To be, in a way, the feminist conscience of the Guardian women’s page in the 1980s was no mean feat. But it was one to which my friend and colleague Pauline Willis, who has died aged 80, was totally committed.
Pauline joined the Guardian in 1981 as PA to the women’s editor, working with Frances Cairncross as she took over from Liz Forgan, then Jane McLoughlin and then, from 1985, with Brenda Polan. As a highly valued member of the team she contributed ideas to the page and was outstandingly efficient, extremely intelligent and committed to the values of equality and feminism that made the page the talk of Fleet Street.
She was a serious person but great fun, and argued fiercely for wider recognition of women’s rights without losing friends even among old-school colleagues who were doggedly unconvinced by the speed of social change.
Pauline was born in the Hanham area of Bristol to Thomas Willis, who worked for an aircraft company, and his wife, Vera (nee Britton). She was educated at Kingswood grammar school in Bristol, leaving at the age of 16 to train as a secretary. Various secretarial jobs in Bristol and London followed until, in 1977, she determined on a change of direction, taking an English A-level before going on to the University of Sussex to read women’s studies. After graduating she joined the Guardian in London and her new life on the women’s page began.
When Peter Preston, the then editor, asked Alan Rusbridger, then a features writer, to launch the first issue of Weekend Guardian in 1988, Pauline moved from the women’s page to be Alan’s PA, staying with him as he moved to be editor in 1995. They established together an easy mix of friendship and journalism. For Alan, Pauline was a “sensitive, calm, warm and wise” presence, as well as being “a model of humorous good sense and support”.
Throughout her life Pauline and her younger brother, Robert, the present dean of Canterbury, remained great friends, and she often spent weekends at Tisbury, Sherborne, Hereford and, finally, Canterbury as Robert moved from place to place. She loved the community atmosphere of those places and made many friends.
In 1999, when Parkinson’s disease made it too difficult for her to continue working at the Guardian, she retired to Sherborne and then, in 2008, to Canterbury.
Throughout the difficult years as the disease progressed she never lost her independent spirit, her sense of humour or her curiosity about people. Her maxims were, “deal with it; lighten up; and nobody’s perfect”. She was a loyal friend, a great truth teller and a loather of cant.
She is survived by Robert.