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Firmer handshakes

The Fabian Women’s Network mentoring programme is a true example of pragmatic, radical feminism. Nona Buckley-Irvine writes about her experience.



The day that I was accepted to the Fabian Women’s Network (FWN) mentoring programme, I decided to quit my job. In many ways, that sums up the programme – an initiative that encourages you to be bold, to take the decisions that are right for you, and is ultimately about female empowerment.

Having changed jobs several times, worked extensively as a Labour party activist in a toxic sexist atmosphere, the FWN mentoring programme provided a safe haven to reflect on who I truly was, and how to remain true to that in a complex political world.

It is only now that the programme is nearing its end that I can truly reflect on the difference it has made to me. Today, I have an amazing network of brilliant, diverse women; diverse in opinion, in occupation, in background. We share the same values, but not necessarily the same politics – a valuable experience in working with people who are great, irrespective of the different shades of grey in the left.

Today, I’m in a trade union, where I love going into work every day and leaving work to maintain a work/life balance. I’m making choices to do things, and importantly, not to do things – a skill I severely lacked a year ago.

I feel confident to push through ideas in the Labour party, to negate the haters, and to accept failure as an important facet of developing both as a person and as someone who wants to progress in politics.

When I compare this to a year ago, where sexism in my local Labour party had left me burnt out and feeling isolated, and my work had left me miserable, the transformation is unrecognisable.

Different strands of the FWN mentoring programme come together to facilitate your own personal transformation. Facilitate is an important word – the programme is not about shaping your politics towards a particular ideology, nor is it about delivering a prescriptive doctrine for ‘how to be in political and public life’. Rather, it gives you the opportunity to ask questions, to be provided with a basic skill set to develop as you wish, and to learn invaluable lessons from the brilliant group of women around you.

The first core facet of the programme – the relationship with your mentor – was what made the year truly special for me. From helping me to prepare for interviews, to supporting me in navigating my own boundaries between my personal life and work life, I feel privileged to have been mentored by someone who will have influenced my thinking for life.

The second core facet of the programme – the wide array of networking, visits to places like Brussels, and opportunities to develop your public speaking in a safe environment – is an exceptional training programme. Plunged in at the deep end from the very start, you learn quickly how to network with MPs, ask valuable questions of people who have little time to spare, and how to learn from the immersive environment you are set in.

One of my most memorable moments from the year will undoubtedly be listening to Zita Gurmai – a Hungarian politician who shook every single one of our hands before she started talking – speak. An unapologetic feminist, I left thinking to myself: ‘be more Zita’. My handshake is just that little bit firmer now.

Underpinning this all however, is the group of genuinely inspiring, hopeful, and diverse women that I got to meet. Having come from a background in higher education, suddenly being put into an environment of women from all walks of life was the most rewarding element. The range in women cannot be more emphasised: teachers, journalists, barristers, students, women campaigning against Islamophobia, campaigning for paternity rights, taking on the gender pay gap in their own institutions. Women who had to take on their own CLP in order to secure their place there as a woman.

In a divided society, where politics is so polarised and solidarity sometimes hard to find, meeting these women was my greatest takeaway.

To be radical is to challenge the status quo. By working to provide women with access to political and public life, and arming them with the skills to take on the battles that they want to take on, taking part in the FWN mentoring programme is a true act of pragmatic, radical feminism, and the truest form of female solidarity I’ve experienced to date.

Applications for the Fabian Women’s Network mentoring programme 2018-19 are now open. For more details and to apply, click here.

Nona Buckley-Irvine

Nona Buckley-Irvine

Nona is a trade union official. She is a Labour party activist and graduate of the London School of Economics.


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