TO commemorate International Women’s Day this Wednesday, Fabulous revisits three of the most inspirational women we have ever featured
‘I went into politics after my MP sister Jo Cox was murdered’
Kim Leadbeater, 46, is Labour MP for Batley and Spen and lives with her partner Clare, 45, in West Yorkshire.
“Sitting in my seat in the House of Commons, looking around the iconic chamber, it still feels surreal that this is now my life.
I was elected as an MP in July 2021, but when the idea of running for election was first suggested to me, my initial reaction was: ‘Absolutely no way.’
Yet here I am, and while this wasn’t the path I ever thought I’d be on in life, I believe I’ve taken the right one.
I was interviewed for Fabulous in 2017, the year after my older sister, Labour MP Jo Cox, 41, was stabbed and shot in daylight in Birstall, West Yorkshire, in June 2016.
Her senseless loss devastated our family, including her children Cuillin and Lejla, now 12 and 10.
I identified Jo’s body after her murder, but that’s not what I think about when I remember her.
I see her cycling beside me as kids, or taking me to parties when we were teens.
I see her as a mum when she had her two babies, and when she made her maiden speech in the Commons.
Most read in Fabulous
Back then, if you’d told me I’d end up following her into politics, I wouldn’t have believed it.
However, after working for the Jo Cox Foundation, a charity set up to create a positive legacy, in 2021 her old seat became available.
My parents, partner Clare and friends encouraged me to stand for election, but I felt torn.
While I didn’t want someone unconnected to the area to win the seat, I’d never had any interest in going into politics – for many reasons, including the fact it had taken my sister from me.
Then my dad said: ‘If you don’t go for it, you may regret it,’ and I knew I would run, because I try to live my life without regret and I refused to be scared to get involved – politics needs good people.
However, it was never about ‘doing it for Jo’.
Yes, because of her death, I’m now an MP, but my motivation was to make a difference to people’s lives.
I will always be so proud to be known as Jo’s sister, but in my new political career, I’ve been clear I’m doing it my way.
I have to develop my own credibility in this job, and I feel I’ve done that.
I split my time between my offices in Westminster and Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire, and don’t see family and friends as much as I’d like to.
It’s hard, but I take great satisfaction from the job. I understand now why Jo loved it so much.
Politics is tough, but there’s evidence women face far more abuse, and it can be unpleasant and scary.
It’s worrying how normalised it’s become for female MPs to receive vitriolic emails, threats on social media and attacks on their offices.
I know from losing Jo that it can never be dismissed. Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is definitely one of the most pressing issues for me as an MP right now.
How women are treated in society, and the value placed on us, has to change.
In February last year, I received an MBE at Windsor Castle for my work tackling social isolation.
The ceremony was beautiful, but any occasion I attend, particularly something of this magnitude, is always bittersweet for me, because ultimately, the fundamental reason I’m here is because of my sister’s murder.
Jo’s been dead for over six years, but I still haven’t fully come to terms with what happened.
She’s always at the forefront of my mind, and while I know she’s gone, in many ways it still doesn’t feel real.
I’ll be spending IWD with incredible women from my constituency, including those who work for domestic violence survivors, celebrating them and the work they do.
And, of course, I’ll be thinking about my sister, who I miss so much and who remains my inspiration every day.”
‘Having cancer for 14 years hasn’t stopped me living – or saving others’
Kris Hallenga, 37, is a campaigner and author and lives in Cornwall.
“Last month, I celebrated my 14th ‘cancerversary’ – a milestone I once thought I’d never make.
“On holiday in Spain with family and friends, it was a day of mixed emotions.
“Of course, it felt momentous and amazing.
“Every year that has passed since my diagnosis of stage four breast cancer in February 2009, aged just 23, has felt that way, because back then I was led to believe people like me don’t survive this long.
“But I also wished, not for the first time, that I wasn’t an anomaly.
“I don’t want to be the exception to the statistics that say women with my diagnosis only survive, on average, for two to three years.
“It took six years for me to be diagnosed with cancer, after multiple trips to my GP from the age of 17 because my left breast was smaller than the right, it was lumpy and there was discharge from my nipple.
“Repeatedly, I was told it was ‘normal’ and that the pain I began to experience was ‘probably hormonal’.
“Eventually I was referred to a breast clinic and, after tests and scans, was given the devastating news I had cancer and it had spread to my spine.
“It was now classed as ‘incurable’ and I had two to three years to live.
