Today is International Women’s Day and I have been thinking about women that have inspired me or women that I have respected.
There are many women of course. You can’t be involved in politics in Scotland just now without being aware of a number of politically savvy, impressive women. From Nicola Sturgeon as she stands up to the world as First Minister, to women in my own local networks that amaze me with their knowledge, with the way that they overcome their own fears and self doubt to speak up about the issues that they are passionate about. Working with Carers too, has brought me into contact with some amazing women, women who have to fight for everything they get for the people they love most in the world, often to their own breaking point. And that’s before I even touch upon my amazing mother and those women close to me.
And yet just now, there is only one woman on my mind and the reason she is on my mind is that I recently found out that she had passed away. She was my friend. I say that even though I hadn’t spoken to her for several years. She was always my friend and she will forever be my friend and would have continued to be so even had it been another ten years before I spoke to her again.
She came to my acquaintance with the least positive recommendation of anyone I ever met. I was being transferred from my job in a Jobcentre to an old style Unemployment Benefit Office in around 1993. Moving to manage a benefit section and with no experience of Benefit Processing, eyebrows were raised at my posting. “Who is your deputy?” was the first question anyone asked and when I answered, the response was “Oh My God” or that sucked in sound that mechanics make when there is something wrong with your car. Fierce, uncompromising and a reputation for not suffering even the slightest of fools gladly, or in fact in any way at all – gladly or otherwise. She commanded respect for her knowledge of “widows running start”, “married woman’s reduced rate” and other jargon filled examples of advanced benefit processing. She was, I was told, a benefit expert, a harsh taskmaster and a critical, unforgiving supervisor and deputy and I should really watch my back.
Was I quaking in my shoes? Bloody right I was. I couldn’t “comp” a claim, I didn’t understand RITYs or the finer points of disallowances and tax and I wasn’t even sure that I even wanted the bloody job.
And yet in her I found a kindred spirit. Despite her brusque manner – she didn’t just call a spade a spade – she called a spade a fucking shovel – she had the kindest heart and she was a fabulous teacher. At our first meeting we eyed each other with caution, but we shared a sense of humour and under her watchful eye and by taking her advice on what I needed to know and how to learn it, I became an expert myself – knowledge which has helped me to understand the finer points of welfare reform and challenge many of the assertions that have been trotted out over the last few years. With my support she became better at managing people and getting the best out of them. She raged about “having to pussy foot around people’s finer fucking feelings” on many occasions but she learned to change the behaviour of people on our team through coaching and feedback and she grew and flourished. We complimented each other, worked well together. She had a fabulous sense of humour and when people would snidely question just exactly “who” was managing our section cos SHE seemed to have a lot to say – she bought me a mug which said “No – I’M the boss”. This made us laugh at their lack of understanding of the way in which we worked so well together. I did a better job because of her and she did a better job because of me.
But jobs are one thing and of course don’t really last for ever. Mostly in my life, I move on and wave goodbye – often with a tear or two – but without any long lasting relationships continuing from my work. She was different.
At the point I met her she had just recently terminated a much wanted pregnancy after her amnio had given a diagnosis of Downs Syndrome. This was a difficult decision for her as it would be for anyone, and she struggled with her grief over the decision. How much harder it hurt then, when a few years later she received a letter telling her that she may have contracted Hepatitis C from an infected blood transfusion during the procedure. This did in fact turn out to be the case, and a new struggle started for her.
Life became a series of obstacles to overcome, the hepatitis C, the medication and its side effects, the effect on her own mental health and the stresses and strains of family life. I had moved to live in Scotland and long distant conversations became the norm. As my own life fell apart she was a source of support for me too. Living 500 miles away my marriage ended and despite her own challenges, she always found time to be on the end of the phone. Years later I thanked her for that and she laughed and said “Just repaying the favour chuck” reminding me of the time she phoned me late late late, in a terrible state, standing by the side of a reservoir, unclear about what to do next and I talked her through her feelings to the point she was able to go home. We later laughed about the reaction of her Lancashire based Doctor when, after promising I would phone her GP for her as she didn’t feel able, he returned my phone call and found it answered by “Wick Jobcentre”. “Where???” He asked bewildered, but he took my concerns seriously and further investigation showed she had a terrible reaction to her medication causing a serious depression.
She helped me practically too. With an ex husband who thought that maintenance was something optional that I had a bloody cheek to ask him for, I frequently struggled my way from one end of my family credit to the other. She bought new trainers for my growing too fast boys and she never once tutted or told me to pull myself together.
I never laughed so much as I laughed with her. I never cried so much as I cried with her. It would be a long time before I found a friend that I would love like I loved her and yet, time and tide wait for no man and, although she tripped the 400 odd miles to come see us in Inverness and stayed with us for a few days with her lovely daughter and grand-daughter, our contact grew less and the times between our phone calls lengthened and it became several years since I last spoke to her.
My friend inspired me with her resilience, she inspired me with her relentless sense of humour, she inspired me with her love for her family and the ferocious way that she defended them. She inspired me with the way she spoke her mind, the way she fought to be treated with interferon and then, when it kicked off a terrible depression, the way she fought that to get some control back into her life. She inspired me with her determination to overcome the things that life threw at her, she inspired me by the way she faced this bloody disease she had been saddled with, and the stigma that came with having a disease that was associated with drug addicts and promiscuity. She faced it full on, stuck two fingers up at it and got on with it to the absolute best of her ability.
She was a force to be reckoned with – someone I would affectionately describe as a “bugger” and even though I haven’t spoken to her in a long time, the news of her passing fills me with a sadness that bites, a sadness that I will never hear her dulcet Lancashire tones on the end of the phone ever again, a sadness that is deeper because of our lack of contact. On her last visit, nearly nine years ago now, I introduced her to my new man, now my husband. She shook his hand and in a very posh voice said “Hello John, it’s very nice to meet you.” Then as he walked off she turned to me and in a low voice and a broad northern accent said “By ‘eck – E’s a bit of alright int e”. She made me laugh then and she still does.
Inspiring women aren’t always in the public eye, aren’t always celebrities or politicians, industry leaders, writers or artists. They are often, like my friend, inspiring by the way they deal with life and its ability to knock us off our feet again and again. I’ll miss my friend and I’ll try hard not to make the mistake of letting friendships and contact lapse with anyone else ever again – another thing she has taught me even in her absence. It is in the every day that true inspiration is often found and I am proud that she was my friend and thankful that I knew her.