England, was a ‘worship prefect’ at my Church of England school, and at some points had seriously considered ordination as a career path. I had done really well in GCSE Religious Education (thanks to my teacher), and had been heavily encouraged to do ‘religious studies’ at A Level (whatever that was). I thought that this ‘religious studies’ would be some kind of extension of my GCSE course, and that the Philosophy of Religion component would both deepen my faith, and help me as a church youth group leader. It didn’t do that. It made me an atheist.

So, what did teenage atheist do? Teenage atheist carried on going to church for a while anyway, wondering how people continued to believe, and how this belief could translate into evangelical activity. Every Sunday lunch time consisted of me ranting to my poor mum about church and the (to my teenage mind) increasingly tenuous arguments from that morning’s sermon. I found this ‘insider-but-really-outsider’ state of being incredibly confusing, but I was still hooked. It seemed I loved learning about religion and religious communities, even as a non-believer. I used this as my rationale for applying to do Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, did my A Levels, and got in.

My undergraduate studies at Leeds were a departure from what had gone before. Out went Philosophy of Religion, and in came the elementary study of various religious traditions, religious environmentalisms, and religious feminisms. In my first year I did fieldwork at a Quaker meeting house in Leeds, and loved it. I remember thinking quite naively, “I’d love to do this as a job”. My personal tutor and dissertation supervisor Dr Rachel Muers, was always excited about and supportive of my research ideas, and was extremely helpful during my planning and writing my dissertation (on Quaker ecospirituality and environmentalism). I did an ERASMUS exchange year at Charles University in Prague, and learned a lot there. I wholeheartedly loved my degree, and wished it could go on forever.

Throughout, though, I remained decidedly not confident, and not proud of many, if any, of my academic achievements. I graduated with a 2:1 and was so disappointed, I saw no point in attending my graduation ceremony. I spent a couple of months post-graduation on unemployment benefits, and eventually found a call centre job with the Government sorting out benefit overpayments. During this time I tried to convince myself I was not good enough for an academic career (both academically and inherently as a person), and tried to squeeze myself into looking for a career in finance or accounting, because I thought at least I would earn a load of money. For some perspective on how twisted this was, I failed my GCSE Maths first time around. However, I missed Leeds and academic life terribly. The things I missed most were my lecturers and the libraries- I missed having academic discussions. It took a lot of courage, but I emailed my former supervisor Rachel for some help. I then applied for the MA course in Theology and Religious Studies and was accepted, with a fees scholarship to boot. I was amazed, both at my luck, and how much I felt ‘wanted’ by my department.

Therefore, that sense of ‘imposter syndrome’ is something I can relate to very well. I am now halfway through my MA as a part time student, and my research interests centre on Islamophobia in the UK, and how this has tied into politics. Recently, I’ve written about the Conservative-majority Coalition of 2010-2015, and looked at the discourse of both David Cameron and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, and their avoidance of the term ‘Islamophobia’ through this time. I’m really interested in Islamophobia because, like most of my generation, I grew up surrounded by media and culture hostile to Muslims and their place in British society. Through my postgraduate studies, I have learned that racist ideas are both rendered invisible by their normativity, and that people therefore try to avoid discussions on racism, and how Islamophobia fits into that discussion. However, I’m a firm believer that what is avoided, and what is not said, should be looked at in great detail, and I especially enjoy grappling with issues that people would rather not look at!

I’ll end, for now, by saying how excited I am to be a part of WoNJAR. My main hope for WoNJAR is that we can help to eradicate the phenomenon of low confidence in female academics, especially those from families like mine, with no prior academic background. I’m really looking forward to working with more people, and watching our network grow.