“I’ve done so many things and made so many memories since I was diagnosed – from setting up the breast cancer charity CoppaFeel! in 2009, to publishing my book Glittering A Turd in 2021, seeing my twin sister Maren get married in 2015, and of course trekking across Iceland in 2016 with Fabulous for CoppaFeel!.
“The big, public moments like that have been incredible, but what mean so much to me are the small ones that only I experience.
“Like when I open an email from a woman who, thanks to the work of our charity or reading my story, has had her breasts checked and caught her cancer early, meaning that it’s curable.
“I’ve been in treatment since I was first diagnosed, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and having a double mastectomy, and I’m currently having IV chemo again.
“It means I’ve now lost my hair for the second time.
“I don’t give a s**t about being bald though, and I don’t wear a wig, although I do miss my eyelashes.
“But what I find hard to bear are other people’s perceptions of me when my cancer is so ‘visible’.
“They see me as frail, to be pitied, and are surprised to hear I’m still working – I’ve hosted a podcast since stepping down as CoppaFeel! CEO in 2016 – and doing things like going on holiday and walking on the beach near my home.
“Of course, I have times when I need to just retreat and wallow, but I am also living my life alongside this disease, like so many people do.
“Even worse are the social media messages I get telling me I am ‘still beautiful’ – they drive me mad.
“I’ve never once suggested I feel anything less just because I have no hair.
“I wish I could go back to 2009 and tell that terrified girl, Googling frantically, gripped with fear, to believe in any possibility.
“I would say to her that she never thought this would happen to her, but it has.
“You don’t know what’s coming next – good or bad – but don’t be scared, keep an open mind and believe in a good life with cancer, with endless possibilities.
“And to women everywhere on International Women’s Day, my message is to really own and get to know your body in every sense – and if you feel like something isn’t right, seek help.
“Feel empowered, not afraid.”
‘I’ve changed the lives of more than 20 teenagers by being a foster parent’
Jemma Johnson, 59, is a foster carer and lives in Canvey Island, Essex, with her husband Stuart, 59. She also has five grown-up children.
“Posing for the camera when I was photographed for Fabulous in 2020, after winning the Mum of The Year award, I couldn’t believe it.
“I’d been nominated by my daughter Sammy Jay, 32, for my work as a foster carer, and it really was an unforgettable experience.
“Three years on, and with my 60th birthday on the horizon this summer, I’m still fostering – with no plans to stop.
“Before meeting my husband Stuart online in 2004, I was a single mum of five, then aged between six and 24, and worked for the NHS in the ambulance service.
“I’d always wanted to be a foster carer, but with five kids and a job to juggle, I simply didn’t have the time or space.
“However, as my children began to fly the nest and I was settled with Stuart – who also has a daughter from a previous marriage – we began to look into it.
“My children were really supportive.
“They knew how lucky they were to have grown up in a loving and secure home – and they wanted other young people to experience that, too.
“Neither Stuart nor I wanted to go back to the baby and toddler years, but we were drawn to fostering teenagers.
“A friend of one of my sons had been in care, and I knew how challenging the teen years can be when you’re in the system.
“We learned about Supported Lodgings, which is different from fostering as your role is to encourage 16-18 year olds, supporting them as they transition to becoming independent adults.
“It felt perfect for us.
“Since 2007, I’ve opened my home to around 24 teenagers – I’ve lost count of the exact total – for both long- and short-term placements.
“Some have been in care for years, others only for a short while.
“It can be challenging. These are young people who may have behavioural issues or have experienced trauma, there might be a language barrier, or they have been let down and rejected repeatedly.
“My home is the final stop on their journey to becoming independent, and my goal is always to make it as positive an experience as I can, to gain their trust, help them feel safe and cared for and go into the world equipped for adulthood.
“And when that happens, it’s so satisfying.
“My relationship with my foster kids doesn’t necessarily end when they leave my home.
“With some, I have stayed in touch and one now lives with me permanently, as part of the family.
“Alongside my caring role, I work part-time as independent living adviser in a sheltered housing scheme for over-55s.
“I also sit on a panel that interviews prospective foster carers and makes recommendations as to their suitability.
“If you have the time, space and care to give, please consider it.
“It’s such a rewarding role and a way of really making a difference to a child or teenager’s life and future.”
- Photography: Jenna Foxton, Lancton, Liz Gregg, Peter Byrne/PA Wire, Tim Stewart News