While having a beer with Colette at the tennis club, last Sunday, mother's day, I've read her biography, which almost brought tears to my eyes, both of love and admiration. Thank you Colette for being our role model!
Please meet our lady of the month of May, Colette Kavanagh Ph.D.
I was born and grew up in Ireland at a time when it was very difficult for women. Our mothers could not model an empowering life for their daughters individuating in a rapidly changing world. Educating-women was still considered a bad investment because girls were not allowed to work if they married: their role was in the home whether they had children or not. Even wearing pants was not acceptable because they showed too much of the female form and were considered ”immodest.”
My challenge with these cultural norms began as a teenager. I was a talented swimmer and rapidly rose to olympic status. However, when I won events my photograph would frequently appear in the newspaper and that gave problems when I went into school the following day. Sometimes I even aimed for second place to avoid confrontation with the nuns since it made life easier. Without being aware, I was being taught to shame my body and deny my femininity. Participating in the Olympics was not even a possibility since it would have been a scandal for the Irish swimming organization to fund a female.
For me, marriage was a trap to be avoided at all costs and yet, to be married by the mid- twenties was considered a must. Your value as a person then became the value of the man you married. Added to that, there was no divorce - if one happened to make a bad choice of a partner, it was a life sentence, not to mention one of economic dependence: women could not borrow money – even renting a TV without a husband’s permission was impossible. All financial matters were controlled by men. The sale of any form of contraception was also forbidden so family planning was almost impossible.
In my early twenties, I worked on documentary films for Irish Television. For eight years I traveled to other cultures in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It broadened my outlook on life since I was exposed to other beliefs and values. However, it also separated me from my own culture since my friends and colleagues did not have this sort of international exposure and we became more and more estranged.
By my mid-twenties, I knew I had to leave Ireland, but how? Where to go, how to survive? Fate intervened. I won a design competition that offered me a free education at the School of Art and Design in Stockholm where I studied Textile Design. Living in Sweden at that time was like landing on another planet. The cultural norms were totally different to what I had experienced in Ireland and there was no going back. I had to find a way to go forward.
When I graduated, I decided to move to California. By then I was an artist sculpting woven copper while using textile techniques I had learned in Sweden. I was actually weaving copper wire into shapes and textile patterns on weaving looms that were then shaped into sculptural forms. I was also experimenting with oxidation to bring colour into the metal pieces. However, fate intervened. Before leaving for the States, I decided to visit my sister who was living in Amsterdam. There I met a wonderful Dutch man, Berend, and delayed my departure….and delayed…. and delayed. Finally, I crossed California off the
map and stayed in Amsterdam, setting up home and a design business with Berend while arranging expositions of my art work.
We opened a store on the Singel canal specializing in clothing from pure natural materials-wool, cotton, silk and linen. Being the 1980’s, it was the first of its kind in the Netherlands with Berend running the business and me creating the designs. It was an immediate success, but six weeks later tragedy struck. Berend was hit by a car while riding his bike home one evening and died.
My entire life changed on that one day. Not only had I to handle my grief alone, but it also meant learning how to run a business without any experience. We had personnel and a large investment in the business and property, but we also lived over the store and I had no other means of survival. My life as an artist also had to stop immediately and, sadly, I never got back to my metal sculptures again. This experience humbled me to realise we are not fully in control of how we plan our lives. Things can change in any given moment.
Running the design store on my own became more and more lonely since it was never my intention run a business without Berend. Apart from the responsibility, it became a routine of long hours in the same space every day, and mostly standing on my feet. Despite its continued success for several years, I began to long for a new chapter in my life. I struggled with this. I had worked so hard to build up my business and now I was going to let it go!! However, I was the designer and nobody wanted to buy my business without me going with it.
Then, one day it happened. I opened up one of my two stores as usual and discovered I was twenty minutes too early. I locked the doors again and went for a walk not wanting to be there longer than I needed to be, despite it being only fifteen minutes I was shocked at this realization and knew I had to make changes immediately. I did, and that day I made plans to go to San Francisco to study for a Ph.D. course in Women’s Spirituality. I am not religious, but it was a totally new academic study and my Irish experiences had left a vacuum to be filled in finding a way for women to experience themselves and their bodies in better and more fulfilling ways. As part of this study, I became interested in myth, symbol and ritual and, most interesting of all, the deep unconscious contents of the feminine/human psyche. I realized we do not live these myths and archetypal forms, they live us at least until we can bring them to consciousness.
Tragically, the course broke down after six months. The idea was great, but it was started too quickly without carefully planning the logistics of a fully credited Ph.D. programme. Suddenly I had no business to return to and no course to follow. I was back again at ground zero. Fortunately, I moved to Santa Barbara in California and started a Ph.D study in Cultural Psychology which allowed me to incorporate my interest in the myths and beliefs of modern culture that keep an individual or culture stuck or move it forward. My goal was not to acquire a Ph.D. but to follow my passion for something that deeply moved me. I had done things I should do, must do and ought to do. Now was the time to do something that I loved to do.
Since my graduation I teach, give seminars and consultations in Europe and the US. My specialization is mainly on transition and change which was also the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation. I see enormous advances in what women have achieved since my early days – even Ireland has had twenty successful years of female Presidents and is now a very modern country, even ahead of the curve on many issues. However, our journey to individuation is far from over and as women we must not become careless or naive. We are presently facing a period of regression: the situation of girls in Afganistan, the threat to democracy and women’s rights in the US, not to mention the global rise of pathological male leaders giving great cause for concern. Europe never thought they would be at war again, and now with the Ukraine we are right in it. Women must carefully guard their hard-won freedoms and not think they cannot lose them.
My personal battle to individuate is also still not over. I now face a new challenge without adequate role models: the challenge of positive ageing as a woman. How do I avoid being invisible or being discarded as an outdated model with so much emphasis on a woman’s value being in her youthful beauty? How do I value myself by seeing the beauty of a storied face and looking with courage into the depths? I will find a way. I always have.