Fast approaching International Women’s Day 2019 on March the 9th and our own celebration of women at Hitchin Town FC on 2nd March 2019 at Home to Rushall Olympic. This year IWD is being marked by the hashtag #BalancedForBetter to celebrate Women’s achievements and call for a more gender balanced society. Hitchin Town Football Club in partnership with Humanitas are celebrating the wonderful women that we are lucky enough to have in our community. These women have been pioneers in our community, out there working, having families and showing us all that anything is possible.
Judi Billing MBE, Mother, Grandmother, County Councillor for Hitchin North, Leader of the HCC Labour Group, and Labour spokesperson for Education, Libraries & Localism, agreed to meet Gracie and Myself to allow herself to be interviewed and share her thoughts with us. We were inspired and we hope that you will be too.
Judi was awarded her MBE in July 2015 for services to local Government a truly deserved merit for the in excess of 30 years that she has given to the community. She is a qualified teacher and has experienced working in the voluntary sector, she is a highly skilled organiser who has worked with political and managerial leaders across local governments. As leader of the Labour Group it is her duty to help motivate her fellow councillors when in the current political climate that must be very tough.
KD: Which one of those jobs I listed is your favourite?
JB: Oh Goodness me, probably the very local councilor, where I get to solve problems and issues and engage with issues and really try hard to make a difference.
KD: Do you find people come up to you in the street and attack you with, not their problems, but “we need help” or thank you so much for what you have done?
JB: Yes all of that, some of it not necessarily that pleasant; a shopping trip can be difficult and time consuming.
KD: Have you ever thought of going out incognito or in disguise?
JB: Not really, because at heart I am very extroverted, I do like talking to people so If I complain about it to myself it is pretty short lived.
KD: I don’t know if you are aware of Humanitas and their work? They firmly believe that everyone is entitled to 3 main things; Good Health, Family and Education. Would you say that these three things have helped you achieve what you have today?
JB: Yes, I do think that, and I would add a home to that list. To me its extraordinary that anybody in this society and in this community; one of the richest countries in the world, and some people still do not have access to some of that.
KD: The society that we have become seems two tiered.
JB: And I think it is becoming worse rather than better and I find that astonishing in 2019!
KD: What education and working path did you take to become a Councilor?
JB: There is no actual qualification or educational path to be an elected representative and that’s one of the joys of the job. That it ought to be open to every walk of life with every level of education. My own education was not brilliant, and I rebelled at school. I left with what was 3 pretty awful O-Levels because I refused to tow the various lines. So, I had to go back into education after my children, in my late 20’s early 30’s. Surrounded by children writing essays sitting on a beanbag in Walsworth Road to qualify as a further education teacher.
KD: Did you find it harder going back into education with the “youngsters” or did you find it a great experience.
JB: Well actually I found it easier because I was coming back into it. If that is when you are motivated – I was not motivated at 16 – 18 but I was in my late 20’s chaotic though it may have been for anybody watching the scene at home.
KD: Were you working as well as running the home and studying?
JB: I was working at that time in adult literacy in local colleges and they sent me on day release for professional qualification at what was Hatfield Poly.
KD: Have you found that you have been treated differently as a woman, either in a positive or a negative way throughout your working career?
JB: Do you know, I’m going to let you down. I have had very, very few instances where feeling that my gender was an inconvenience in my life. When I was first interviewed to ascertain my suitability to be a Councilor, I was asked by an elderly gentleman How on earth I was going to cope with looking after my children? Which of course something which would never have been asked of a man. But the fact that I remember that so clearly and with such horror means that I haven’t experienced very many instances.
KD: You haven’t let me down, because I think that is so positive and maybe that means life is changing.
JB: Oh do know a lot of women who don’t feel as I do and who have not had that experience and I respect their concerns and their campaigns to make it easier for women. There are other ways in which women have been massively disadvantaged; The pension debacle at the moment, there a great many women my age who have not been properly treated by Government. There are women in the House of Commons who want to take maternity leave and there is no proper organization. But one recent campaign in local government has been to ensure that councilors get proper provision.
