I’m really pleased to be talking with Jackie Ballard. I first heard about Jackie when she was a Member of Parliament representing the Liberal Democrat party; she is now the Chief Executive of my favourite charity, WomanKind. I think there lurks a story in how she got from one to the other…
Jane: Jackie, thank you for talking with us today. I’m particularly pleased as I am a supporter of the work of WomanKind; it’s good to be multi tasking here with you as an inspirational woman and promoting WomanKind! Could you tell us a little about why WomankInd is so special and what attracted you to the post?
Jackie: Womankind Worldwide is a special charity because we work exclusively on women’s rights in Africa, Asia and South America and because we don’t deliver projects on the ground ourselves but work with women’s organisations to help build a movement. Our priority themes are violence against women and girls, civil and political participation and economic empowerment.
We believe that by working with women’s rights organisations we support existing local agendas for women’s rights rather than setting agendas from the outside that don’t necessarily reflect the priorities of women themselves. Women’s rights organisations have the ability to tackle root causes of inequality and drive a long-term shift in the status quo – an intensely political project that needs to be locally driven.
I have long wanted to make a contribution in the area of international development and I have always supported women’s equality so the job seemed a perfect fit. Having run two large charities in the past ten years (RSPCA and Action on Hearing Loss) I also wanted the new challenge of running a much smaller charity where I have to be more hands on.
Jackie, what kind of childhood did you have? I think we’re of an age so you will also have grown up in an era when girls were generally encouraged to be ‘nice young ladies’. Did your parents encourage your leadership qualities?
That’s a big question. I am not sure I was ever a nice young lady! I went to about 7 primary schools in as many years as my parents moved around Scotland and then settled in South Wales. I was then lucky (and clever) enough to win a scholarship to a girls’ boarding school and it was there that I became the person I am today. I learned to have confidence in myself, I learned how to debate and stand my ground and I learned about how unequal the world is. What really had an impact on me was the realisation that no-one has control over which patch of earth they are born on, but it can have a massive impact on their life chances and outcomes. It was at school that I became politicised and determined to do something with my life to fight inequalities and injustices. Quite a lot of the time I was an angry young girl.
Were there any hints in your childhood of the career you were to follow? What was your very first job, for example?
I started the school debating society! I was also quite rebellious at school and often in trouble for rule breaking. My very first job was making sandwiches in a café outside Chepstow Castle when I was a teenager, I then had a few waitressing jobs, including in my parent’s pub. I also had many ‘holiday’ jobs when I was at university but I guess you are asking what was my first full time permanent job – I was a social worker in the London Borough of Waltham Forest.
It’s a given that politics is a very male preserve and not well geared to the majority of women. I don’t mean just the anti social hours as that must surely impact on men too, but more the hectoring, adversarial style which is much more suited to male styles than to women. If not that, then the patronising comments made to and about women on shoes, looks, etc. I know it was fiction but watching Borgen (a show about Danish politics) seemed to present a much more civilised model. A couple of questions on that period of your life, if I may.
How did you end up as an MP?
I was a political activist from university – but didn’t join a political party until I met Paddy Ashdown (then the MP for Yeovil). I bombarded him with letters about the various issues that bothered me – ranging from VAT on children’s shoes to nuclear disarmament. Eventually, he knocked on my door and persuaded me to join the Liberal party. Within a couple of years I was elected to the local Town Council, the District Council (where I became Council Leader), then to Somerset County Council. I stood for Parliament in 1992 – lost, stood again in 1997 and won, then lost again in 2001! I became an MP because I thought that was where the ultimate power to change society lay.
How did you cope with the sexism from colleagues and press, particularly so as you were spokesperson on Women’s issues for a time. Some major political figures have recently been ‘outed’ for their sexist and inappropriate behaviour towards junior members; without naming names is that something you ever experienced? How did you deal with it?
I was horrified at the behaviour in the House of Commons. Otherwise sensible people (usually men) turned back into children, banging their desks when they were excited, calling names and competing with each other for attention. I watched a You Tube video the other day of the New Zealand Parliament clapping and cheering when they passed the Act to allow same sex marriage The public burst into song – it was amazing and so human. The House of Commons is flawed in so many ways, including the fact that 650 MPs (NB 503 of them are men) cannot physically fit into the chamber at the same time.
The worst insult I received was from the late Auberon Waugh, writing in the Telegraph, who said I was too fat to be an MP. I am never quick on my feet with put downs, but that particular story had a happy ending when he bid a lot of money at an ‘auction of promises’ to have dinner with me and we settled our differences over a convivial meal. He later wrote a column in The Telegraph saying he had changed his mind about me and not long before he died we shared a bottle of champagne on a train journey from London to Taunton (he was one of my constituents).
What change would you like to see in parliament to make it a more gender neutral place?
What changes would I like to see in society is more to the point? To some extent we get the Parliament we deserve. I would like politics to be less tribal, for people to be able to admit that other parties have good ideas and good policies, I would like a proportional voting system which gives voters more power than parties, I would like children at school to be taught the importance of democratic institutions and of voting and I wish that the representatives of the people (because that is what they are, they are not the rulers of the people) really looked like the people they represent i.e. 51% women, more black and Asian people, more people with disabilities, more people from comprehensive schools and social housing, more people who have worked in non political or lobbying roles etc I could go on for quite a long time to really answer this question!
I know you have travelled abroad extensively, particularly to Iran. How has that influenced your thinking?
I was so happy in Iran. It is a beautiful country and the people are very cultured and interesting. Of course, there are many problems there especially in terms of human rights and the restrictions placed on women, which I would not defend, but I learned that the West has a habit of over simplifying and demonising societies which we basically don’t understand. The world is fascinating because of its diversity of cultures and traditions.
Who is your role model?
In politics I have long admired Shirley Wilson, Harriet Harman, Hilary Clinton – each of them fighters and survivors. My mum was a huge role model – she worked at a career she loved from the age of 18 till she was 60 and she had the courage to end a marriage which was not happy. I didn’t really appreciate the challenges my mother had in her life, until she died last year and I did the eulogy at her funeral.
If you could pass one law to improve the quality of life for women what would it be?
I don’t think I would pass a new law, I think I would ensure that all the existing laws across the world, relating to violence against women in domestic, social and conflict situations – were actually enacted. That women had the resources and support to take their case to law, that police and the judiciary took them seriously and that all perpetrators were convicted and punished.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given and how did it help you?
Remember every contact leaves a trace. I have been lucky not to have made many enemies, despite having been active in party politics for 15 years. I keep meeting people in different contexts and am so glad that our previous contact didn’t leave a negative impression.
What would be your advice to yourself at age 18?
Treasure the love, it may not come your way again.
Jackie, thank you so much and long may womankind prosper under your stewardship.
If you’d like to fine out more about Womankind here is their website. Well worth a look.
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Posted on April 29th, 2013 by Jane