Sunday, 5 January 2014

A tribute to my own Feminist Mum OBE

I'm not sure exactly what feminists of the 60s and 70s really wanted, really fought for. I wasn't there. But I think it seemed to be a lot about not being restricted in your life choices. Build a career, travel the world, have kids, forge supportive relationships and make the most of your talents. Never think that you can't do something because you are a woman.

My mum was a feminist of that generation. I didn't know her then, but I don't imagine she was a hard hitting campaigner. More a quiet revolutionary. She was the first generation of her family to go to university. Although she had never been abroad until the age of 17, by 23 she was learning Japanese and had moved on her own to the other side of the world to carry out ethnographic fieldwork. As a university lecturer, she climbed the career ladder in lecture halls, admin offices and smoky staff rooms, completing an MA and writing a popular student textbook on the side. Moving into management, she climbed still further, popular for her sympathetic leadership style, her efficiency, her commitment and her sense of humour.

In the background, she married at the age of 21 and had two daughters in her thirties. She baked birthday cakes, sewed curtains, made homemade pizzas on Friday nights and did the laundry on Saturday mornings. Working full-time, during the week she was usually home late, tired and stressed, but made up for it in the holidays as we all drove around Europe in a car laden with camping gear.

As far as I can tell, two people really helped her get to where she is today. Firstly my father. My parents were mutually supportive of each other's careers and juggled childcare and household responsibilities between them. It was usually my father who did the supermarket shopping, picked me up from school when I was ill (which was often) and ferried us to and from piano lessons. The person who I think probably helped my mother the most professionally is the previous head of the college where she worked for thirty years, a woman who had an eye for talent and helped those around her to shine. Something often talked about is feminist solidarity and I think some women who are naturally modest and self-deprecating often need someone to notice their abilities and give them the courage to grasp opportunities that come along.

There were sacrifices along the way. Like many hard-working people, my mother didn't really have time to eat properly or exercise.  She was out a lot; the financial rewards helped us afford au pairs and cleaners from time to time to cope with the chaotic house, the school drop-offs and those evenings both my parents were home too late from work to pick us up from after-school clubs. There were times when I was growing up and more recently when I wished I saw her more and that she was less busy and distracted. When she had to take 3 months off work to recuperate from an operation a few years ago, we loved having her around, well-rested, reading, knitting and cooking, even though we knew she would soon be bored stiff.

A few days ago, my mother was named in the New Year's Honours List for Services to Higher Education. She is proof that while it is impossible to achieve perfection in both career and family life, and there must be sacrifices, it is possible to do a very fine job of both. She didn't step on other people's toes or neglect her family. She was true to herself and her abilities, a great mum who was there when it mattered and managed it all with modesty and humour. In a lot of ways, she managed to live the feminist dream and "have it all". As a woman, feminist or not, she is an inspiration. What more can you ask for?

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