I am an old age, all age woman,
no way past my use-by date.
Walking in ancestral women’s footsteps,
I am an archive on legs,
I am a time traveller, alive to life,
I embody time, provide testimony,
me, I’m a radical, lyrical, womanist legacy
Women’s blood memory speaks in me
[extract from a poem by Leah]
‘Older Women Rock!’ is an innovative project, using poetry, personal stories, fashion, film and tools of conscious raising and peer counselling to explore issues that face women in their late-50s to mid-70s. The project developed as a result of a ten-month Leverhulme Trust artist residency on the theme of ageing that I undertook as a spoken word poet in the England Centre for Practice Development at Canterbury Christ Church University and the Kent Academic Primary Care Unit at the University of Kent. It continued through a crowdfunded three-week Festival in Folkestone and a Visiting Fellowship in the Keele Centre for Ageing Research, Keele University.
‘Older Women Rock!’ showcases how co-creating communal interventions can engage an other-wise non-participatory population and enhance their psychological wellbeing and self-esteem. For too long early-old-age women and their issues have been trivialised, marginalised and made invisible. Finally issues of gendered ageing are on the agenda e.g. the Women’s Aid short film, ‘Do You See Her?’; media interest in the Office of National Statistics figures that show the sharp increase of alcohol-related deaths amongst women 60+; and the WASPI campaign set up by women affected by changes to the State Pension Law. Using creative pursuits with psychosocial benefits, ‘Older Women Rock!’ extends the current movement to empower older women and challenge sexist and ageist agendas.
As well as facilitating poetry workshops and discussion groups with early-old-age women in a variety of settings – a MIND Day Centre, a club for deaf women, a Women’s Institute, a prison, a Zumba Gold class, a social club for asylum seekers – I write poetry on themes including the lack of representation in the media; the imperative to ‘age agelessly’ and the impact of the beauty industry on older women’s sense of self; poverty; sexuality. I also collect older women’s testimony about their experiences, for example as a carer, a prisoner, a refugee, a lesbian or gay woman.
I then collaborate with a wide range of early-old-age women visual artists and fashion designers to interpret the poetry and personal testimony onto retro clothing. The ‘Older Women Rock!’ collection includes poetic/clothing such as –
- an ‘incontinence’ dress
- a chatelaine on a prison sweatshirt
- a carer’s coat
- an unravelling ‘poverty’ cardigan
- a jacket proclaiming ‘Only Men Grow Old On Screen’
- a blazer with testimony about being an older lesbian/gay woman
- and a ceramic-embellished dress featuring a poem about relationship breakdown in later life
The collection has been displayed in pop-up shops in Folkestone, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke and through subversive catwalks The spirit and rationale of this ground-breaking project of older women’s liberation has been vibrantly captured through Clare Unsworth’s documentary – https://youtu.be/aS5D0wEAcl
‘Older Women Rock!’ has been publicised in creative ways to reach older women and members of the general public who might not normally be drawn to feminist or creative exhibitions or talks. So there have been knitting displays and demonstrations in Wilko, a Zumba Gold flashmob in a
shopping centre and in addition to regular fliers and social media, I give away ‘Older Women Rock!’ sticks of rock and sweets.
These collaborative creative interventions have enabled –
- enhanced self-esteem and wellbeing of early-old-age women through the development of emotional ‘literacy’ and communal engagement
- visible and vibrant unifying of early-old-age women through discussion and activities
- intergenerational dialogue about common experiences of sexism and particularities of age, race, culture and class
- greater understanding for health and social care workforces of the issues faced by this demographic, to engender a more attentive approach to the needs of diverse groups of early-old-age women
I have taken out a little part of my soul here
among this group of women. Snipped it off.
Thrown it on the floor among the scintillating fragments
of everyone else’s bits. We looked at them,
sparkling on the grey carpet at our feet.
We looked down the length of our legs
and over our sensible shoes.
Then with a forced groan we reached
and picked out bits of bric-a-brac to talk about
and passed them round.
Some of them jangling with bells and dangly balls,
some were quiet, dull black and soft,
some were heavy chunks of lead,
some had coloured feathers and balloons attached.
Some opened doors and others locked us in.
And then we sewed them all back in again.
But we all knew we’d touched them