“Women have always been the strong ones of the world. The men are always seeking from women a little pillow to put their heads down on. They are always longing for the mother who held them as infants.” —Coco Chanel
International Women’s Day 2016
When we think of the words ‘strong woman’ what images spring to mind? Have a little think ….
For me, a strong woman is a person who chooses to look at her reflection in the mirror every morning. She chooses to roll her shoulders back and paints a smile so perfectly it hides the cracks of whatever has been thrown at her the previous day, weeks, months or years. She speaks softly despite her screams pushing against her teeth wanting to break through, she closes her eyes, breaths in 1, 2, 3… and swallows the lump for now. Her best friend is her cushion who she will call later, holding the phone in one hand and a bottle of Pinot Gritio/cup of tea in the other (It’s good to talk!). She glides like a swan; one foot in front of the other with sublime elegance, her stilettos supporting her as the weight of the world is rested on a 1cm wide piece of plastic. Her eloquent grace masks the burning blisters and the endless fight beneath the surface.
Perhaps the image of a strong woman for you differs to mine? Perhaps the strong women in your life wear crocks and cry a lot? That’s ok too. What will be most similar between our inspo’s will be their approach to life.
A strong woman for me:
- Does not scold a wrong answer but educates you to come up with something better;
- Does not trample on others to reach the top, instead, they join forces with their fellow women to support each other, to win their battles and celebrate when victory has been achieved;
- Does not judge your story based on your cover. Instead they celebrate your differences at every opportunity (while trying on a pair of your tie dye harem pants to see what the fuss is about);
- Can be compassionate, caring, defiant and ruthless within the time it takes to drink a cup of tea;
- Respects your choices; may advise otherwise but will certainly not say ‘I told you so’ when it goes tits up;
- Is travelling in a forward direction, even if that means carrying a child under one arm, a briefcase under the other and dragging the iron board along for the ride.
We all have an image of a strong woman in our mind. It may not be a single person you are thinking about but a patchwork of the qualities you strive to develop in yourself over time. Alternatively, it could be someone you will never meet like Princess Diana or Hermione Granger.
It may sadly be somebody who has gone from your life; your mum, your grandma, your Auntie, your sister, your daughter, your friend, your hero. How remarkable to think about how much is left from that person when so much has been taken away. A small token to confirm that you were blessed with the best, and not one single person can ever take that away from you.
They are your memories, their qualities, and your turn to inspire someone else like they did to you.
The women who changed my life
These are the strong women in my life and here are our stories:
Donise Lees, my momma bear.
Until the moment I was born my name was Joseph, I was meant to be a boy. Not biologically, (my Mum never actually tested positive when she was pregnant with me, never mind got the gender test!) but having already had two boys my parents were adamant I would follow suit. Third time lucky and their princess had arrived, I can only imagine the joy on my Dad’s face. From the moment I was born into the crisp, cold world my mum showered me with endless love and devotion, wrapping me in her warm arms protecting me from the world like she still does today. Sometimes embarrassingly so.
My mum inspires me every single day because:
- She is an educator: Donise is one of those people that every time you see her you learn a little more about the world, about her and about yourself. Always helping you to become a better person.
- She gives every inch of her heart to others: Whether to her family, friends or the stranger on the street, if you need support Donise is always there. I can’t understand how one person can have so much love to give, and the way you loved my Dad for 39 years (and continue to do so), I don’t think is humanly possible. Thank you for making him the happiest man in the world.
- She can laugh like a child: at childish things that aren’t even funny but it’s infectious and you can’t help but join in. Tears stream down your face, you are doubled over wanting to roll your eyes but you are paralysed with hilarity to be able to do so. This is Donise’s unique way of being able to find humour and life out of the most minute, irrelevant things.
- She is trusting: growing up I was pretty much allowed to do as I pleased because my mum trusted me 100% and the upbringing I came from. It was so cool – I was allowed to drink Lambrini at 16, at home before going out, Mum (and sometimes Dad) would drop me in town in the Merc while all my friends were sat in the back having to lie about where they were. A number one tip for parenting: your children can’t break the rules if there aren’t any rules to break!
- She is a friend: Donise isn’t just the person who had the pain of bearing me for 9 months (thanks for doing that though!), she is my best friend. Although I am not one to talk about boys, feelings and all that crap I know if I need advice or a shoulder, Donise will always be there. Or even when I don’t ask, she will tell me what I need to hear even if I don’t like it.
