Interview with Dame Sue Carr (C151, Barry, 1982)

First featured in the Seniors’ Supplement 2020

Dame Sue Carr attended Wycombe Abbey from 1976-1982 as a member of Barry House. Having studied Modern Languages and Law at Trinity College, Cambridge, she went on to have an illustrious career in law where she was appointed to the Court of Appeal of England and Wales in 2019. She also served as a Governing Council Member of Wycombe Abbey for 13 years.

What does Wycombe Abbey mean to you?
Wycombe Abbey has been part of my life for a very long time: I was a pupil, my sister was a pupil, and my daughter and nieces also attended the School. I was a Member of Council for over ten years, and during that time I was Vice Chair for two years.

On the one hand, Wycombe Abbey evokes a combination of personal emotions and memories: my friendships and very happy years as a pupil and then going on to watch my sister, daughter and nieces thrive and enjoy (different yet still similar) experiences themselves. Some things never change – the sound of the school bell between classes, the view from Fisher Library, the steps up and down to Chapel from Barry, Lime Avenue, the smell of dirty lacrosse boots… I could go on! From a different perspective, the School means something more objective: an exciting focus of educational excellence and opportunity for future generations of women.

What were your passions and interests at Wycombe Abbey?
I did really enjoy my favourite subjects, in particular the Arts, and I am not ashamed to say that I worked hard academically. Beyond that, I threw myself into everything that I could. I played lots of sport (including playing first-team lacrosse in my last two years). I enjoyed music, playing the piano and viola, and singing. I was not gifted in any way, but I managed to get reasonably proficient through practice. I chose the viola because I worked out that it would maximise my chances of getting into the School orchestra, something which I was keen to experience. It proved to be a canny choice. Despite my lack of talent, I ended up in the front row pretty quickly! I was also appointed leader of the choir in my finall year which led me briefly (and mistakenly) to believe that I was actually good at singing. Expecting to be in the front row on the first day of my new role, I was disappointed to see that I was firmly to be positioned in the back stalls. I realised quickly that I had been chosen not for my singing ability, but rather for my organisational skills. I also did lots of acting and debating. I was someone who enjoyed the opportunity of doing everything, and was lucky enough to get into the top teams and organisations without being particularly good at anything – I had a go and worked hard, with a lot of fun along the way!

I am very pleased to see that this sort of approach continues to be encouraged at Wycombe Abbey. I went to the Highlights dance show a few years ago with Clarence putting on a brilliant performance – all in the same (ridiculous gold and silver) leotards, just going for it to very loud music without any inhibition and irrespective of talent. It was just girls having an absolute blast. I thought that it was funny and gutsy – a celebration of friendship and energy – and simple fun in the girls’ (otherwise pretty intense) last year at school. The attitude was much more important than any underlying ability.

Do you feel that this attitude is unique to and a benefit of single-sex girls’ education?
I am a firm believer in single-sex education. Amongst other things, it provides girls with the opportunity to thrive without falling victim to gender stereotyping. There are also now so many outside opportunities to engage with other school communities, and with the omnipresence of social media, girls can and do still have rich and varied social lives.

What does success mean to you?
What success means to me has changed over time. I, unimaginatively, did use to measure it in stark terms – by reference to concrete achievements and milestones. It is now a much more nuanced concept for me. Success in small things can be much more important than headline successes. If I have managed to help somebody by giving them useful private advice, or have mentored someone in a way that makes a difference, then I feel successful – it gives me as much pleasure as would delivery of a great judgment or an impressive lecture. And, I align happiness with success. It is a question of finding the right balance in life, according to your real wishes.

You have achieved much in your professional life – is there something that you have earned that you feel reflects your personal values and what you wanted to achieve in life?
In July 2019 I was appointed to the Court of Appeal. This was a major milestone for me and certainly, once I embarked on a full-time judicial career, something to which I aspired. The opportunity to serve at this level, sitting alongside some of the finest legal minds in the world and addressing a vast variety of different legal issues in different contexts, is a genuine privilege. Ensuring that everyone who comes before the court is treated fairly and respectfully, and that the issues are explored thoroughly and impartially, are achievements reflecting my personal values.

On a more personal level, I would say that I have found mentoring other women very rewarding. Diversity and gender equality are matters close to my heart. I am proud that my husband and I have both worked full-time at demanding levels in fulfilling careers and at the same time managed to raise three pretty happy and healthy children.

