30s: ‘the practice of putting on the war paint outlasts the battle’

30s: ‘the practice of putting on the war paint outlasts the battle’


What kind of career’s advice did you get as a young woman?

Very little; we did that multiple-choice test at school that lots of people did that matches you up with a career – I got actuary (I didn’t know what one was at the time) or journalist; I think I’d have been singularly dreadful at both.

What did you want to be when you left education?

A flippant answer would be that, as a university lecturer, I haven’t left… Less flippantly, I had no idea, really; I flirted, like many literature student, with the idea of publishing, but never really seriously. I did have a period in my early teens where I very much wanted to be an oceanographer (but was only due to do ‘double award’ GCSE science), and then another later in my teens where I was very keen on being an RAF navigator (but was already wearing glasses and would have failed the fitness test).

Did your mother work?

Awkwardly phrased question! She didn’t go out to work, i.e. have a salaried job, after I was born.

Love & Relationships:

Do you think getting married is important?

If you’re in a long-term relationship, yes – I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to marry, if you’re totally committed to it, but I’m aware of the ‘I’ element there: I know a lot of people think differently.

What did you dream your future partner would be like when you were a little girl?

Didn’t have any such dreams, really, and wasn’t ever interested in the whole ‘envisaging my wedding dress’ sort of thing. Didn’t actually envisage a partner – not out of a conscious decision of ‘I don’t want one’; more that I didn’t consider it as important. I did envisage myself and a cat in a cottage, though.

Is your relationship with your partner the same as your parents’ relationship?

Yes, very: i.e. totally functional, all about companionship and honesty with lots of laughs and a lot left unsaid (i.e. mutual support intuitively provided without making a song and dance about it).


How like your mother are you?

Extremely, in nearly all respects. We sound the same on the phone, even to my father (superficial similarity, but indicative).

What are your hopes for any daughters or young women you know?

I have a soon-to-be stepdaughter and teach in a university. I want them to be feminists. I hope they’ll be courageous and fearless, never ‘settle’ or undersell themselves, but, at the same time, not be selfish; I feel there’s a current amongst feminism in young women that has adopted almost-aggressive self-assertiveness and loudness as necessary behaviour ‘to be a proper feminist’, and I don’t think that’s the case – it seems simply to invert a sense of entitlement (and to claim it, rather than dismantle it) and to be contrary to aims of community and fellowship. Women should always look out for and help other women.

Do you bring your son up the same way as your daughter? Do you think boys and girls should be brought up differently?

I have a soon-to-be stepson, but wasn’t involved in bringing him up (I met the children when they were 13 and 15). Whilst I’d certainly embrace a constructivist rather than an essentialist approach to gender, I think that there are still different tendencies that one needs, generally speaking, to watch out for in boys from girls, and so there is some appropriate difference of response/treatment required, e.g. how teenage hormones manifest themselves in behavior. But I certainly think equality of opportunity should be offered to both, e.g. for extracurricular interests.

If you don’t have children, what have you been able to do that having children would have prevented you doing? What has your focus been?

I know some parents who would dispute the phrasing of this question (i.e. who would deny that having children prevented them from doing exactly what they would have done otherwise)! I’ve given more of myself to my work, and since my work involves young people –  teaching them, and also recruiting them (i.e. doing lots of schools liaison work involving evening travel) – I don’t feel like I’ve been distanced from children (I’m also a school governor). I feel very strongly that my vocation in life is to teach, and so that’s what I’ve invested my energies in.

Expectations and Dreams:

Who are your heroines and why?

Crumbs. I’m not sure I have any, exactly. I have women I admire and, implicitly or otherwise, on whom I’ve modelled myself – my former DPhil supervisor (excellent model of pedagogy), my mother (excellent model of ‘just getting on with it’), a former schoolteacher (fierce and ruthless, but underpinned with kindness – really wanted to push us all to give of our best). I think I now find my ‘heroines’ amongst my students – many of them are inspirational.

What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

Tell my ex-husband we should get divorced, which triggered tremendous upheaval of all kinds in two families’ lives, but resulted in both of us becoming better, happier versions of ourselves. The courage required to get out of a bad relationship (which really means the courage to face all the consequences of doing so and the aftermath, and to face the judgmental looks of those who say ‘surely it’s not that bad’ with no idea of what they’re talking about) should never be underestimated.

What drives you?

The desire to give – more specifically, in my case, the desire to teach. The fulfilment of a vocation. The sense of doing good, making a difference, helping people. All of that. And then intellectual stimulation – I like my brain to hurt.

