Not such a man’s world
Victoria Bullimore talks to three inspiring women based in the south of the county who are undaunted by centuries of gender stereotyping.
THE REV CAROLYN KENNEDY, RECTOR AT UFFINGTON
When Carolyn Kennedy got her religious calling she was twenty years old and couldn’t see any possible way into the priesthood. Back then, in the early 1980s, women priests just didn’t exist. Having persevered ever since on a vocational path strewn with gender prejudice that she takes pragmatically in her stride, it must have been a huge disappointment for Carolyn and many others when the vote for women bishops was narrowly lost last November.
“I know there will be women bishops one day, it will happen,” she said with quiet and dignified assurance, “I’m just not quite sure how we’ll get there.”
I asked her if she’s ever experienced sexism on a personal level and she was cautious in her response.
“I can’t say I’ve never had any at all. I’ve known over the years people changing parish because they don’t want a woman priest, or asking for a man to take a special service, like a wedding, but I’ve never experienced any nastiness, although I know some women priests who have.”
Carolyn has now been a priest for nineteen years and her dedication is evident. She talks with great enthusiasm and affection for all the people and places under her pastoral care, which include seven village churches as part of the Uffington Group. She wasn’t always so confident though. She remembers her first official service on the day she was ordained as deacon in the summer of 1991.
“The vicar introduced me to the congregation as ‘the first woman on the staff of this church’s 600 year history’.”
I asked if she was proud of this.
“No,” she said, “I was terrified!”
She has since been the first woman in all of the subsequent jobs she’s taken, but is pleased to have witnessed much change over the years, with more and more women priests being ordained every year.
The increasing number of women in the clergy does have one small drawback though.
“You can see the difference when you’re at any event attended by a lot of clergy,” she explained, “because these days there’s always a queue for the ladies’ loos!”
EMMA HANSON, AVIONICS ENGINEER AND RUGBY COACH
With her love of maths and physics, and a determined mother who frequently told her ‘There’s nothing you can’t do’, Emma Hanson’s choice of career might not be surprising. Yet when she joined the RAF to train as an avionics engineer in 1984, she was one of only six women among about 1,000 men on the course.
“If you’re in the minority you can either make yourself stand out or you can try to blend in,” she told me, “we blended in. We just got on with it. I see myself primarily as a technician who happens to be female, not the other way around.”
Emma is now based at RAF Waddington working on flight systems, radios and aircraft radar.
“It’s a challenge,” she said. “Every day is different. It’s a unique profession. I’ve been very lucky and have been able to work on many different aircraft.”
As if this wasn’t challenging enough, Emma also pursued an interest in rugby alongside her career, by training as a rugby coach while stationed in Laarbruch in 1996. She is now part of a team of five coaches for the Stamford Rugby Club U16s, a team of lads she’s nurtured since they were eight years old, and she’s the only female coach at the club. I’m imagining cold, muddy pitches and piles of testosterone-filled, steaming bodies clamouring with frozen fingers for an oddly shaped ball. So why on earth does a nice lady like Emma want to be a part of it all?
“I love encouraging people to challenge themselves,” she said. This applies to herself too. Although she’s always been a rugby fan, Emma decided on a coaching training course after going to watch matches with her husband. Not happy just to be a wife tagging along, Emma is the sort of woman who wants to get stuck in and be as good as any man. I ask her if she came across any sexism at the club.
“There were a few raised eyebrows when I first arrived,” she said, “but my time in the RAF working alongside the men hardened me to any negative comments I may have heard in the beginning.”
Emma started at the club by coaching the youngest team in more of a nurturing role, so she proved herself by working with them as they grew up, and, she says, “the club have been really supportive ever since, which does make a difference, and may also encourage more women to have a go.”
So what’s holding them back? Is it harder for women than for men?
“Since touch rugby was introduced more girls are playing now, and that will bring more women coaches into the sport. If any woman knows the laws and has the right training there’s no reason why she can’t coach rugby. The only physical challenges are the conditions which you sometimes have to endure, the cold and the rain, for instance. The phrase I’m most commonly heard to say on the pitch is ‘Man up, princess!’”
I think I’ll keep my inner princess quiet and let the formidable Emma get on with what she does best. I asked her why she loves it so much, still not convinced.
“It’s a way of life,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
MO HEATON, LORRY DRIVER
A local farmer (who shall remain nameless!) stood watching Mo Heaton taking HGV driving lessons back in 1979 when lorries were without power steering and needed the legs of a footballer to keep the clutch in. ‘I don’t know why she’s bothering,’ he grunted, ‘who’s going to give her a job?’ Thirty years later and Mo has never been out of work.
It all started with driving tractors on her father’s farm near Melton Mowbray. Then, after a few years working for Boots and driving a taxi, Mo became the first milk woman to do the morning rounds for the Leicestershire Co-op, moving her way up to supervisor, again the first woman to hold that position. So from the outset of her career Mo has been used to driving her feminine way through a man’s world, literally. She now works for David Harrison Haulage of Stamford, driving a forty-four-tonne Volvo articulated lorry and can hold her own with any man out on the road. I ask her how the other drivers behave towards her.
“Some of them do try and intimidate me,” she said. “Part of my job used to be to roll back the heavy tarpaulin sheets off the lorry before unloading and then put them back on afterwards, which could be a struggle, especially if it was windy, and sometimes the men would just stand and watch without helping.”
I feel indignant on her behalf, but Mo just smiles. “It didn’t put me off,” she said, “it only made me more determined.”
I asked if all the drivers are like that.
“No, most of them are pretty good. On one occasion five or six guys came over and did it all for me. You tend to find the older ones, and those from the continent who aren’t used to women drivers, are the most unhelpful.”
I asked Mo if things are improving for women lorry drivers.
“Well the lorries are much easier to drive now,” she explained. “There are more women drivers but it can still be physically hard work.”
She takes me for a little drive in the massive red thing outside and I’m horrified at the thought of trying to negotiate this through traffic, but Mo looks for all the world as if she could be driving a Mini.
“Aren’t you ever scared?” I asked. She looks at me as if she has no idea what I’m talking about. “I mean, it’s so big, think of the damage it could do.”
“It’s all the other people out there I have to watch out for,” said Mo.