Sunday 10 March 2024

Social mobility, feminism & me

HRH Duke of Edinburgh, Deputy President Paul Mashatile (front)

International Women's Day is important for all of us. I published this blog on how my own world, and the possibilities I experienced were only possible as a result of a very feminist fight fought by my mother. I am now so very grateful that I remembered to tell her that, before she died. This was first published at the end of January on the FCDO internal intranet. I've edited it, slightly. 

Yesterday I sat at a table with the Duke of Edinburgh and the Acting President of South Africa. It was the conclusion of a successful visit which garnered widespread positive commentary on the deep and broad relationship between the UK and a country which has played such a prominent role in the consciousness of my generation. My first year of University coincided with the end of Apartheid in 1994, we hosted South African trainee teachers in the UK, the first of many such projects.  So fast forward and I now have the privilege of representing my country in South Africa as Political Counsellor. I reflected yesterday, and today as I walked past the crest of the British High Commission how I’d arrived here. My own story began in Middlesbrough, an area with some of the highest social deprivation figures in Western Europe at the time.


But it didn’t really begin there for me, but with my mother. And that’s who I thought of at the high table of diplomacy yesterday. A woman who refused to accept her designated role, having been advised to leave school at 15 and concentrate on children alone. She bided her time, read voraciously and the more she did the more determined she became. Her Open University studies were often late at night and in the mornings discarded A4 scribbles, wobbling piles of books together with hastily prepared breakfasts and cramming of too many things into too few hours remain the strongest memories of my childhood. Ultimately, after many years she emerged from the fog with a PhD in Victorian feminist literature, a story of how so many women; George Eliot, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Bronte among them, chipped away at a patriarchal edifice that must have seemed overwhelmingly powerful at the time.


And without her, and her refusal to accept her role, I wouldn’t have been at that table yesterday, supporting a Royal Visit. 


FCDO has some amazing and powerful colleagues who are each driving an equalities and inclusion agenda forward in their own way. I do wonder if we sometimes miss the opportunity to join up the dots and think about how we advance equality in a holistic way. On the face of it a white middle-aged man working as a diplomat would not be the obvious place to look for feminist impact. So, what else might we be missing along the way?

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