I wonder if anyone’s life ever goes as planned? Everyone looks into their own crystal ball from time to time and hazards a guess at what might happen to them and what they might do in the future, but no one can ever predict with complete accuracy what will happen tomorrow – let alone years or decades from now.
The women we have interviewed all had hopes, dreams and expectations. When they were young children it might have been marrying a prince or being a cowgirl-astronaut-dancer. On the cusp of adulthood they might have had humbler aspirations of finding a compatible life partner or finding work in their chosen area of interest. But life always does its own thing.
The women we have interviewed come from all sorts of places and times and social backgrounds. You won’t find them in the newspapers or the history books. But in the course of their ordinary lives they have done and are doing extraordinary things.
One of my hobbies is reading about inter-war history – and the history of everyday life, rather than of the great and the powerful. A theme which has come up constantly there is coping. Getting on with it. Keeping calm and carrying on. Women serving tea with a smile through the air raids. Women keeping their families afloat while their husbands were unemployed for years as heavy industry closed down. Women carrying heavy buckets of water from a pump in the street every day just to have some to cook and wash with.
But sometimes we think that we have lost the ability to just get on with life without complaining – that it is relegated to something called the “Blitz spirit” which our mothers and grandmothers had but we somehow failed to inherit.
The stories we have gathered have shown that is absolutely not the case. Women today, no matter what their circumstances, are getting on with it in spades. They are getting on with it in the face of severe mental health issues, marriage breakdowns, unsupported single motherhood – you name it, there women are coping with it. And not shouting about it either. This is why this project is so fascinating: because if you don’t ask these questions, you never find out about the quiet, everyday actions of women in the face of everything life can throw at them.
If there is anything that I hope people get out of the stories we have gathered, it is that they can cope too. You don’t have to be especially brave or clever or strong. You certainly don’t have to be rich or famous. Ordinary women have struggled, are struggling and will struggle. Life will not be what you want it to be, but that does not mean that it will be bad.
We asked the women in our initial survey what their life’s motto is. I don’t know if I could pin one down quite yet, but one candidate that I keep coming back to embodies the relentlessly resilient spirit that we have discovered in our interviews. It comes from Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, an insight into women coping if ever there was one.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
Suzie Burlton, Designer