Jane Barker

I am mourning the death of my dear friend Jane Barker who died on June 1st after a short but fierce battle with a very aggressive cancer.
She was simultaneously the best and most impossible of friends, bringing to friendship the same qualities that she brought to her work in the women’s movement and later the trade union movement: energy, commitment, solidarity and loyalty. Once she had decided she was on your side she passionately wanted you to get what she thought you deserved from life and this, she obviously believed, gave her the right to challenge decisions you made that she thought weren’t in your best interests. I remember once she asked to see the powerpoint slides of a presentation I was about to make to some conference I forget where and on the last slide were the words ‘thank you for listening’. This is a pretty conventional thing to do in Europe. Not only are you signalling to the translators and the audience (many of whom may be listening through headphones, or straining to understand you) that you have finally come to the end (cue clapping or, in Germany, fist-pounding on the table), but you are also expressing some sort of an oblique apology for having been addressing people in a language that is not their mother tongue and forcing them into a zone in which you may be more fluent than them. But Jane was furious. ‘You should NEVER apologise for yourself, Ursula, NEVER. You aren’t just letting yourself down, you’re letting down ALL WOMEN. That’s your trouble – you are always underselling yourself. How do you expect people to take your ideas seriously if you’re APOLOGISING for them?’. And so on, for quite a while.
I can imagine her haranguing in similar ways trade union members who were not demanding what she thought they should, or, back in the early 1970s when she founded the Women’s Health Group of the Essex Road Women’s Centre, telling off the young women for whom they did pregnancy tests and counselling for not having enough self-respect. I have been researching her life for an article and everyone I speak to uses similar words about her: ‘energy’, ‘gusto’, ‘enthusiasm’, ‘dynamism’. With her waist-length red hair, barbie-doll figure, defiant gaze and disarming smile, she was a woman of enormous presence.
But she was also a brilliant and dogged researcher, indefatigable in tracking down the facts, if necessary turning on a high-voltage charm to persuade experts to divulge their knowledge. This research was always for others, never for self-aggrandisement, whether it was for those vulnerable teenage girls she worked with in the 1970s or the Billingsgate fish porters for whom she campaigned in the last months of her life. She was also highly intelligent though she never used this intelligence to show off. On the contrary, she was a wonderful listener, coaxing one to share ideas and speculate. Most of my friends’ eyes start to glaze over when I start talking about my work; but Jane actively encouraged me to go into lecturer mode, never seeming bored, with an endless supply of supplementary questions, like a good interviewer.
She was enormously entertaining too, seeing the funny side of most things, including her own mistakes. She would often goad me into sarcasm and wait till she had teased out a bon mot (for instance, recently, describing the situation in an institute where I used to work as one where the ships were deserting the sinking rat) and then say ‘You’re such a prize bitch, Ursula. You’re the best bitch I know’ (She also did a good line in flattery).
I feel desperately intellectually lonely without her.

2 thoughts on “Jane Barker

  1. I have just heard about Jane’s death – I am shocked and saddened. She was such a great woman.

    Would it be OK if I forwarded your post to some other women I know who might not have heard?

    Is there to be some sort of memorial?

    In sisterhood, Gail

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