- She is one of the strongest people I know: The one who tells you to get up, brush yourself down and get on with life. She is one of the women who chooses to roll her shoulders back, puts on her war paint (Chanel and lippy) and sometimes pretends to protect everyone else, when she really doesn’t need to. #teamLees
- She is empowering: I speak to Donise at least twice a day, even when we are in different countries. I love to hear the sound of her voice, tell her my news and make her proud, I do everything for you Momma B. And on days when I am hating on life she is always there to remind me of who I am and not to let people ‘clip your wings’ Rebecca Jo, go out and change the world girl!
In short, Donise Lees has changed my world because she is my life.
2. Catherine Lees
Catherine Lees is married to my oldest brother Matthew, they have one adorable child, Erin, aged 3 and have been together since I was 8 years old (a whopping 17 years!). Cat is an inspirational woman who changed my life for the better.
Cat joined the Lees family at an awkward age for me. I had a ginger, bob hair cut and was torn between two lives, perhaps two genders. Not in the sense that I wanted to be a boy, I just didn’t know how to be a girl. My parents brought us up in a world where it was ok to run around with hand-me-down grass stained, beige kappa tracksuit bottoms on as long as we were happy. I didn’t want to wear dresses, or make up, or play with dolls, or do any of those girl things because my life was so much fun, but here was Cat; a wonderful, beautiful, popular young woman who I would have done anything to look like, or be like.
And that’s where the transformational journey began!
- Cat was there when I bought my first pair of silver, glittery heels from Tammy Girl, and introduced me to GHDs. (THANK.THE.LORD!)
- Cat shared my bunk bed every friday night and listened to my ramblings and confessions about wanting to be a pop star (sorry about that!)
- Cat taught me how to cry when we dropped Matt of at Leeds University when I was 9. I wasn’t really upset (sorry Matt) but made myself cry to be like Cat. It was rather liberating.
- Cat got me my first job washing up in Cookies Cafe at 13. I earned £12 a week and thought I was the bees-neez.
- We share an obsessional love for Girls Aloud and Cheryl Cole. (Don’t even talk to us about the split, it’s still raw).
- I was there when Cat chose her wedding dress, it was probably the proudest day of my life. (I cried for real this time).
It’s not just the experiences we have shared that makes Cat an inspiring, strong woman.
- Level headed: No matter the situation, Cat is always great to have around. She will not get angry or upset, but will do her best to make everything better for you, even if it’s just a hug. Always there like a big sister.
- Empowering: Cat never once forced me to change what I looked like or who I was, but I wanted to, because I admired her so much.
- Supportive: Come rain or shine, Cat will always be there at the end of the phone, in person or over a glass of wine in the local. She even makes me cups of tea when she doesn’t even drink it.
I feel so privileged to call Cat my sister-in-law and it is an absolute honour to have you as part of our family for the past 17 years, what a journey we have been on! (And how lovely it is now to have Jess as the final piece of the sister squad). I can see why Matt may call you his better half, because when you are around the world is a brighter place. Thank you for loving my big brother, and little Erin the way you do and for being the big sister I will never have, but will always look up to.
3. Linda McKeogh
Linda McKeogh is my football manager at Airbus Ladies Football Club, my mentor and the ultimate hero for so many people. She is one of those women who will always stand up for her own even if that means putting her head above the parapet and taking one for the team. Her kindness is unquestionable – she will always be there for anybody who needs it, ready to offer advice and support and will turn to you for the same, because for some reason she needs validation from her fellow women to know she is on the right track. In the community, Linda has changed so many lives and done so much for women’s football in England and Wales that she will never truly appreciate her contribution to the world within and outside of sport. While she is a truly fabulous friend to so many, she is a phenomenal wife and mother to her three boys. She will be reading this thinking ‘Fekin hell Burnley, what de bloody hell argh hu talking about’ (That’s my best Irish accent!) because she is so unassuming and unaware of how bloody amazing she is.
Linda Mckeogh: a heart of gold and a tongue of steel.
4. Katherine Jenkins
This may come as a surprise to some of you, (particularly those of you who have seen me grinding and slut dropping to R ‘n’ B most Wednesday nights in Rosies) but I am a huge fan of Katherine Jenkins. Yes, the popular classical singer.
I admire her as a person because she is a mirage of perfection to look at, but broken in so many ways. She openly talks about negative experiences that have had a profound impact on her from; taking class A drugs as a student, to being violently assaulted, to having an eating disorder and most heartbreakingly when she talks about losing her dad at the age of 15. I cried at every step of her Waltz on Dancing with the Stars which she dedicated to her father; it is only now I can truly appreciate how excruciating that experience must have been, yet heartening and wonderful at the same time.
