Conversations from older women in Norwich

In a forum with older women at the National Centre of Writing in Norwich, author Sarah Bower, painter Sally Hirst and musician Karen Reilly spoke about their lives and careers. Themes that emerged from their talk and the ensuing group discussion were: 

Shaking off convention

The impact of family life

The obsession with age

Work issues

The positives and negatives of being an older artist

What women wished they had known when they were young

Other inspiring older women

Scroll down to read all.

The artists

Sarah Bower, who writes longform fiction, wanted to write from age of four, but there was little support for girls to do writing or anything creative beyond running a household in those days. She was told she needed to work harder to conform which she did; she had a family and a non-creative, although important, job in the hospice care movement for children. 

It’s OK not to conform … I wish I’d had the guts to say no actually, that’s not what I want and the world wouldn’t have fallen in. The courage not to care what others think of us is also something that comes as we get older. It’s a truism to say that one wishes one was sixteen but with the knowledge we have now. The older I get the truer that seems to be!

When the family moved to a village in Suffolk, she offered to help write the pantomime and joined a writers’ group:

This skill, ignored and devalued for twenty years, came back to me like a muscle memory from somewhere deeper than consciousness.

When she was forty-seven, Sarah was accepted onto the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing Programme and has since published three novels, the first one coming out at same time as her first grandchild arrived. She is currently teaching and will complete a PhD with the Open University by the age of seventy-four. 

One of the things I love most about being an older woman artist is teaching. I find I learn a great deal from it myself … that continual learning process, that give and take with a room full of students is a wonderful part of it that I don’t think I’d have been able to do if I started doing it at twenty-five. I don’t think I would’ve had the patience or generosity to teach well. 

Older women are faced by challenges. One of them is that many of us find ourselves in that caring sandwich – where we’ve got ageing parents at one end and perhaps grandchildren we’re helping out with at the other. That takes a lot of emotional energy that you need for art as well as the physical energy of doing the job. The other is that we might find ourselves time-rich but cash-poor. It’s difficult to concentrate on being an artist if you have a continuous worry about money. It’s very hard to work creatively if you have that nagging away at you. 

Sarah’s amazing older women are every single woman who is still doing it and keeping going, and the Queen:

Hats off that she was working two days before she died. That’s saying something about the redoubtable strength and sense of purpose that an older person can have. 

Painter Sally Hirst had a disrupted childhood but there were few boundaries; she knew she wanted to be a creator from early on, when she was making pots with clay she found in the garden. It wasn’t until she left her all-girls’ school at the age of thirteen with no qualifications and went out into the world that she saw those barriers. She decided she wanted to follow her uncle into architecture, but had no maths qualifications so that door was closed. She then applied to Croydon College to be a draughtsman but, having applied just using her initials, was then turned away at the door because she was a girl. 

That first ‘can’t do that’ was a defining time. 

So she hung around the women at Spare Rib and Cosmopolitan magazine in the 1970s and learned about feminism. 

Sally got married, had kids and moved out of London, always being creative, running art classes and running nurseries etc. In her late twenties she applied for a job as the local doctor’s receptionist. At the interview, the doctor ripped up her application form in front of her, saying she would be bored and to go away and get on with her life. She would like to thank that doctor. 

I would’ve carried on, rambling on through my life without actually being decisive about it and deciding to do something. 

Sally found myself at University at Cambridge doing a post-grad and teaching, where no one ever questioned her gender or age. 

I see myself as a stick of rock. On the outside I’m an artist but all the way through it says ‘teacher’. Most artists see teaching as just a way to pay the rent, I see it as a symbiotic relationship. 

But there have been gender issues as an artist. It was presumed that she’d make nice landscapes because she’s a woman. She’d enter exhibitions with only her initials and people would say ‘Oh, you’re a woman and you paint like this!’ 

I find now that’s a really fun game to play, I’m not offended by it anymore. I find it highly amusing that we can play this gender game. But it’s difficult to get into galleries as an older person. Up until Brexit, I was living and showing in Spain and gender and age have made no difference – I think it’s a UK thing!! 

At the age of fifty-six, Sally left teaching to focus on her MA.

