ELLIE: WOMEN IN THE ARMED FORCES
Feminist and former military officer, Ellie, on perfume, bravery, beauty and gender equality.
What female or gender equality causes mean the most to you and why?
Communities of any kind where there are human beings, in all their glorious rainbow of differences, who have no voice, no vote, and no ability to decide their own future. Equality, in the right to vote, in employment; in terms of opportunity, job safety, security, and remuneration is of the greatest importance. My strong feeling is that people can and should only be seen as human beings and that race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and colour are all false qualifiers and no sane measure of humankind. I am passionate that every person must have the right to choose the person they are, not for it to be chosen for them.
Girls in areas like Rwanda, Uganda and South Africa missing a week of school a month because they have no access to basic sanitation/underwear/sanitary towels, and so can’t go to school during menstruation. Without education the cycle of poverty cannot end.
Curiously also the right for mothers to be just mothers, where they wish to. I chose, very early on, not to have children, but I see raising children as the most important job, it has such a huge effect on what shape the next generation takes. In this sense mothers make the world. It seems to have become the norm for mothers to be expected to be back at their desks 6 months after childbirth or they somehow haven’t been tough enough. So many of my friends feel they must be mothers, have careers and run the home, and I am yet to meet one who is finding that experience satisfying or fulfilling. I know a lot of burnt out career mothers who are struggling to prove they are happy or ‘tough enough’, and putting a brave face on it, but in reality aren’t doing more than just about coping.
I feel we must get better at integrating motherhood and childcare with high-ranking professional positions. Many of my friends have left promising careers in the military because it proved impossible to balance the demands of raising children with professional careers.
Do you think female success differs from male success and if so how? Have you experienced this in your own career?
It is my experience that male success comes with congratulations and female success comes with criticism. A man getting a promotion is a ‘Good chap’, his female counterpart clearly slept her way there, bent equal opportunities and diversity policy to her benefit or had an easier time of it because she fluttered her eyelashes. Rarely does it seem that we commend women for their success, because they have just been good at their job. When a woman succeeds, there always seems to be a question mark held over that success, with an implication that it was somehow easier for her. My experience of working in a very male dominated world as a military engineer, is that the knives come out for a successful female’s reputation in a way that I haven’t seen with men, even when particular men are well-known for using unacceptable means such as bullying or cheating to achieve their success. I have been a called a ball-busting bitch, too soft on my troops, frigid and a whore all in the same sentence, upon outperforming a male counterpart.
I can recall several times in the military where I excelled in a major project or particularly difficult task, I rarely recall being commended for intelligence, hard work and planning, but I can remember many inferences that I somehow got an easy ride because I was a woman, or used feminine wiles to achieve a goal. On the occasions at which I excelled, being good at my job, was almost never considered the reason for my success.
I want to clarify that there are some amazing leaders of all genders in the military and I had the pleasure of working for an incredible feminist in my first job, and I know he would be proud to hear me refer to him that way, but it was my broad experience that sexism was prevalent.
What women do you most identify with from history to the present day that have also inspired you to push further in your career or your personal life?
Undoubtedly Her Majesty the Queen, whose unfaltering service to her country has given me greater inspiration than any other, to continue where I would otherwise have given up. She has never faltered under the enormity of her task, has maintained a strong moral compass, has not been swayed by fashions in clothes or politics and still maintains great charisma, intelligence, elegance and a sense of self. She is incredibly wise and I feel one of history’s greatest leaders.
Women like Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher, strong women who ignored criticism and forged ahead. I didn’t always agree with their policies or methods, but I wholly admire their strength. My old office cleaner, now into her 80’s, was in the Met police for 30 years, I can’t imagine what she must have been through, just to be allowed to do her job. She’s my hero. Another friend who was the lead hostage negotiator at Scotland Yard. Amazing tough, bright and brilliant women, who maintain their sense of self, moral compass and personal style.
What smells remind you of femininity? What are your favourite smells and why?
My grandmother’s perfume. If I happen upon the smell of it today I find myself instinctively sitting more elegantly! She was a beautifully put-together woman and had a fantastic eye for style.
My favourite smells are amber and tobacco, warm notes. I also love fresh smells like lime, neroli and orange. I have different scents depending on what the day calls for. Damn Rebel Bitches is my ‘going to war’ scent and I feel more confident when I walk into the boardroom wearing it, it reminds me that I don’t need to lose my femininity, to do battle.
