I started this International Women’s Day thinking about the women who have made me who I am today. Each one of them has taught me an important lesson (or several!) about the person, and woman, I want to be in this world of ours. This is my tribute to them.
Ilse Mochan (née Cruttwell)
I would imagine almost all of us would cite our mothers as the most important female influence in our lives. She is our first role model, a mirror held up to ourselves and, for the women, a look into our own future. My mother was married at 19 and a mother at 20. The rules of the Foreign Office at that time meant she had to give up her career when she married my father, though she did blaze a trail by being the first fiancée to get her travel to post paid for officially. Looking at it, you could say she “gave up” her career. But another perspective is that my parents merged their careers – I think my father would freely admit that his success in rising to Ambassador/High Commissioner came from the strength of their partnership and their complementary skillsets. Wherever we moved, she made the most of what was available to her to keep her fulfilled and active. In some places that wasn’t much. In others it was joyful, like when she worked for Professor Anthony King at Essex University. I was about 16 then and I got such power from watching her enjoy her work so much. She went back to university as a mature student, getting a First. She can be pretty feisty, but always on someone else’s behalf. She is one of the most selfless people I know. She has taught me that what matters is who you are and how you treat people, not what your job title is. I am immensely proud to be her daughter.
Jane Cruttwell née Regan
When I got married at the end of 2016, my father made a short speech during the ceremony over Skype. He reminded me that I was the third generation of women in my family to get married far away from home. My grandmother was the first, moving to Portugal after the war to teach and meeting my grandfather there. But her trailblazing didn’t start with that. She was what must be one of the first ever au-pairs, moving to France in the early 1930s to live with a family and talk English to their children. She taught English to Polish airmen during the war, learning Polish as she did so. I certainly owe my aptitude for languages to her. She married late (for that time) and was widowed too soon, just after I was born. That meant she was a big presence in my life as I grew up, spending a lot of time with us at each post. She could be infuriating and totally lacking in tact. I knew how proud she was of me, but I rarely heard it from her. But she was infinitely generous, with her time, her knowledge, her support and most of all her love. Once, when she was in her 60s, she slept on the seats at Gatwick airport so she could be there to meet my brother off an early flight. She was, and still is, an invisible force at my back, helping me to be the best version of myself. I miss her every day.
Sister Jean Sinclair
Not all influences are close. Between the ages of 11 and 18 Sister Jean was one of the scariest people in my life. She was the headmistress of my school, Mayfield, a boarding school run by a religious order, the Order of the Holy Child Jesus. It was established by Cornelia Connolly in the 19th century explicitly for the education of girls. I wasn’t particularly happy for most of my school time, being a bit swotty and bad at sport. But I can see now how good they were at sending us out in the world with the self-belief that women need to be able to succeed, and a support network that lasts to this day. I went back to Mayfield a few years ago and Sister Jean hugged me like an old friend. I realised how much she looked after and cared about each one of us, even if she seemed so distant.
I have had several female bosses over my career, and just like the men, some have been amazing and some have been rubbish. No blanket generalisations here! Frances became my head of unit soon after I started at the European Commission, in an area that had what felt like more than its fair share of arrogant macho chauvinists. (Oh, tu t’occupes des nanas, one of them said in a meeting when her role in gender equality was being discussed). What Frances taught me was that women can succeed in such a world without playing the men’s game. She remained true to herself, and her way of doing things in the face of some pretty blatant sexism. She had a sense of what was the right thing for her and she was always guided that. It was a powerful lesson early in my career.
So there they are. Not the only women that have inspired and moulded me. But certainly the ones that have had a very profound effect. When I look back at the path that has brought me to where I am now, I can see how each of them has held my hand at some point to help me have the courage to carry on. Thank you all.
This post originally appeared on 8 March 2017.