I don’t see our age or gender as negative in any way. If anything there was almost a shift at fifty when you realise that you’ve become invisible, and that’s an absolute joy. That I can wander down the street with my camera down Prince of Wales Road in Norwich at 2am and I can take photos of the kids falling out of the clubs and they don’t notice. I am invisible and that’s fabulous! I’m sixty-four now and the first half of my life was completely different to the second part of my life, unimaginably different.

Sally’s amazing women are the artists Paula Rego and Phyllida Barlow

Karen Reilly is a musician and singer with Neutrinos, and is also an immersive artist. She went to art school and the Royal College of Art, but decided to pursue career in music. 

I lived with this narrative that at thirty you were past it – done, dusted, ancient bones! Because it’s so ridiculous, we decided to make our own model of how we wanted to be. 

As a band, they really didn’t want to do straight gigs, so they started to experiment and play and moved away from the regular, narrow music business model into a more enriching, live art performance. Their show Clanghouse is a moving performance through a building, which takes small audiences on journey – including bathing rooms in colour, having films people can walk through. It’s a beguiling and lovely experience for audiences using architecture and the acoustic of the room, the ghosts and history of the building. 

And nobody said ‘You’re a bit old’, so we made our own way. 

But she helped run a bar for years and people were obsessed with age, so she hid hers because she didn’t want to be judged. 

I refused to take part in that game. I am who I am. You’re not going to pin an age on me and decide what I should or shouldn’t be doing. 

Karen wished that she had known a lot more about work when she started out:

I wish I’d known that lots of people are in jobs and don’t know how to do them properly. I thought you had to work really hard to get where you want to, but the reality is that it’s more it’s more building relationships with people, it’s who you know. And it can be magic timing as well; if things fall into place sometimes it’s more luck, it’s not how good you are, it’s other things at work – that would’ve been good to know. 

She is also shocked that:

Women have to function equally with men whilst having periods, abortions, miscarriages, child bearing, child rearing and having children adopted. These things may happen more in younger life but it stays with us and we have to live with these things. And then there’s the menopause…..

Most of Karen’s heroes are older women – Sophie Loren, Babs Hepworth, Leonora Harrington. One of her closest friends is the conservation biologist Professor Diana Bell who is in her late seventies.

The group discussion 

Limitations on women

‘I wish I’d known sometimes that I could do things differently … I haven’t always thought of alternative places to go for help or alternative ways of doing things. I’d like to tell my younger self to take a step back and think about the long game and think about how you might get out of a situation. I’d say “You did your best, it might not always have been good enough but life hasn’t turned out so badly after all, even if it didn’t always take the path you would have wished”.’

‘For me it’s about confidence. It’s right to have the questioning in your younger days but for me, that meant holding back on the creative side and I’m wondering why the hell didn’t I do this thirty or forty years ago. I wish I’d known that.’ 

‘That capacity to self-sabotage seems to affect young women more than young men. I don’t know what it’s like now in the age of social media, it may now not be the case.’ 

‘If I hadn’t had a feral childhood I wouldn’t be as creative as I am now. I wouldn’t have had the drive and the “I’m going to fucking do this and no one is going to stop me doing this” attitude. I wouldn’t have had that if I’d had it easier, if things had been softer, gentler. There was a time when I was very angry about it and then I had to turn it around. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s possible. it’s about personal permission and what you allow yourself to do.’

‘I wish I had this head on my younger body because, now I’m nearly seventy-five, the body is dictating so much about what I do because it’s falling apart. I wish I had this head twenty years ago, because I would have achieved much more in my creative life than I have now. So I’m just doing my best with the body that I have which is suffering from pain and fatigue … I had an idyllic childhood and my parents gave me every opportunity, but I remember people asking my parents why they were bothering to educate their daughters. Because I did languages, people would say I could be an air hostess – a waitress in the sky – which didn’t appeal at all. I wanted to WRITE! And then I had three children and we moved all over the world. Now they’re grown up … now I have the time, but I don’t have the physical strength to do all the things that I want to do.’

