Helen Baird-Parker, ARC Equality Officer
I’m going take the opportunity to talk about three women who’ve been inspirational to me personally, Grace Darling, Jeanette Winterson and Marie-Bénédicte Dembour.
First, Grace Darling. I don’t think anyone can grow up in the North East and not have learned of the heroic and daring rescue of survivors of a shipwreck during a storm by the light house keeper and his daughter, Grace in 1838. They set out in a rowing boat during seas too heavy for the lifeboat to pluck them from the wreck. What strikes me in retrospect about this story of national heroism was not that I found it odd or exceptional that a prim and proper, crinolined Victorian lady would set out to row a boat in a terrible storm; that this was somehow odd or unusual for a woman at the time, but rather, that this didn’t occur to me at all. I just thought she was brave. It shows that by the 1980s we’d come some way in changing the expectations of girls about what they could be or what they are capable of.
Second, Jeanette Winterson. I’m a real fan girl when it comes to Ms Winterson, and I don’t think there’s anything she’s written that I haven’t loved. She’s testament to the value of a plurality of voices in our culture. When she and her soon to be friend arrived at Oxford University in 1979, their tutor told them “You are the black experiment, and you are the working-class experiment.” She had to fight to find her own voice and make it heard in English Literature where women, and especially women like her (of a “lower” socioeconomic background, gay), were told they couldn’t be great. She has certainly proven that to be wrong, and found a new way of telling stories and playing with language. I think she’s of special and seminal importance in my life as I first saw the BBC adaptation of Oranges are not the Only Fruit on TV in 1990. I had a TV in my room, and watched all sorts of things that as a younger adolescent I probably shouldn’t have been watching – but I would argue that those excellent BBC films of the 90s enriched my life and expanded my mind considerably. I loved the story of Oranges of course, but it also really made me consider my own identity, and shaped me as a woman. I started reading her seriously in my early 20s and my favourite of hers remains the Passion. “You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play. It’s the playing that’s irresistible. Dicing from one year to the next with the things you love, what you risk reveals what you value.” She’s an all-round awesome feminist icon, such a fascinating and articulate woman, and I love the way she challenges us to think and reflect.
Finally, my university human rights professor Marie-Bénédicte Dembour. She had me enthralled from the first moment I heard her tell with a shrug in her dead pan French-Belgian accent that human rights used to be considered sexy and popular but they’re not anymore. With her support and encouragement, her class was the first time I really felt that I excelled at something, and that someone felt I had potential. I think that without her, I wouldn’t be where I am now although she probably still hasn’t forgiven me for going into tax and not human rights. She taught about the international human rights framework in relation to cultural relativism, feminism, Marxism and all sorts of things I had never really engaged with rigorously before. Her academic work on anthropology and law is fascinating and she’s stretched and nurtured students across many disciplines. Her recent work on the treatment of migrants, combining sociological, historical and legal analysis will undoubtedly help shape the policy of the future. I admire her immensely.
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