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Inspiring NI women who broke the mould... just like the new Dr Who


Kerry McKittrick chats to three local trailblazers who defied the odds to become pioneers in their professions.

Since Sunday the media has been engrossed by one woman.

Social media has exploded in protest while tabloid newspapers have published nude photos of her and delved into her family's past.

So who is this woman and what has she done to cause such controversy?

Well, 35-year-old actress Jodie Whittaker has been revealed as the 13th Dr Who, and is the first woman to be given the role.

In an age of equal rights and equal opportunities, fans are disgusted.

Some are so outraged they have even threatened to desert the popular BBC show.

She might be the first female Dr Who - and no one is questioning that she has some big shoes to fill - but there have been plenty of women who have broken the mould in their professions before Jodie.

‘Some just got up and walked out of services’

Reverend Dr Ruth Patterson

The Reverend Dr Ruth Patterson (72) is the director of Restoration Ministries, which is an interdenominational charity. She lives in Harmony Hill, Lisburn.

I was the first female minister of any denomination ordained on the island of Ireland on January 2, 1976, when I became a minister in the Presbyterian Church. In retrospect it was quite daunting, but at the time I was just concentrating on the next step. I think it's a grace that all the ins and outs and ups and downs were hidden from me.

I think other denominations such as the Methodists and Church of Ireland had and do have an easier time of things when it comes to ordaining women.

The Presbyterians have a number of women ministers now. Although we were the first to ordain, it seems to be a more difficult road to travel with us.

I had funny looks and comments and sometimes even people would walk out of services. In those early years a lot of people couldn't get their head around a woman doing a funeral - they assumed that you would dissolve into tears.

It was the stereotyped notion of the weaker sex. That has changed, as there are more of us around and people just get on with it. They can see the work is being done and it's being done well.

People always come to me and ask me about my role. In recent years I've tried to spread it out and suggest people hear other voices. At the beginning it was about me and if I liked it and if women should be ordained at all.

The whole question was being judged on how one person performed or indeed failed to perform. It was quite a lonely road to travel but gradually others came along. In the end people aren't going to be convinced by argument, they're going to be convinced by experience.

I don't know if 'enjoy' is the right word to describe my experience because sometimes things have been enormously difficult, but I couldn't imagine myself having been on any other road.

I don't think I've ever come to a total halt - I was in parish ministry before moving on to the Restoration Ministries.

People think I'm retired now but there is still so much to do. I'm travelling a bit more and giving retreats and conferences. My calling itself isn't in a little box - it's as big as the world.

I have seen that a woman will be the 13th Dr Who. I can't say that I've ever been a devotee of the show, but why not?

In the end, the most important thing about our identity is not whether we're male or female or any other secondary identity that people pin on us, it's about who we are.

‘Women must be better than men in same job’

Julie Andrews

Julie Andrews (45) is director of the Linen Hall Library and lives in Belfast:

When I took over the Linen Hall Library it was just about to celebrate its 225th birthday. I couldn't help thinking that as the director it was so important to keep this organisation running well in the 21st century, given that it has been going since the 18th century.

I'm very conscious that I've had a lot of publicity as the first female director and I certainly don't want to be the one who shut the library or to have been in charge when it burnt down in a fire. I think that a woman has to be better than a man to do the same job - we can't just be good at what we do.

I started off doing a law degree but I decided halfway through that I didn't want to go into law. I then went off and part-qualified as an accountant and I've since worked in various industries such as property development, IT, and the arts heritage and charitable sector since 2008. I worked at the Spectrum Centre, an arts, cultural and multi-purpose facility on Belfast's Shankill Road before I came to the library.

I did always aim to get to chief executive level as I have always enjoyed taking responsibility for things and making the big decisions. I think a lot of people don't realise that the library is a charity - we only receive 25% of our funding from the government and the rest we have to raise ourselves. It's my responsibility to keep the doors open and a lot of that is asking for money.

I've worked in male dominated industries but at times I've found myself working under women, which has inspired me a lot. I think it's important for women to be encouraged, not helped. There's the old story that a man sees a job advert and can do one of the 10 things on it and decides to apply. A woman sees the same advert and can do eight of the 10 things on it and so decides not to apply. We can do these things, we just need to be encouraged to step forward.

When I saw this job advertised I told several people that I wanted it. I thought the same thing every time I walked past the library after that - it's a privilege to be in charge of such a venerable and historical institution. It's just a shame it's taken until now for there to be a female director. In the 1790s we were quite radical because Mary Ann McCracken was very active in the library. In saying that, we now have an all-female management team at the moment.

My favourite Dr Who was always Tom Baker. I saw a big debate about the whole thing a couple of days ago on TV. Personally, I think there's too much fuss about it. Women get all sorts of jobs now in every industry. Why should Dr Who not be a woman?

‘RUC actually turned me down two times’

Judith Gillespie was a big Dr Who fan as a child

Judith Gillespie (55) is the former deputy chief constable of the PSNI. She now sits on several boards and does voluntary work. She is married and has two daughters.

I joined the RUC in 1982 and I didn't have the ambition of being deputy chief constable because it seemed unobtainable to a woman. The highest rank any female had got to at that point was chief superintendent.

I was turned down twice for the RUC in the first place because they weren't recruiting many women in those days.

The message I got was that if you're going to join as a woman you'll have to work pretty hard to get recognised. I worked very hard and tried to be the best police officer I could be.

I was very privileged to hold a lot of interesting and challenging roles over the years that I seemed to fit well with. But it was only when I became a chief inspector that I began to think I could rise to deputy chief constable if things went well. That was quite late on in my career. I don't think being a woman ever distracted me from my job. I did get more than my fair share of speaking engagements from women's organisations because women were curious to hear my story.

I was keen to act as an ambassador for the organisation too.

A TV station did ask once if they could film me giving my children breakfast in the morning before I went to work. I refused because, firstly, it was my husband who gave the children breakfast - I was always in work before that happened. Secondly, I wouldn't have exposed my children like that for security reasons. Thirdly, they didn't do that with any of my male colleagues who had been promoted before me, so why should it happen to me?

I loved Dr Who as a child - John Pertwee was my favourite. This is science fiction and fantasy.

If Dr Who is a Time Lord why shouldn't it be a woman in the role?

In time this will become normal - kids growing up now and starting to watch the programme for the first time will wonder what all the fuss is about.

Belfast Telegraph


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