‘Art comes from the body, there’s a rich vein to be tapped in listening to the body and allowing it to lead us into making art in a way that is friendly towards it. As a writer there are always times when things are harder and I don’t think struggling against them gets you anywhere. Instead ‘this is what I’ve got to work with and how can I make that part of the art that I’m creating. It may be different for other art forms.’

‘I read an interview with Phila de Barlow. She had twins but wanted to be creative so she made sure she set up her studio so she could twenty-minute bursts between feeds and naps etc. We have to work within our parameters, which can sometimes give us freedom (health, age, infirmity, having kids are parameters imposed on us), but sometimes there’s a freedom there because it means you have to do best within that framework and it’s amazing what you achieve. Whereas if you have endless health and well-being and money, people can often sit around and do sod all because they don’t have that parameter.’ 

‘My daughter lives in Jersey and is a barrister, but in Jersey the law says that she’s not allowed to sign her own tax form, her husband has to do it!!!’

Why do older women’s stories matter?

‘Hearing the story of parents being asked what is the point of educating girls – young girls today would find that shocking. Older women’s stories matter so that we can have a memory of what’s happened between the generations. In the 1970s when you got married, you had to leave your job. The eleven plus exam was weighted severely – girls had to have a higher mark to go to grammar school.’

‘In 1973 you were allowed to have an abortion in most US states and now it’s largely gone backwards. We need to know our history to be able to effectively say “NO!”’

‘There was no expectation of me as boys’ education was much more important. I felt lost as I knew I didn’t want to do what was expected of me – motherhood. I didn’t know there was anything else I could do, but if I were to tell that to a young woman now, they wouldn’t be able to conceptualise that. It was only when I joined women’s group in the 1970s and read The Female Eunuch – it was only then I realised there were alternatives. Up until that point I didn’t feel there was any choice. I find it difficult being the invisible person, in so many situations and I hide – I don’t want to be the invisible woman!’ 

‘There’s a huge amount of sexism in music industry and pressure to be sexy. Women who have slept their way to the top didn’t do it by choice but by coercion and it’s scarring. But as you get older you realise that the only thing you can control is how you react to something or how you feel about something. But as a kid you don’t have that.’

Being mothers and grandmothers

‘As a musician you’re nomadic, so that brings about all sorts of pressures. I didn’t have kids but lots of women do it successfully. In my band there are many single parents, so I also saw a lot of struggle close up.’

‘I only had three kids but my mother had five and the guilt thing of “Have I done enough” whilst also struggling to be creative is real.’

‘Men aren’t restricted in the same way at all. Women carry a lot of guilt. Men don’t feel this even if they’re brilliant fathers. But there’s been a generational shift, women in their thirties don’t all feel the need.’ 

‘We’re often still defined by if we’re mothers or not, grandmothers or not.’ 

Some successful women give up their careers when they became grandmothers – there’s an expectation from other women or daughters that they became caregivers. They went through all those battles to be exceptional and yet were expected to give it all up as older women. 

‘There’s an expectation that women who become grandmothers should shift their identity/careers – but not on the grandfathers, which is not widely discussed or acknowledged.’

‘There’s still a lot to be done to correct the popular perception of older women in the media; there’s a lot of challenging to still be done. A grandmother is not a cosy grey-haired Miss Marple figure who makes apple pies. A grandmother is as good and various as anyone else and is entitled to live her live in the way she wants to and not to be constrained AGAIN by this kind of typecasting. You say the word “grandmother” and look at the cultural baggage that comes with that!’  

What would you like to see happen next?

‘I paraphrase a line from Sinead O’Connor: “They tried to bury us but they didn’t realise we were seeds”.’

‘Anything is possible. Give yourself permission to say no and permission to do stuff. We do need to stand up and be counted and say we’re here and look what we can do.’ 

‘Help women not to self-sabotage or self-limit – articulated that in the way that isn’t the Insta/influencer “I can have everything”, but more “I can do what matters to me without putting myself at the end of a long queue which involves my family, the people I work for, all the people I see myself as serving in my life” – which is something we find very difficult. I’m not sure to what extent younger women have completely freed themselves from that.’

 ‘Cultivate the courage.’ 


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