I first volunteered in September 1981. My daughter had just turned 5 and started school. As to why; 1981 was a very difficult year for me as my husband died in March 1981 with my children aged 6 and 4. I had been away from teaching since my son was born in 1975 but clearly, given the family situation, was not ready to go back to teaching at that stage but with some free time during the day I wanted to get involved in something worthwhile that was potentially challenging and interesting but voluntary.
This reflects a significant change in the lives of women. It was in the 1970s normal that in the teaching profession women had a complete career break when they had their families. It was very rare for a teacher to return to her job after a few months maternity leave and maternity leave was minimal if you were going back to work. Pay stopped on the day the baby was born if you didn’t return. My pay stopped sooner because my son arrived 10 days early! I think I may have got state Maternity Allowance for a few weeks
I continued to volunteer and the situation just evolved. Volunteering had a very positive effect on me and showed that there were others who were in a variety of different challenging situations. I was financially secure due to life insurance paying the mortgage, I had pension as the widow of a teacher and the state provision for widows was very generous compared with current provision. I saw single parents who were single for other reasons in a very different situation. There wasn’t even any state provision for men with children whose wife had died. Society back then seemed to treat widows as “deserving poor” who could reasonably have expected to be supported by their husband throughout his working life. In the case of a couple with or without children if the man died the surviving woman only got the non means tested widow's pension or widowed parent's allowance if they were actually married. If cohabiting, their only entitlement was means tested benefits. This meant if the Bureau came across a case of a cohabiting couple where the man had a terminal diagnoses we had to make sure we gave the advice to make sure they got married before he died unless of course one of them was still married to somebody else! However, this advice did not apply if it was the woman who was terminally ill. Back in the early 1980s even widows in their 20s without children still got a widows pension unless / until they married or cohabited with somebody else.
After a couple of years, I did go back to teaching but had the advantage of being qualified in a subject where there was always a shortage so was in a position to say that I was only interested in part time work. I enjoyed my CAB work more than teaching but teaching provided enough income such that I was able to remain as a volunteer for CAB rather than seek a CAB paid role. I always managed to have one non-teaching day each week which I could use for CAB. Once my children had completed university and in my mid 50s I decided I could give up on the teaching and then started doing 2 days a week in the Bureau.
I did session support for a short while but I wasn’t so keen on that as I preferred having face to face contact with clients rather than being based mostly in the general office. Around 2000 I started specialising in disability benefit issues and did the Appeals training at Citizens Advice Scotland. For about 7 or 8 years I enjoyed the challenge of representing at tribunals but then life got more complicated when I was spending 2 days a week looking after grandchildren in West Lothian so I stopped the representation and cut down CAB to one day a week. The grandchildren have now got older but so have I and I don’t think I will return to Appeal work but I still do Mandatory Reconsideration submissions. I have always throughout the years managed to adapt the extent and nature of my CAB volunteering to my circumstances at the time.
There have been many changes for women throughout the years I have been at CAB; provision by the state of benefits for women has reduced. I received my Retirement Pension at age 60 whereas men at that time received it at 65. I have already referred to the generous benefits for women who were widowed and the general expectation that women would spend a number of years at home with children under school age returning to part time work only once their children were at school. This established a situation where women who had had a career break missed out on promotion and similar progression through their career paths to their male contemporaries. While state provision has reduced, employment law is very different from 40 years ago especially around Maternity leave and pay and also around equal pay for men and women doing similar jobs. Possibly the pressure on women to work full time is at times too great with huge stress caused if they are frequently off work due to e.g. childcare crises. It is still women more than men that take time off work when care is needed for a sick child or an elderly relative.
CAB volunteering is great for anyone interested in a fair society and one where the vulnerable are supported and treated non-judgementally. It can be as challenging as the volunteer wishes with scope for specialisation in different areas. Inevitably it is always changing and evolving as society changes. I have seen the Poll Tax come and go and also devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament when we had to get to grips with what was and was not devolved and we are currently seeing changes with disability benefits being devolved.
A huge factor of course is also the friendship within the team of Bureau staff, both paid and volunteer colleagues who come from very wide-ranging backgrounds but who all seem to share the values of wanting the best for their clients whoever they are.