Do Superwomen exist or can you just not see us?
We see lots of blogs and articles encouraging us to not feel bad for not writing a book, founding a startup or getting fit over lockdown. But what if you have? Should you keep quiet? Of course COVID has not been kind to all of us, and our hearts go out to those who have suffered greatly. But women have been dragged back enough in this pandemic, keeping quiet about our achievements sets us back even further, especially when so many women have tried and failed to be superwomen. It’s not their fault…
Superwomen don’t exist.
When I was 34, I was at the height of my career heading a global campaign that was going gangbusters. In the middle of the misogynistic 90s that meant it must be killed. I sat through the most ridiculous research where women were shown pictures of fairy castles and asked which one they would like to live in. I stormed out of the focus group and was later reprimanded by management for telling the client, “This is the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever seen. You won’t learn anything from this.” After a bollocking from the CEO, I promised to be on my best behaviour when they presented the research results.
The result was that the target market for our washing powder was defined as ‘superwomen’. “But they don’t exist!” my copywriter Jane Caro and I shouted in unison the moment the words left the researcher’s mouth. Our new Creative Director (the one we suspected was behind the plot to foil the campaign) took umbrage. “Of course they do. Look at my ex-wife, she runs her own business and is a great mum. She’s a superwoman!”
“And emotionally?” (Again, in unison.)
His argument crumbled on the spot.
Fast forward to March 23rd 2020 when we first went into lockdown. I was fifty seven and seven days shy of eviction. I had just buried a good friend. I had one week to clear both his possessions and mine.
Terry Comer was a lovely, lovely man. But he came from a time when white men ruled the world without question and he took advantage of this every chance he got. We both found ourselves back in London after dazzling creative careers in Australia. He was lonely, I was broke. We’d meet up for lunch, visit exhibitions and go to every opening night at the Almeida. It was all very amicable and jolly. Till #MeToo.
Jane Caro left advertising a couple of years after the fairy castle incident and has gone on to be a highly respected author and media commentator. There was even talk of her running for parliament. No one respected her more than Terry – he truly believed she would make a tremendous Prime Minister and was proud to know her. When Jane unfriended him over his response to her #MeToo he was devastated. He couldn’t understand it. This led to many, many lunches explaining to him exactly what it was like to be a woman in advertising in the 80s & 90s and why the behaviour he joked about had caused us real pain. Terry had always seen the two of us as equals and could not understand how I ended up so broke while he enjoyed a very comfortable retirement. When we got to talking about the pay gap he totally got it. He had vicariously lived through failed attempts to restart my career for years and sympathised at every instance of ageism, but now he understood that as a woman, I was trying with both my hands tied behind my back.
In January 2020 Terry was not doing well, he could barely walk and had 19 different health conditions. He had an army of carers but no one close by that really cared, so I began visiting daily. Terry was a jovial chap and we laughed a lot. There was a lot of gallows humour – we were both heading for them (him physically, me metaphorically). The eviction process had unfairly reared its ugly head and I wasn’t alone – one woman from the project couldn’t afford her rent and another couldn’t afford the filing fee to go bankrupt. We put out a Go Fund Me just to survive. Such is the lot for far too many midlife women.
Terry moved into a hospice in early February and left us a few weeks later, still joking till the end. A few days before I saw the biggest beaming smile I think I’d ever seen from him as I told him I’d got a book deal. “Here you are changing the world and here I am…” “I couldn’t be doing it without you.” I gently replied. “Don’t get all soppy on me. Now, did you bring that bottle of red?”
He left me a sanctuary in which to write the book.
On the 23rd March my brother and I emptied what we could from his flat then discovered the tips were closed. On 24th March we cleared the other house with movers provided by NABS (advertising’s incredible charity) for the stuff we couldn’t lift. Everything else either had to be thrown or ferried by car. Then we discovered the council wasn’t picking up either. The next day a friend and I started clearing as much as we could. Over a cuppa in the afternoon he said “I can’t taste anything.”
I packed as much as I could in the car and ran into lockdown leaving God knows what behind.
Then came the good bit.
After all that hard work I started lockdown at my ideal weight.*
My eldest daughter was in a new relationship and as she couldn’t bear to be without him, they moved into the garage. We squeezed four of us into a two-bedroom flat. And we went from me being a single mum of two who pretty much did everything, to becoming four flat mates, taking turns to cook, clean and empty the dishwasher. I didn’t even have to shop – the boyfriend worked at Waitrose!
Even better, A levels were cancelled so my frazzled eighteen year old (imagine being evicted 8 weeks before your exams) chilled out immediately, settled into her new room and took up TikTok with ferocity!
I’d had an 18 and a 21 year old I barely saw. Lockdown was a gift of extra time with the women I love!