Musically, I turn to Katherine a lot. Whether I need inspiration, a pick me up, or a bellowing crescendo to spur me on during a long run, she is there and you can feel every last emotion in every word she sings. Katherine has this unbelievable strength of character which shines through her music as well as her presence at any public event, most probably a testament to her late father. She has touched so many people with her music and made the genre accessible and popular to people like me.
Despite the adversities she has faced, she has succeeded in the most spectacular fashion without giving up, giving in or moving too far from her roots.
She is a woman of pure strength, courage and determination.
5. J.K Rowling
I can’t even …. nope, there are no words …. over to you J.k Rowling you beautiful, magical woman …..
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
“If you want to see the true measure of a man, watch how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”
“I definitely know that—that love is the most powerful thing of all and I remember thinking that—God, I’m about to make myself cry but, I remember thinking that when 9/11 happened because those last phone calls were about—the last thing knowingly, that I’m going to say on this earth is ‘I love you.’ What’s more powerful than that? What’s more proof than that? Beyond fear, beyond death.”
“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”
6. Women in education
I have been in education for 21 years now and I have met some remarkable women on the way. You know the ones I am talking about; the teachers you look forward to seeing, the one’s you want to be proud of your work and the one’s who instil the fire in your belly about something you never knew you cared about before. They are the teachers who you will probably never remember what they taught you, but you will never forget how they made you feel. The lollipop moments are the one’s that count: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVCBrkrFrBE
I had strong women at school (including Donise, hurray again!), at college and more recently at University.
At University, the women lecturers on my course were the ones who had an outstanding talent of being able to make the content come alive through the stories they told from their practice as outstanding lawyers and champions for human rights, I always wondered why Caroline Chappell and Chantal Davies were marking my tea stained scraps of paper when they should be running the country. Impeccable, inspiring, dedicated women.
Other academics I have seen from afar and admire are Dr Dawn Llewelyn and Professor Emma Rees. With Dawn, she could teach me how to watch paint dry and I would still be buzzing to learn more about how the paint dries, because when she unleashes her passionate sting it infects you with the will to follow her, and join in. She is fearless in addressing topics which have never been explored before, she tells the world ‘this is something I care about and you should too. Not because I am right, but because we should have a conversation about these things’. Thank you for always treating students as equals, as participants in our collective learning journey.
Similarly to Dawn, Emma has an exceptional way of talking about the ‘untalkable’, take vaginas for example. Her research with this subject is nothing more than magnificent and I do not have the words or vocabulary to describe the way in which she has empowered men and women with her work, so I am not even going to try! But as a person, she has this authoritative aura about her yet speaks so softly, so invitingly. She knows her shit, but she will never rub her shit in your face! She’s cool like that. (and will be totally blushing to the high heavens when she reads this because she doesn’t realise/appreciate how bloody remarkable she is!)
The main women in my HE journey are those from the SU, you know who you are and I’ve written about you before, but by God you have been my strength and my soul at my most weak, I can never thank you enough. This also stretches to my boss, my mentor who I can only aspire to be like one day; Dr Karen Willis.
And finally, the students and my friends who motivate me and excite me every single day. A shout out to you: Katie Badman, Savannah Miles, Laura Stott, Kerrie Sprigings, Jessica Grocutt (darling wife), Julie Sheen, Jonno, Jamie and Callum (you may be male by definition but you will always be more woman than me).
Hurray for women …
So that’s a run down of some of the women who have changed my world and I hope what this shows you is that International Women’s Day is about recognising the wealth of inspiring, strong women on our doorstep, right under our noses right now. When you are with your strong women take time to squeeze every last drop of inspo out of them, and tell them how bloody brilliant they are, but never underestimate the power and influence you have on other people too; men, women and others alike.
What have I learnt from IWD2016?
- My ‘strong women’ encourage me to be a better person professionally and personally not by telling me how to do it but support me in making the right choices and finding the right paths suited to me;
- My ‘strong women’ all have unique characteristics which makes them stand out for who they are; their laugh, their vision, their tenacity, their kindness, their words, their imagination;
- I am at the stage where I am merely trying to fit my feet child-like feet into the shoes of these admirable women, there’s plenty of room for growth but one day I will get there with people like this around me. The best advice? be yourself, nobody else in the whole wide world is you or can be you, nor can you be someone else. Just enjoy the ride!
To all of the strong women out there who may sometimes feel like a speck of dust in the galaxy, you are changing our lives and our worlds for the better and we cannot thank you enough. Here’s to another year of strong sisters smashing the glass ceilings together. #SquadGoals