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In Memory of Mary Swan

A Founding SARSVL Sister


In October 2020, SARSVL received the incredibly sad news that one of our founding members, Mary Swan, had died.

We remember Mary as fiercely intelligent, extremely conscientious and hard-working, incredibly kind, generous of spirit, funny, warm and, despite all of this, humble.



Mary on a SARSVL Sisters’ trip to Horton Women’s Holiday Centre


Mary joined the Steering Group of SARSVL from our first ever public meeting in early 2009 and was absolutely vital and integral to the first years of our development and establishment, and to everything we have since become. In particular, she brought her wide, rich and deep range of knowledge, expertise and experience to the helpline and training teams.

Mary taught and gave us all so much, and also remained a dear friend to many SARSVL women throughout the rest of her life.

Here are a few personal tributes, contributed by her SARSVL Sisters:

“Mary Swan was my teacher when I was learning to become a Helpline Volunteer in 2012. I vividly remember the way that she shared her expert knowledge and compassion for supporting women and girls in crisis. In the years that followed I was lucky enough to work with Mary and help supervise and train other volunteers. She had a profound impact on my ability to really listen and be non-judgemental and I will forever be grateful to her for my personal and professional development. I wish more women could have met her.” – Eleanor

“The news of Mary’s passing has filled my heart with sadness. Her beautiful smile and the memories of my association with Mary came gushing through my thoughts. I recollected my first few interactions with Mary when we as a group of women interested in ending violence against women and girls came together in Leeds. I was enamoured by Mary’s passion, outspoken personality and her empathetic being. Joining forces with Mary and other feminist sisters to conceive Support After Rape and Sexual Violence Leeds (SARSVL) had been an incredible experience. Mary’s contribution to the setting up and the development of SARSVL had been immeasurable.  I starkly remember the steering group meetings and training sessions that Mary was part of, and her commitment and the impassioned engagement is beyond words. Mary showed me how to live feminist ethos. Mary was a passionate and committed feminist and more so was a wonderful being. My heartfelt condolences to her family and to feminist sisters in Leeds and beyond.” – Aravinda

“I met Mary “properly” in 2009 at the early steering group meetings of what was to become Support After Rape and Sexual Violence Leeds (SARSVL). Prior to this, I had been fortunate to attend a seminar Mary delivered to Masters’ students in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Leeds.

When the SARSVL steering group formed, I was three and a half years into my PhD and looking for a way to get stuck into feminist activism in order to lend legitimacy and present-day context to my academic research on the history of the women’s movement. I struggled at the time to integrate different aspects of my life and sense of self, and I think Mary’s presence on the steering group helped keep me focused, by bringing together the two very different worlds we both inhabited – the hyper-theoretical and hypermasculine academic world and the grittier, messier and infinitely more meaningful world of women trying to help one another survive. When I saw Mary at those fortnightly meetings, I was reminded that I wasn’t merely procrastinating from writing my thesis; I was doing the important work of coming together with likeminded women to develop a new specialist service for women and girls in Leeds whose lives had been affected by rape and sexual violence.

Mary played a key role in defining SARSVL’s values and principles. In particular, she introduced the rest of us on the steering group to the concept of self-determination, which blew our minds somewhat at first, though Mary very patiently explained why it was the most appropriate way to respond to survivors of rape and sexual violence, who had already had so many choices – opportunities to self-determine – taken away and disregarded.

In those detailed early discussions of SARSVL’s values and aims, Mary’s thoughtful comments and questions and keen attention to detail helped us to achieve the precision required in order to set the organisation on the right path. Mary did not use her status as an academic in order to speak louder than other women in these discussions. She was eager to listen and learn, showing humility and a firm conviction in the importance of listening to the voices of marginalised women.

Mary led on the development of listening skills training for helpline volunteers, which put into practice the idea that survivors of rape and sexual violence deserved to be listened to without being judged or told what to do. Mary’s belief in the immensity of what could be achieved by a group of committed volunteers defined the ethos of SARSVL and has continued to shape the course taken by the organisation over its nearly 12-year history so far.

As a helpline volunteer coordinator, Mary trained and supported volunteers to be the best they could be and nurtured their confidence to take up other roles within SARSVL. I took over as a volunteer coordinator when Mary moved on from SARSVL to pursue her ambition as a garden designer, and remember feeling daunted by the largeness of the boots she left behind. However, I soon learned that the helpline procedures Mary and the others had developed meant that no one woman – even Mary – was indispensable, as there were clear and transparent systems and processes for (almost!) everything.

Mary inspired me in the way she conducted herself as a scholar and university tutor, as an activist, as a non-judgmental supportive listener, as a trainer, supporter and supervisor of volunteers, and, ultimately, in the way she lived her life.” – Anna & Una

If you knew Mary and have a memory of her you’d like to be added to this page, please contact us at info@sarsvl.org.uk

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