Remembering Catherine Thomas

Tribute written by Tori Cann, with input from friends and family.

Catherine Wheel

You were fully committed to changing the world
This was your aim
That the barriers faced by young people today
Would no longer remain
You recognised the power of coercion and control
And the damage of self-blame
Your goal was to educate and validate and empower
So that lives were reclaimed

There was not enough time to complete the plan
As you were snatched away
Despite your energy and drive to make a difference
You were denied another day
Everyone you touched with your warmth and kindness
Misses your sunshine ray
Where Catherine was materially, is now an unoccupied space
But your legacy will stay

It was an absolute pleasure to work with you on your doctorate
Like a Catherine Wheel firework dancing
Always so passionate but pulled in different directions, all more important
Than grammar rules and referencing
You always had time to smile and laugh, despite the seriousness of your work
Taking pleasure in achieving
You will be much missed, but you leave behind an inspirational path
That others are now following.

Poem by Catherine’s PhD supervisor, Professor Dawn Mannay, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University

In January 2023 the world of gender and education lost one of our newest and brightest shining lights, Dr Catherine Thomas (also known as Catherine Phillips). Catherine was midway through her (posthumously awarded) doctoral research into young people’s understanding of coercion and consent within and beyond education when her life was cruelly and unexpectedly cut short. For those that worked with Catherine, news of her passing was more than a shock, not least because Catherine was perhaps the most energetic and fearless of our friends. Sometimes the word ‘passionate’ is bandied around when describing our activist friends, but for us who knew and loved Catherine, passionate is likely the word that comes first and foremost to mind when we think of her. Fiercely passionate, protective, and tireless in her fight against injustice, Catherine wasn’t shy about letting you know what she cared about, and she wasn’t going to go easy on you if she thought you might be standing in the way of equality.

One of her friends recalled that he “had the opportunity to witness her profound care and concern for people, particularly those facing disadvantages in society. Catherine would often speak passionately about the children she met during her research interviews and her desire to change societal norms and systems that posed obstacles to their well-being. She would shed tears when discussing potential harm that children might have experienced. Her face would light up when she shared stories of positive changes resulting from her work and advocacy for the well-being of women and children. For Catherine, there was no dichotomy between work and personal life. Her dedication to gender equity and children’s well-being was her work, passion, and her life”

Such was her fire that it’s impossible to imagine a future without her, but it’s also impossible to imagine a future where her legacy doesn’t continue.

I first met Catherine when she was finishing up her MA in Human Rights at the University of West England where she received a Distinction, and she was introduced to me by EJ Renold who Catherine was a research assistant for at the time. We quickly became friends and subsequently worked together on three projects on girls’ rights for the charity Plan International UK, with Catherine taking on the focus on Welsh girls and young women. Anyone who worked with Catherine loved working with her, she approached any project with absolute enthusiasm, a commitment to justice and a fierce sense of humour. As part of her doctoral journey, working under the supervision of Professor Dawn Mannay and Dr Kevin Smith, Catherine continued in this vein. In 2022 Catherine was presented the Audrey Jones Awards for the work on her thesis to date, which further demonstrates the quality of her research and writing.

Friends and colleagues from her PhD community paint a picture of Catherine as just the best person to have around, funny, smart, generous in her spirit and unwavering in her support. Catherine was everyone’s hype-girl. While there were times when it was challenging for her, Catherine, like so many of us to be the first in our family to go to university, to be a mature student, to be at once both ‘Mum’ and ‘student’, delighted in connecting with other ‘misfit’ academics. She would always be the first to let you know that she was grateful for your presence, she was never shy to call out injustice and she absolutely delighted in lifting others. Her friend recalled “When I think of Catherine, I remember her as a source of empowerment and unwavering support for the well-being of people, especially women and children. She had an incredibly kind heart and would go above and beyond to assist others. She took the time to listen and always offered her helping hand to uplift those in need. Personally, she lifted me countless times, and her caring nature left a lasting impact on all who knew her. Many people who interacted with Catherine will fondly remember her asking, “hey, are you okay?”; and “how can I help, my love?”.”

In 2022 Catherine and I published a jointly written chapter on Girls and Mental Health and it was an experience I’ll always treasure. While I was off meeting the academic conventions Catherine would pull me back to make the writing more engaging for the intended audience. Whenever I reread this piece (which I have done a few times since Catherine’s passing) I can’t help but read this line in her voice: “Say it with us. Accountability is everything.” These seven words illustrate Catherine’s approach to writing, academia and activism perfectly. She didn’t just want you to understand the problem, she wanted to hear you say how you will be part of the solution.

Prior to her arrival in academia, Catherine’s career showed her deep commitment to gender equality for children and young people. In 2017 she joined Welsh Women’s Aid as a Children and Young People Public Affairs Officer and a Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (VAWDASV) Trainer. As part of this role she worked with service providers, Welsh Government, schools and the police to advocate for young people’s rights and to train service providers in gender equality (you can read the Welsh Women’s Aid tribute to Catherine here). One of Catherine’s most valuable skills was her ability to speak across groups and to garner enthusiasm from others for gender equality work. Colleagues from Welsh Women’s Aid described Catherine as ‘unfaltering force for good’ an opinion that echoes across all of the tributes that have come from her friends and family. Her previous experience included copywriting, editing, and content management for not-for-profits and she also worked with CAFCASS Cymru on children and young people’s experiences. In 2014 she completed an internship with UN Women in New York which Catherine was immensely proud of (you can read her writing about this experience here). Catherine also took great enjoyment in writing poetry and fiction prose.

Words can’t do justice to the way Catherine made you feel; supported, loved, valued, and there remains a great sense of injustice to losing her so early. She was, and is, loved by so many and both professionally and personally, and her loss has been acutely felt, she still had so much to say and to do. So, in the spirit of Catherine, and her love for poetry I leave you with a poem of hope from Catherine herself:

Things don’t stay the same for long, so
wherever you are hang on. Even if your
fingernails splinter and all you feel is winter
deep in your bones

When there is no comfort at home, and no love
to call your own. When you feel like your soul is
broken and all the words spoken are of loss

You have the power to shower yourself with all
you need, you’re already complete.
You are not the actions or words of others, you
are not drowning in shame. You’re not to

So hang on, and soon you’ll plant your feet on
a different street. The season will change, cold
winds replaced by birds in trees and the low
hum of bees

You’ll have love at home, which will be your
own. Your heart will repair and you’ll feel safe,
in that place that reminds you you’re
strong and you’ve found where you belong.

So hang on.

Catherine Thomas, 1979 – 2023.