Did you enjoy your time as a member of Council?
Yes, very much so. Being on Council was highly rewarding. Council is made up of an impressive and stimulating group of individuals with different skills and experiences so as to be able to cover the many varied aspects of school governance. So, there is representation from the educational, financial, estates, medical, religious and legal sectors, all carefully calibrated. There is also normally representation from the cohort of Seniors and school parents. The responsibilities of a governor are now so much wider ranging than they used to be, including on important matters such as safeguarding, mental health and welfare. Members of Council volunteer huge amounts of personal time to support the School, working alongside the Headmistress. They really are an inspiring collection of people.

I have, however, particularly enjoyed being a Member of Council as a Senior and for a while also when a parent of a pupil in School. Whilst it was always necessary to separate out the roles, it enabled me to bring insight from my own direct experiences to discussions not only on high-level strategic decisions but also on practical matters, such as new bathrooms and eating facilities.

Can you name your proudest moments as a member of Council?
In terms of personal contribution, I like to think that because of my long-standing connections, I have managed to provide a link between pupils, past and present, and Council. Having been a Member whilst also a parent, and a pupil myself, I understand the heartbeat of Wycombe Abbey, its values and ethos. I tried to ensure that these values are protected.

I also hope that I have contributed to the huge strides that have been taken to increase the focus on the girls’ welfare and mental wellbeing. Council also continues to work hard to improve the School’s bursary provision, something which I have always considered to be a key priority.

One of my proudest moments was standing in for the Chair of Council and delivering the keynote speech at Leavers’ Day. I spoke about the inter-relationship between success and happiness. I wanted to tell these gifted young women that one should do in life what one truly wants, not what others expect. To me, feminism is having that true freedom of choice. Sometimes the burden of potential is a heavy one and it is all too easy to go down a certain career path because it seems to be what is wanted of you. So perhaps you could be Prime Minister, but if actually you really want to be a painter or teach riding and your circumstances permit it, then that is what you should do.

Where have your sources of inspiration come from in your life?
I start with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who sadly died recently. She was a liberal icon, US Supreme Court Judge and former academic. She started out at Harvard Law School as one of nine women in a class of 500. She pioneered for women’s rights and equality more generally throughout her life – a truly incredible and inspirational woman.

Moving closer to home, I turn to Patricia (Pat) Lancaster, who was Headmistress during my time at Wycombe Abbey. She had a naturally poised formality (and had a wonderful collection of fabulous long necklaces) but it came with great kindness. She pushed me to push myself and was a fantastic person to have in my life. Another source of inspiration with a Wycombe Abbey connection is Elsie Bowerman, who attended the school in the early 1900s under Dame Frances Dove. She survived the Titanic, was a friend of the Pankhursts and an active suffragette, witnessed the Russian Revolution, was the first woman barrister to appear at the Old Bailey and the first head of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women – incredible!

My children and their friends have also been truly inspirational to me. My daughter’s principled approach to life sometimes takes my breath away – I often turn to her for guidance and advice. The children’s friends support each other in everything they do with unerring generosity. Their generation is resilient and resourceful.

What role did your school education play in preparing you for your future?
It instilled discipline and the ability to work hard, both of which have been the bedrock of such success as I have had. I also learned how to fail (or, perhaps better expressed, I experienced disappointment). That is key; the sooner you have a disappointment in life, the better. It means that you are better able to withstand the later disappointments that are bound to come down the road in life at some stage.

What does the future look like for young women today?
I think that it will be a bright if complex future for young women. There is a much healthier understanding of diversity issues; the challenge is to put all the good intentions into practice.

What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?
Life is a marathon and not a sprint.

What would you say to your former classmates?
I hope that each of them recognises how brilliant and special she was. I am not sure that they all did realise it at the time. In my day, I felt that the focus was very much on those at the top of the achievement ladder, and perhaps not enough on those below, each of whom was of course talented in her own way. I am glad to say that this potentially unhealthy focus very much does not exist anymore.

Would you say there are linking values and ethos among Wycombe Abbey women?
There is a common ground, a shared experience at a very deep level. A couple of years ago I attended a reception where I was to receive an award as European Business Woman of the Year. I was standing in a room with no one to talk to. I went over to talk to two young women who looked interesting and we got chatting. We got on like a house on fire. About 25 minutes into the discussion, I asked where they had gone to school. They each answered “Wycombe Abbey”. Total strangers, but we had an immediate connection. For whatever reason, there are Wycombe Abbey traits that never go away. There is positivity, confidence and intelligence carried by Wycombe women that reflects having been at this incredible school.