My youngest was off to a foundation year at Camberwell, so home schooling was art college and I decided to join her. I dusted off my paints and, knowing I was just over a year from an empty nest and would still want them hanging around, started painting portraits.
Between painting, hanging out in the sunshine and enjoying a gourmet meal every night I wrote the book. And as I sat down to write at the sunshine-filled desk that inspired Terry, I made a brave decision. Lockdown had changed the way we looked at business and almost everything that I had written in the first drafts of the book had gone from hypothesis to reality. Things like ‘running a family is like running a business’. I didn’t have to throw that idea out there any more – we were all living it.
I tore the book up and was just starting again when George Floyd called out to his Mama. I thought to myself “The last thing the world needs now is another book by a white middle-class feminist.” If I was rewriting it I was going to do it with the woman I’d discussed every detail of it with in our weekly — and very long — phone conversations. We’d met at film school and shared all our plots, and if this was going to be a book for all midlife women then Carol Russell was the Black woman I was writing it with.
The publisher had the first draft in September, the rewrite by November and Invisible to Invaluable: Unleashing the power of midlife women will go on sale on the 27th May 2021. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon.
But wait, there’s more.
When the meat of the book was written I started putting the principles we’d extolled into action. In it we talk a lot about second careers and opportunities for midlife women, so I decided to damned well do something about it. I got in touch with Mark Read (the head of WPP – a British multinational comms holding company, considered the world’s biggest ad company in 2019), who had just spectacularly put his foot in his mouth (unfortunately he was taken out of context) by pointing out how few WPP employees were over 40. I proposed a training course for midlife women. He jumped at the idea and our first pilot of ‘Visible Start’ begins in June in partnership with the Brixton Finishing School. By the end of the year, twenty midlife women will have jobs with WPP media agencies.
There’s even a set of steak knives.
For the last two years I have been amassing a network of the greatest female creatives of our generation. Now there’s no such thing as a physical creative department, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you look like – there is a real chance for us to finally fit into an industry that ridiculously discarded us. Add the fact that people no longer need to be in the office, off at a conference or on a bloody plane, lockdowns 1, 2 and 3 have been filled with zoom calls with real opportunities and with people much higher up the food chain than we could previously reach. We are talking to brands and clients we could only have dreamed of prior to COVID. We have our first clients and are working on our first projects. So far we’ve resurrected three women’s careers and sent three in a brand new direction.
There is such a thing as superwomen.
So while younger women have been pulling their hair out, we’ve been pulling rabbits out of our hats. We hope seeing all we’ve achieved triggers them into realising that women can DO it all and HAVE it all. Just rarely ALL at once.
We can build a better future for them. I mean, what’s the point of working your balls off to be a great career woman and mother when that career will be over when their kids are teenagers? A very dangerous precedent has been set.
We hope those of us with work experience, life experience and new-found freedom openly — rightfully — boasting of everything we’ve achieved in lockdown triggers everyone into action. COVID has been a disaster for women’s careers. For far too many midlife women our careers were a disaster well before that. This is our opportunity to put that right.
Not just for us, but everyone. Women over 50 have just one 3rd the pension savings of men and 48% have no pension savings at all. If we don’t employ midlife women now we’ll pay greatly far too soon. No one wants to see (or pay for) a generation of women half of whom live in poverty.
We don’t need much, just your support, employment and custom. Because it’s not just me and the women I work with who have built something valuable in the pandemic. Almost every midlife woman I know has taken time in crazy times to create something new. They’ve trained as yoga teachers and are organising fantastic retreats for when we can all get away from it all. They’ve renovated properties, written films, built businesses, learned new skills, discovered new talents, new dreams and new horizons.
Plus, we’re vaccinated to the hilt so when the patriarchy wants us all back in the office, we’re sticking our hands up proudly. Because the biggest disaster would be that after all the job losses for women the new workforce is once again filled to the brim with testosterone. We know what that’s like – many of us were the first women in the work environment. But now we have something we didn’t have as much of back then.
And we’re ready to fight. There’s a whole new world coming and we refuse to be invisible in this one. We fought hard for women’s careers, most of us were pioneers in our professions. We’re not going to allow the gains we fought for to be diminished because of the toll child-rearing and emotional labour charges our gender.
We’re taking advantage of the surge of confidence, energy and brain space that comes from passing through the change and applying our wisdom and empathy to new challenges and opportunities.
And yes, we’re going to beat our chests like no women ever before us (before menopause it was way too painful). We’re going to advance in every area of society, knock down every barrier we face. Because, believe it or not, this is the most powerful time in a woman’s life and the post-COVID world is tailor made for us.
We’re unleashing the power of midlife women, because, as my co-author’s coffee cup so eloquently says, “The patriarchy isn’t going to fuck itself, is it?
*After a year of writing, painting and enjoying gourmet meals I’m back in the fat wardrobe and I don’t give a flying fuck (another advantage of midlife!)