Yesterday was International Women’s Day, the occurrence of which has led me to reflect on my place in an industry which was, and for many still is, viewed as male dominated. The forestry industry, due to the tough physical work it involves on the forest floor, is often stereotyped as a male industry, and one of the most common questions I am asked by people is: “Are there many other women in the Forestry Commission?” The answer, I am delighted every time to utter is that I am far from being the only woman, there are a great many of us working for the FC. We have female Works Supervisors (of which I was one until recently), Beat Managers, Planners, Ecologists, Administrators, Trainee Foresters, Recreation Rangers, Financiers and in so many other roles too. It is true that though our numbers are large I have not yet meet a female Craftsperson or Tractor Driver, but there may well be some in other districts and I am sure any women applying would be most welcome. Only last year here in the New Forest the very first female Keeper, in the very long history of the role, was appointed when Sandy Shore joined the Keeper ranks in April 2015. I must admit that before starting with the FC I too did wonder if I would be the lone female voice in meetings and within teams, but I was both surprised and pleased to find how equally the numbers are split. I think it is commendable and shows the FC as a truly modern employer, and of course means that looking to the future there are numerous possible career routes ahead of me.
I was reminded of my student days when one of the most interesting arguments during lectures, tutorials, essays and exams was the ability of elite women in Imperial Rome, especially those related to the emperors, to exert power or influence. It has been convincingly argued in recent years that while some women were certainly able to exercise influence, that actual power was denied them by dint of being female, and that the influence they did exert came through their close relationship to the emperor. It was a sorry state of affairs that would take many hundreds of years to overcome. I expect it was for that very reason that those very few Imperial women who did manage to exert influence on the empire are the ones who remain my great favourites. They held an uneasy sway of influence through their relationship or manipulation of the emperor in power and as a result were often much maligned, and harshly dealt with by the sources. Wonderful Agrippina Minor who showed herself quite prepared to do absolutely anything to position herself and her son close to the Princeps, and then to retain their position there, and I mean truly anything… The brilliant Livia who exerted influence over not only her husband Augustus, but then her son Tiberius as well, and so continued her time in the sun. She may even have taken action to orchestrate the line of succession, and certainly appears to have been instrumental in Tiberius’ path to the Principate (as a result of which he denied her apotheosis and she had to wait until Claudius came into power, which I always felt was very unjust of him). Or the terrific women in the Severan family who exerted influence over the young emperors Elagabalus and Alexander Severus, not that they managed to prevent their early demise. But these women are very much the exception to the rule, especially Livia, and where they prospered Rome was littered with the bodies of those who failed to gain or hang on to the limited influence women could then command. Poor old Poppaea, killed by her husband Nero, Domitia exiled on the whim of her husband Domitian, Scribonia divorced the day she gave birth to Augustus’ daughter Julia the Elder, Julia the Elder and her daughter Julia the Younger both of whom were exiled for affairs which may well have disguised conspiracies against the emperor, Messalina killed for her part in what may have been an attempted coup… Imperial Roman was a harsh place for women who even had a slight chance, by way of family connections to the Princeps, to exert any influence let alone those that did try to exert it. No wonder it is those few Roman women who made their personality known and their influence felt, always through their husband/father/son of course, were the ones I became most interested in. And so Happy International Women’s Day: a celebration for those of us happy in positions of equality at work, a timely reminder that this was not always the case, and alas also a reminder that not all women are treated equally at work and that much still needs to be rectified in the future.