Spring had finally sprung as I headed through a packed-out and crocus-lined Lister Park to Cartwright Hall to hear photographer Nancy Honey talk about her exhibition of photos of 100 influential senior women in Britain.

As I walked into the gallery housing 100 Leading Ladies, the woman herself was being interviewed by a film crew and was speaking eloquently about the motivations behind the exhibition. Nancy wanted to photograph 100 of Britain’s most respected women over the age of 55 including academics, entrepreneurs, fashion designers and composers.  

The talk accompanying the exhibition was organised by the friends of the museum and there were over 100 people in attendance to listen to Nancy speak about the project and the exhibition. She described it as a living list of role models for young women in today’s society.

Artist Maggi Hambling

Artist Maggi Hambling

Nancy explained that, as a starting point, she asked the ladies to pick their favourite place and be photographed there. This seemed to reveal infinitely more about the women than the actual photos themselves. A lot of them chose their homes, ranging from pig farms to a cottage in Cumbria where Nancy spent the whole weekend.

What these women had in common, apart from being at the top of their game, was their satisfaction in ageing and their message that it is possible to have it all, but just not at the same time. What the Leading Ladies also share is that as leading figures in their fields, they defied gender stereotypes. I must admit to having been lucky enough to meet two of the 100 during my career (Margaret Hodge and Helen Browning, if you must know) but many of the others eluded me.

As well as talking about the project and its logistics, Nancy shared some insights from the interviews accompanying the photos, which were conducted by former Times journalist Hattie Garlick. These snippets were what really interested me – one in particular from Susie Orbach, psychoanalyst, writer and social activist who commented on how the society we live in is one where a woman has to be aware of being ‘seen’ at all times.

Virginia Ironside, agony aunt, columnist, performer and author said her favourite place was the bath, but decided on being photographed in the bathroom in a robe. Germaine Greer was in the woodland that she had nurtured herself and cook and writer Mary Contini was perched atop a fishing net in the port of her childhood.

It got interesting when questions were invited and someone asked how the 100 were selected. Nancy approached her heroines in the first instance and once she had gathered 15 women, she started asking them for recommendations for others to speak to. I couldn’t help but feel that this may have meant a lot of women were overlooked for the project. There were of course others who never responded to Nancy or had other commitments. One who slipped through the net was Judi Dench, who Nancy said she would have loved to photograph.

The message of powerful women is one that clearly captures imaginations. Bradford Museums’ Curator Sonja Kielty spoke about how the education team have built visits around the inspiring nature of such a diverse range of women in positions of power, but I was left thinking that some young women would relate to the photos only if aided by the fascinating stories behind them, rather than the flat portraits we were presented with.  

Back in the exhibition, I struggled to spot Virginia Ironside in her dressing gown without going around twice, but it did make me look at the choices of location and clothing in a whole new light, having heard some of the stories behind the images.

The exhibition is on until Sunday 10 April at Cartwright Hall and is well worth a visit.

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