If you’ve been following my blog for a while you may recall that I run an irregular series of interviews with women that inspire me. It’s been a while since my last one but given that yesterday was International Women’s Day, what better time (other than yesterday, obviously) to add another interview to the pile?
This one is a bit different because it’s with my own lovely daughter, Frances (Franki) Hackett.
She has grown into an exceptional young woman and I am delighted to introduce her to you.
I hope when you read her interview you’ll see why I find her so inspiring.
Who are you and how do you spend your time?
I am Franki, I’m your daughter, and I’m just about to finish my undergrad degree in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford. Largely I spend my time reading, writing, and obsessing over problems that most people would probably think are largely irrelevant.
What’s your philosophy for life?
A friend of mine has the motto ‘the best things in life leave you feeling a little bit sticky’, which I have to admit appears more apt the more one thinks about it. However, I guess for myself my main philosophy is to try to make wherever I go a better place when I leave than how I found it, and that the only way to solve a problem is to properly understand it.
As far as I can see the only way we can give meaning to our lives is by affecting the lives of others; I try to make a positive difference.
What shaped that philosophy, and how has it changed over the years?
My philosophy has been shaped in part obviously by my upbringing; I was taught very early on that human beings are of equal worth and that all of our differences should be tolerated, if not celebrated.
I hate seeing people suffer and I have trouble ignoring it or forgetting it if I know it’s happening; in all my studies it has only become more clear to me that we have duties to everyone, regardless of our national or local affiliations, or the distances between people: if human suffering is a bad thing it is bad regardless of where it is, and that means we have a duty to do something about it.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been taught by some of the finest minds in the country, and by people who are very aware of their moral situation. I guess my basic philosophy has always been the same, but they’ve taught me how to act on it, and that not acting on it is not an acceptable alternative.
What’s your definition of what it takes to be a successful woman today?
This is a hard question, in part because the word ‘successful’ is so loaded. The most basic criterion is, I suppose, to be accepting of oneself.
I think we will have achieved a lot as a society when to be a ‘successful woman’ fits within the same bounds as to be a ‘successful man’, but we’re certainly not there yet. Similarly I don’t think that to be a successful woman you have to have broken through some glass ceiling, although obviously for some people that is a real success.
Each individual is going to have to define success for herself, and it has to be a definition that fits: if you hate mathematics, there’s very little point in deciding to be the chair of the Bank of England. You are the person who can know you best, if you have worked out your true potential in something you love, are following that potential, and can honestly say that, most of the time, you are happy with the choice you made, regardless of what other people might have expected for you, then you are successful.
I think that definition can apply to men as well as to women, but I think it’s harder for women; we are loaded with more guilt for not living up to what others would like us to be.
Facing up to and moving past that guilt is, I think, a real mark of success.
What do you think have been your greatest achievements so far?
I have a tendency to underrate my achievements, on the basis that I am determined not to get complacent: I’m rarely completely happy with the way I perform on the basis that I could always have done better, that’s what drives me to excellence.
But I think that getting to Oxford was a real achievement, no matter how much help I had along the way I had much less help than many of the students here.
And simply working incredibly hard for such a long time to get my degree has been an achievement, like they say it’s a marathon and not a sprint, and as my mother will tell you I had to work against my natural inclinations to run this marathon, as like her I’m definitely not a completer-finisher.
And finally, learning to stand up for myself has been a real achievement; I used to worry that I talked to much in group settings, particularly academically, and I have been very likely to agree to do things even when I didn’t have time because I hate letting people down.
Learning to say ‘no’ to unreasonable demands, and then to stand by that has been a real achievement (I won’t claim to say I’m perfect, some projects are just too tempting!).
At the same time, when I learnt that in group settings men do something like 85% of the talking, and almost 100% of the interrupting, I decided to change that statistic, even if I had to do it on my own.
If I have a reasonable point to make now I make it, even if I have to interrupt to do so, I won’t be broken off unless I’ve finished my point, and if another woman is having trouble getting heard I’ll stop the conversation to give her a chance.
At first I worried that this would make people think I was rude and obnoxious, but I’ve had nothing but complements: men saying how refreshing they found it to have a voice raising a completely different perspective and engaging with them by their own rules, and women saying how nice it was to feel that someone had taken the lead and given them cover to voice their own opinions without seeming ‘shrill’. That has been a real eye-opener, and I consider it to be an achievement.
And what do you still have left that you want to achieve?
There are many things I still want to achieve, I feel that at the age of 20 that’s the right way to be.
As I summarised my life plan to a tutor a few days ago when he asked me if I was interested in doctoral study, I intend to do my masters, then go out and ensure that every woman in the world has access to decent maternity care, both post- and ante-natal.
Having achieved this and won my Nobel prize, I will then return to University to do my Dphil.
I also hope to have a family at some point, and I’d like to keep an allotment, since it’s the day-to-day maintenance of something like that which is much more of a challenge for me, and I think that growing vegetables is good for the soul.
What’s been the most important learning experience in your life, and what lessons did you take from it?
I can’t pinpoint one exact moment or experience, but several times during my life I have spoken with someone about something which I felt that I understood, and had them reveal an entirely different view of something that was previously very familiar.
The only example I can think of at the moment is my study of power: as a concept we all feel that we understand power and yet no one can really settle on a decent definition.
Most people define it as person A’s being able to get person B to do something which she would otherwise not do. After centuries of this kind of definition, Foucault came along and said that power is not something that one person has or does to another, it is a set of structures around us which constrain us even if we don’t realise it, particularly in the form of knowledge.
So, for example, as certain ‘abnormal’ behaviours became defined medically rather than simply as ‘deviance’ in the middle of the 19th century they began to be controlled in new ways simply because people understood them as medical conditions, not simply as differences.
Those moments of paradigm shift are very important I think, and it’s a wonderful feeling, suddenly seeing things from a new angle like that. It’s taught me to keep looking, from perhaps rather surprising angles, at the things I think I know. That is the essence of creativity in a way, and it’s the only way we have of moving forward.
We celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day in 2011. What message would you like to give to the next generation of women?
Define yourself. This is the only way to really achieve success, and if we insist on our own definitions of ourselves, then we are much less likely to be controlled by other people’s definitions.