The American singer Ani Di Franco says her idea of feminism is self-determination. “Every woman has the right to become herself, and do whatever she needs to do,” she says. A massive critical success, Di Franco was born in Buffalo and has made her living over the years from music, writing and poetry. I’m pretty sure she hasn’t met Diane Greer but I imagine they’d probably enjoy a good yarn if the occasion ever arose. Aside from gigging, which Diane currently enjoys with her partner Paddy Nash, her and Di Franco, would, I suspect share similar views on women and their place in the world.
Diane is a feminist in the best and truest sense of the often misused word, softly spoken and generous with her hugs, over the years in in Derry, she’s been an advocate for women going through unimaginable trauma. Describing herself as a part of the third wave of feminism, she’s more than stepped up when it was needed when Derry was a challenging place to live in.
As one of the driving forces behind the Derry Rape and Incest Line in the mid eighties, she was dealing head on with abuse at a point when it was anything but popular to do so. She’s pro-choice, pro women, pro men and generally pro people being able to live their lives in peaceful surroundings, uninterrupted by fear and violence.
When we meet, she’s on her way home from her day job, at the Workers Education Authority. A leadership trainer, she’s been in the role for over 25 years and has worked with emerging governments in Azerbaijan and Serbia. She’s just as happy working with local politicians on the ground at home, something which is currently the focus of her work from her Magazine Street offices.
Despite a very credible CV, Diane doesn’t do self praise. Even in speaking about her work over the years she goes to great lengths to emphasise that it isn’t about personal achievement on her part, rather the individual stories and great strength of character she’s met in the people in Derry and beyond who she’s come into contact with.
Born in Belfast, Diane came to Derry with her family as a baby and still describes her first family home in the Belmont estate as her ‘grounding place.’
“It was a lovely childhood there and the estate was so mixed. Half the people there were police families at that time. A few years later when my parents got a bit of money gathered, we moved to Kingsfort Park.”
Diane’s family were one of the last protestant families to move to the Waterside during what she describes as “the tail end of the exodus.”
The tense political climate of the day combined with her parents’ worry over what might become of their two sons, saw the family relocate to Ardlough Road in the Waterside.
Diane has never returned to live in the West Bank but has spent the bulk of her working life there.
Her first job was as a secretary at Huntwright Shirt and Collar Factory in Magazine Street, not far from where her current office is now.
“Those were the days of full employment when there were three employers waiting for every person looking for a job,” she smiles.
“I was a young office junior and I adored working there.”
It was during her days in the shirt factory industry that Diane first became interested in politics, although there were clearly some familial influences at play too. Her aunt, Marlene Jefferson, was the first female mayor of Derry. Her father, she says was a socialist,
“He would never have admitted that he was a socialist but my father was a firm believer that nobody should have two coats until everybody as one coat. I believe that too, so maybe there’s a bit of a communist in me!,” she says.
Diane worked at the shirt factory up until leaving to have her children, Stewart and Katie, who are now both grown up with children of their own.
During this time she saw an advertisement in a local paper looking for volunteers needed to set up a rape and incest line.
“I went along and was greeted by two feminists behind a table,” she recalls. “There I was in a wee suit and ballet court shoes. They asked me who I thought were the type of people who get abused. I said I thought it was predominantly poor people, in families with alcoholics and that was my perception at the time.”
A steep learning curve followed for Diane who threw herself into training as an abuse counsellor and very soon, she ended up running the vital support service. In those days, as a protestant women’s rights activist there was no room for getting notions above your station as Diane recalls with a cheerful if ever so slightly mortifying anecdote.
“I remember my first speaking engagement was with Nell McCafferty at the Guildhall Square as part of the first ever International Women’s Day celebrations in Derry. It was agreed that Sinn Fein would supply a lorry, but I couldn’t be on the Sinn Fein lorry so it ended up that Nell was on the stage with the great sound system while I ended up in a flowerpot nearby sinking and holding a dodgy megaphone!”
Undeterred by her self described disastrous public speaking debut, Diane continued to work hard promoting women’s rights, spurred on by what she saw as the gross inaccuracies political leaders were peddling about women in the city.
“The messages political leaders in unionism were feeding us was wrong. They labelled many of these women who worked in the factories as breeders of terrorists. But from my time and experience working in Huntwright I had seen just how untrue that was. These women were coming into work crying because their houses had been raided overnight and these were the same women who still managed to have three children ready to go out to school the next morning. That was really the first time the sisterhood meant something to me and I knew I had to do something.”
Part of Diane’s work in the eighties, saw her escorted in and out of some of Derry’s most dangerous troublespots to counsel women who had been raped.
It was, she concedes, a strange situation. As a protestant woman she was working on both sides of the political and social divide, long before somebody had put a term on it.
“There I was being taken in and out of the Bogside by the provos,” she says.
“I built up a web of relationships. There was no forced need to build community relations. We were dealing with real issues, these women desperately needed help and I’d say as a result I had friends in high places and friends in low places.”
Religion has never come into it for Diane. She tries, she says, at all times, to put the person and their story first,
That’s a mantra she’s applied to all her work over the years, from the Rape and Incest Line, to working with EXTERN, working with Derry Well Woman, running as a People Before Profit candidate in the council elections and more recently as a devoted member of local band the Happy Enchiladas.
Diane’s vocals undoubtedly reveal a talent which has been extremely well hidden over the years and her passion for the tambourine is one of the many treats from the band’s notable live performances, of which there have been a good many over the past year.
After a nervous first performance upstairs in Sandino’s a few years back, the mother of two has come a long way.
“That said, I still use my daughter Katie as a benchmark,” says Diane.
“Sometimes I think I shouldn’t be doing it. If she tells me I’m too old for it or I should stop doing it, that’s when I’d leave it behind. But, that hasn’t happened yet! Then I go out and do it and have so much fun. It’s just brilliant.”
She loves her time performing and has dreams of doing a stage dive but mostly, there’s a sense that she loves entertaining with the love of her life, Paddy, by her side.
Their path to love, Diane says, was not straightforward.
“I adored him from day one and now we’ve managed to square the circle, “ she smiles.
With an interesting story of her own, Diane doesn’t have a long ‘to do’ list drawn up for the next few years.
The band are going down a storm and while she’s remaining tightlipped until signatures are on dotted lines, there are some big things in the pipeline for Diane and her fellow enchiladas in 2013. She’s 100 per cent behind Derry’s year as City Of Culture and she’s excited about what that might mean for the Happy Enchiladas.
“I suppose looking ahead I hope we can continue to plough our own furrows,” she smiles.
“I just want to be able to support Paddy in what he does and really just continue to live the life we’re living.”
For more information on the Happy Enchiladas visit paddynash.co.uk