What are your values?

Generosity, selflessness, faith, the virtue of hard work.


How old are you?


What has been your favourite age to be and why?

Crumbs; probably the age I am now – I’m certainly the happiest and most ‘sorted out’ version of me that I’ve ever been. I don’t have nostalgia in looking back – I don’t have repulsion either: that was  then, this is now.

Do you think it’s better to be young now than when you were young? (Or better now than when your parents were young?)

A big ‘it depends’. For young people now, there is so much more freedom of identity (e.g. regarding sexuality) and variety of opportunity. However, there is also so much more pressure (massive increase in issues of low self-esteem, etc.) and the whole ‘screen generation’ thing is terrifying; of course, given my age, I find it alienating and worrying (kids who can’t sustain eye contact anymore because they’re not used to it; kids not getting outside and appreciating the world and people as they are rather than via the mediation of some kind of Instagram filter, etc.), whereas they don’t. I had, with the exception of certain teenage years, a very happy childhood, so I’m predisposed to seeing the 1980s as a good time to be young. I’m wary of misplaced nostalgia (see above), but I do think that the relative absence of gadgets and the like made for a much richer sense of personal relationships – I was lucky and have a very functional family, so we wanted to talk with each other.


What are the pros and cons of being a woman?

Con: always having to think more than men (e.g. about personal security, forward planning to manage period/contraception, etc.) and work harder to achieve the same recognition; having to be a feminist (would be nice if we could just ‘be, full stop’); the whole ‘being a woman’ issue, i.e. assumptions that precede your doing or saying anything – you’re already configured as a woman and as speaking from ‘that place’— and the nature of some of those assumptions/expectations (e.g. treated like a less rational participant in discussion where you’re the one woman amongst men; cf. mansplaining). I went to an all girls’ school and was an only child – these are environments that made me less rather than more conscious of my gender, i.e. no assumptions were made or imposed about what we could do or what was appropriate, or what we couldn’t do; it was a given that we understood it was all there in life for the taking if we were qualified and prepared enough (in ways that didn’t – at least not directly – relate to gender identity).

Pro: always having to think more than men and work harder to achieve the same recognition (I’m not being ironic or cynical in saying this –  I genuinely think that it’s a state of affairs that women can use to their advantage, and which results in them being smarter, sharper, and better at planning); high pain threshold. There are lots of good things about being who I am; I’m just not sure which of them I’d be willing to see as stemming from my gender.

What have been the biggest challenges in your life?

Overcoming mental illness in late teens/early twenties; living up to my own exacting demands of myself (i.e. learning that this is unreasonable and that self-care is vital); getting out of bad relationships (esp. first marriage).

Self-image – Body or Looks:

Why do you dress the way that you do?

I know what colours and styles suit my shape/look/hair colour, and so have followed those (e.g. plain colours ‘in’, patterns ‘out’); everyday clothes need to be practical for cycling to/from work; I think I’ve always been influenced in how I think about work clothes by having had a uniform at school – it instilled in me the idea that you dress to perform a particular identity, and I still do so, i.e. I have a clear sense of what items in my wardrobe are for work, and what for personal wear (the latter aren’t always less formal than the former), and I ‘dress up’ when I feel I need to (e.g. a tough week ahead? On with the power boots…).

What would be your musical soundtrack?

I have one constantly – my brain is a mental jukebox and is always playing a tune suggested by what’s going on around me (i.e. the lyrics are the trigger – so, to offer a very simply example, if it’s the start of the last week of term, I’ll find something like ‘The Final Countdown’ is on). The variety is remarkable. There’s no one piece that would represent everything, so it would have to be a mash-up. If we’re talking about this week, the top three items would be Val Doonican, ‘Walk Tall’; Laura Mvula, ‘She’; Nat King Cole, ‘Smile’. The latter has been with me for 20 years, the former for a decade, and the middle one is obviously a more recent addition to the playlist: they’re all in my head frequently.

Do you have a life’s motto?

Not one consistent one, no. There are a few that I’ve adopted and run over in my head from time to time, e.g. ‘push out into the deep’, ‘courage and faith’ (I should probably state that I’m a Catholic, and so have a very active prayer life), and the quote from Thomas Moore: ‘But Joy loved better to gaze on the sun, / As long as its  light was glowing, / Than to watch with old care how the shadow stole on / And how fast the light was going’; oh, and the brilliant line from Angela Carter’s Wise Children: ‘the practice of putting on the war paint outlasts the battle’ (said about putting on make-up when old, but applicable to many contexts).