My Journey to a PhD

Student outdoors smiling

By Andrea Cooper

Born in the Sixties, I grew up in Merseyside. I am the eldest of four children and we lived with my mum, and through the cobbled entry lived my Nanny Holmes. I remember my mum and nan to be loving, kind, resilient women who put their family first at all times. My mum’s family all lived in Shropshire she was the only one to move away, this pretty and shy woman with the courage of a lioness. She was gentle but protective of her brood and we thought too strict. We were always the kids who had to come in from playing whilst it was still light so we could go to bed early and be up for school, and mum ‘forced’ us all to go for a family walk on a Sunday afternoon no matter the weather. We were all brought up to be well mannered, to do as we were told, to look after each other, and treat other people kindly. 

Both my mum and nan lived a tough life, nothing came easy for them and they worked hard with little time or treats for themselves. My mum (youngest child of nine - with the beautiful name Andelle after a French river) prided herself that we were clean and fed hot meals and that her white washing on the line was spotless. She juggled money to pay the bills and kept a roof over our heads – trying to keep the bailiffs away from the door by cleaning three mornings a week for posh people, cash in hand so hidden from the ‘social’ (social security) – until she got caught. 

At school we always behaved and did well in class and sports. We were expected to do well at school because we were ‘bright’ but I can’t ever remember being expected to do anything with an education – even when my mum and dad burst with pride at me passing the eleven plus exam to go to the girls grammar school. I didn’t get to go to sixth form because you had to wear your own clothes and I had holes in my pair of shoes. My mum told me years later (and still does) that she would have liked me to be a nurse, like she would have loved to have been. 

In my mid-twenties I started my higher education studies in Cartrefle part of the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education (NEWI) which is now Wrexham University. I studied here because it was the nearest but also one of the best places to study Youth and Community Work. I produced an A+ piece of research on women lawbreakers and would have loved to pursuit an academic career but I had my professional qualification and as a ‘single mother’ I needed to get out and earn. 

I have always been fascinated with women and carry a genuine curiosity about notions of womanhood or femininity. Through the sensibility of a girl growing up I saw some things – women who dressed funny with black tights and white shoes who hung around the bus depot at the top of our street; women smoking and drinking in the pub on a Sunday when we went in to ask our dad for a bottle of R Whites lemonade to go with our dinner; the barmaid in the snooker hall where my nan cleaned who gave me nuts from the cardboard picture of a semi-naked woman whilst I learned how to count and spell watching Sesame Street on the coloured telly in the ladies lounge; and the hordes of women going in and out of the bingo hall. I experienced the sights and smells of this everyday life going on around me enthralling.

These women and my mum and nans experiences of the ups and downs of life helped me to develop an ingrained compassion for women. Particularly for women who are vulnerable at times and those women who experience profound inequality. Along the way in adulthood I have fluctuated from being a radical feminist to liberal feminist, to being too busy with other stuff to wave the flag and even to feel it was irrelevant to call myself a feminist. In my fifties I am now that mum of four and a Nanny Cooper who is loved as much as we loved our nan, and I am helping to raise my grandsons to be good men like my husband (and my brothers). It is also now the time that us kids take our turn to be gentle and protect our mum. 

Amazingly, I have been lucky enough to achieve my ambition of studying for a PhD – having the opportunity to write and importantly to explore more about ‘other ordinary women’ and how they fare. In my research, I attempt to connect the everyday experience of a group of ‘ordinary’ women who have offended to public issues of inequality, injustice, and exploitation. 

Following in the footsteps of two of my daughters, I came back to study in Wrexham. It is still the nearest but importantly it has one of the best reputations for studying criminal justice. Having not studied for over thirty years I started tentatively with an MA and I am so grateful for all the support I have received. As a mature student and a feminist I love how the university is outstanding for social inclusion and I am proud to be here.