KD: Which seems crazy in Government, the people who are making our laws and telling us how we should behave, are not doing it themselves.
JB: Quite astonishing.
KD: Do you think you found it harder as a woman to become a Councilor, probably leading on from your last answer. Do you feel that you had to work harder than your male counterparts?
JB: I do remember feel a little bit patronized sometimes, by male counterparts. When I first stood as a councilor it was a 3-member conservative ward, so I’m not sure that people ever thought that I was going to win so maybe it was alright to have me there.
KD: do you think that they didn’t take you seriously?
JB: I don’t think that the people I was standing against took me seriously. I think my own party did, I was pretty young, in my 20’s but they knew I was determined, they knew I was a fighter, there was no doubt about that.
KD: It must have felt a sweet success to win.
JB: Well I didn’t win the first year, it was the same year that Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. But I didn’t give up, I think aspiring politicians have to go out there and not just go out once and present yourself but actually, you have to build up support and make it clear to the local community that you are serious and that you are rooted in the community and not just here for 5 minutes. In this commuter era it is quite difficult for some of our young councilors who may not have to be in Hitchin forever certainly if they want to buy a property.
KD: Have there ever been any situations where you wish you were a man?
JB: NO! Not ever once have I ever thought that. I loved having babies which is the most marvelous thing ever, to have not been able to do that would have been dreadful.
KD: And on the other hand have there ever been situations when you have been grateful that you are a woman?
JB: Yes, we have covered that already with motherhood. Politically I guess we felt quite special when there were not many of us in councils and, I have had the great privilege of mentoring and supporting a lot of women in local Government because that is what I have been doing really for a living the last 20 years or so is running courses and programs for councilors.
KD: Are you finding that councillors are needing more support now than they have historically?
JB: I don’t think they need more support they are certainly getting more support, but yes things have changed and the general attitudes towards people in office is not pleasant at the moment you see that all the time in social media. If ever there is a comment made about local government on sites say like ‘We are from Hitchin’ and people pile in pretty quickly and really quite unpleasant. On twitter and on Facebook, people say things that they would never say to your face which are quite awful.
KD: Unfortunately social media has given people a bad platform to express themselves.
JB: It has and from that point of view and I think women are treated generally worse. It gets very personal and very misogynistic. Some of the things which I have seen written about Luciana Berger in the last few days have been just dreadful that’s misogynistic and anti-sematic its horrible.
KD: I think as a society we need to grow up a bit.
JB: Yes absolutely, I am not expecting people to doff their cap at people like me who are elected representatives but at least show a bit of respect and basic pleasantness.
KD: It must be very rewarding when you achieve even the smallest triumph for a constituent or a fellow councilor. Is it hard to leave work at work or is there always a little bit of you working?
JB: There is always a little bit of me working, I don’t say that with any great pride, but certainly since the advent of the blackberry and smart phone, I cannot put it down I cannot leave alone. I am constantly checking if there are things to be done, which is not great if you are on the beach, you can’t even see the screen because of the sun.
KD: What do you see as a gender balanced world?
JB: I am very fortunate to have a labour group HCC which is 2 thirds women and has been since I joined it. And 50/50 on NHDC so I just kind of assume those things. So, these days, if I find myself at a meeting and it’s a room full of men, I find it really quite shocking and surprising. So, a gender balanced world is one you that take for granted that there is as many women in the places that you are operating in.
KD: Do you think we are there yet, you have covered that already, or do you think more can be done to make it more balanced?
JB: Well I spend a lot of my time in the background, running workshops sections to encourage people to become councilors some of those are specifically aimed at women some are not. The Local Government Association sent me to the Isle of Wight, where they discovered there were just 5 women among 45 Councilors; to put on events to try and encourage people. There is more work to be done in some places.