Do you feel pressure to act/look a certain way to fit in with the ideals of female beauty? How do you combat or comply with these pressures?
I used to! I really don’t know when I decided to throw off the mantle of that expectation, but somewhere along the line I decided I preferred elegance to fashion. I love diversity, I love to show character through a scarf or a hat. I love to dress well paying attention to individual details, and I despise looking like a High Street window.
I don’t seek compliments, I dress to feel fabulous for myself, but I note that I receive most compliments, including those from strangers, when I dress for myself, rather than for convention or fashion. Coco Chanel is quoted as saying ‘Don’t be like the rest of them darling,’ and I think she had that right.
I love hats and scarves and gloves. With these items you can make any outfit special.
You should also know that I spend a lot of time in sports kit with my hair scraped back in a scrunchie, because adventures and experiences mean more to me than how I look. I am at my happiest in my overalls, fixing things or out on the river in my kayak.
What makes you a Damn Rebel Bitch?
At Public Speaking engagements I meet so many women who tell me that they wanted to do things I have done. I ask them why they didn’t. Mostly they say because of convention and that other people’s expectations prevented them from trying. Try. My mantra when applying for sponsorship to be an Engineering Officer was to push forward and keep pushing forward until something or someone actually stopped me, not theoretically made it difficult or put a hurdle in my way, there were plenty of those, but I mean actually stopped me. No one ever did.
I was awarded a Commander-in-Chief’s Commendation for Bravery in the London Bombings (a story for another time), a number of my peers were caustic and jealous of the award. I happened to be in London during the bombings because volunteers had been requested to act as Media Handlers at a major commemoration event. A lot of my peers talked about applying, but I was the only one who did. Apply. Don’t wait for permission.
I notice often that women wait to be given permission in all sorts of areas that men don’t. It’s a learned behaviour. Learn to decide, to assess for yourself whether you need permission, and not to assume you must wait for it or have it, or that it will be denied. No one decides your future but you.
Tell us what kind of bitch you are.
I am the Damn Rebel Bitch who just came back from working with Syrian Refugees in Northern Greece where I was volunteering for a charity as an engineer, carrying out works in the Camps, AND will be drinking cocktails in a 1950s dress at the Rivoli Bar at The Ritz tomorrow. I don’t wish to sound arrogant, but I want to introduce the concept of a part of feminism that I feel is lacking. AND not OR.
I spent so much of my time in the Forces believing I somehow had to apologise for my womanhood in my chosen profession. I wore my uniform too big to hide my female form and tried to be one of the boys. I got so good at it that my own troops didn’t recognize me, when dressed as a civilian at my leaving party, assuming I must be someone’s wife when I walked in. I look back on that with great regret. It’s important to be relevant, putting on lipstick while digging a trench isn’t sensible, but I played the concept of being one of the boys too hard. In my day, being a feminist was twisted to mean you were a problem-maker, whistleblower, not someone anyone would want on the team. I let countless, incredibly damaging, sexist remarks slip in the name of ‘acceptance’.
It took me a long time to reclaim the word feminist. I have zero of the current proliferation of prejudices and find the moral courage to stand up to intolerance, whenever and wherever I meet them. I thought that would cost me friends, I thought I’d become the dinner party bore no-one wanted to sit next to, but felt it was the path I must follow. I was wrong. It made me more friends than I could ever have imagined. When one person speaks out, it can be a great source of strength to others.
So I am the kind of Damn Rebel Bitch who tore down the walls of her pigeon hole. I don’t pretend it was simple and it took more than one attempt but I love having bright red nails and having qualified as an Explosives Engineer. By that I mean I have been and done many of the things that women from my background aren’t supposed to, and learned along the way that capable does not have to be at the sacrifice of feminine (and I am by no means suggesting that a woman must be feminine – a woman must be whatever she chooses is right for her, but that was the battle I had to fight.)
My all time favourite picture is the one here of my wrist, wearing jewellry I inherited from my immigrant grandparents, with a decent manicure and my work watch, which I still use, and bought when serving in the military. Of any photograph that has ever been taken, it best captures the essence of Me.
What signifies female strength to you?
Doing it anyway. Even when people tell you you will fail/ shouldn’t try/don’t have a right. Do it anyway. Forge ahead, be the woman your soul tells you to be.