KD: What advice could you give to a young girl about her decisions on choosing a career path. I find this interesting because you were rebellious at school, so what would you tell a young girl?
JB: I think I would say if you can bear it, deal with it now, but if you can’t there are opportunities later on for growth and development to finding yourself doesn’t end at 18. So, there are lots of different pathways. So, if you can, hang in there and get the GCSEs and exams.
KD: Which person do you admire and why?
JB: Both Barack and Michelle Obama have enormous places in my heart I have to say, I was involved a little bit in the 2008 campaign and that was just a time of such excitement. Seeing the dreadfulness that has happened since and the dreadful spectacle of the trump presidency has just made me love them and miss them more. So, it is hard for me not to go for them. But for goodness sake there are so many other examples, Nelson Mandela, people in different walks of life.
KD: What have been your top 5 proudest moments, you don’t have to say 5 but it’s hard just to say 1.
JB: The successes that my children have has, we just spoke about Zoe (Folbigg – Author of The Note) and she worked so hard for so long to try and become a novelist and its loaded with success I just can’t get over that really. My Grandson Harry has just got a first-class honors degree as a musician in London. And then I go to ridiculous things like 20 mile an hour zones in Bearton Ward in Hitchin That’s a pretty proud moment for me. When I got the letter about the MBE, I felt very silly but also very proud I must say.
KD: Did you feel a bit strange perhaps do I deserve this?
JB: Yes, I did, and I didn’t know what I had actually got it for, which sounds weird, but I didn’t know whether it was for my professional work or my local political work. But it was marvelous to be able to take my family. That was great.
KD: What was it like to meet the Queen?
JB: Well I didn’t, on my way there I said I do hope its Prince William and it was. And I talked to him about his children because it was much more interesting. It was such an exciting occasion I was so nervous it was absurd, my shoes were too big, I had ordered a pair of shoes to go with a dress I had brought. They were the right colour but too big and it was really embarrassing walking through Windsor Castle knowing that my shoes were likely to fall off. There’s a video of it because you can buy a video, which I did for my Grandson and I look so ridiculous.
KD: Do you think women expect too much and is there more we can do to help ourselves. I.e. do we expect more than equality?
JB: No I think we have a right to the same opportunities as everybody else and we have to work as hard as everybody else to get it to achieve it. My only objection is when a block is put in the way. I don’t think I know any women who have a sense of entitlement.
KD: What football team do you support?
JB: Spurs All my life, if you would like me to name you the full team of 1961 I could do so, but I think it would be a bit boring.
KD: Is that the year you first started supporting them.
JB: Yes around that time and 61-62 is the year of the double followed by the Cup, I would have been 10 at the time.
KD: So have you seen Glory Glory Days the film made about the book written by Dame Julie Welch?
JB: No I haven’t, but I do have a copy Jimmy Greaves Autobiography “A funny thing happened on my way to Spurs” which is signed which I am very proud of.
KD: Do you think Local football clubs are important for a community and why?
JB: You know that I do, and I think they provide so for young people in terms of pride, energy and exercise and all those good things. Walking to the football ground, which is why I got so upset when it was suggested that Hitchin was moved out of town to a site that our young people couldn’t walk to. Hitchin Town FC has such a proud history, its marvelous I just wish something could be done with the stadium. It’s a massive opportunity for young people, one of my Grandchildren was at Chelsea last week but it is nice for him also to go to Hitchin to experience that as well.
KD: Finally if you could do it all again, what do you want to be when you grow up?
JB: I would have liked the experience of being an MP I think, but when I stood for Parliament in a not very winnable seat, I hated the experience of the campaigning so much, I never took it further. I would like to try and see what that other layer of politics is like.
It was wonderful of Judi to share her Sunday morning with us, she really is a truly hardworking and inspiring local Politician. She believes whole heartedly in improving her local community and works tirelessly to ensure that that people in her ward and in her care have a better world to live in. We can all take that on board and help to inspire the young people around us.
BY KATE AND GRACIE DELLER