Life Health & Wellbeing

Saturday 14 December 2019

Maxine Jones - I am no longer the invisible woman

Maxine Jones
Maxine Jones

Maxine Jones

Every day for the month of August I accosted strangers, muttered a few words, handed them a flyer and was greeted with a smile or word of recognition which resulted, more often than I'd expected, in them forking out £7.50 to come and see my Edinburgh show, Invisible Woman.

I am not a name, I was competing with over 3,000 other shows, many free, and yet the small basement studio in Hanover Street, was full for most performances.

Because Invisible Woman is a thing. My flyering targets were all middle-aged and older women and most recognised this feeling of being invisible. I honed in on them, like the seagulls hovering round the Mound and the Royal Mile looking for morsels.

And they responded: 'Tell me about it'; 'Don't I know it?'

'I'm off to Fife, but thanks for highlighting it.'

One old lady took me literally when I said, 'Comedy show about how older women turn invisible,' and replied, wide-eyed, 'Really? How?'

Sometimes a jocular spouse would reply, 'Did someone speak? Sorry, can't see you.'

Or, less passable, 'I wish they would.'

Couples came and families came but the driving force would be the woman I'd flyered. They would accompany her, reminded perhaps of how little she put herself forward and how little she demanded. They humoured her and came along. (Because any dealings with older women have that hint of condescension. Ah, bless!) And I like to think, they also enjoyed the show.

Men left muttering that I was right, that women were invaluable and unappreciated. In the show I compare us to being invisible the way air is invisible - 'absolutely vital and without us there'd be a vacuum. And I don't just mean the hoovering wouldn't get done. Although obviously it wouldn't…'

This leads into a riff on unacknowledged housework, where men admitted how rarely they cleaned the toilet and discovered there was more to doing Christmas than lighting the pudding.

'Armrests' is another subject I broach. How men on planes and in the cinema feel entitled to the armrests. They don't even think about it. They just take them. Leaving the woman in the middle shrunk in on herself.

'And what about their knees?' a Canadian woman interjected at one performance. 'The way they sprawl out their knees! How big do they think their penises are?'

While most countries in the world have more women than men, and in the most powerful country in the world, America, the biggest demographic is women between the ages of 40 and 65, a cursory glance at governments or the media would seem to belie this fact.

I talk of changing the generic from 'he' to 'she' - as in 'She who dares wins'. And distinguishing between jobs by saying 'doctor' and 'man-doctor', 'writer and man-writer', 'comedian' and 'man- comedian'. Male comedians could be introduced with 'and now we have a man comedian for you, the very lovely….' And comedians could tell jokes about man drivers.

It's a confidence thing. Men for millennia have felt entitled and women's confidence has been eroded accordingly. Many women feel talked over and crowded out by men. The time and effort they devote to their family, rarely putting themselves first, pass unnoticed. And if they do ever put themselves first they are made to feel guilty.

As an interlude in the show, I asked married women in the audience if they'd changed their name. Many had. Some several times. A discussion would follow on which name they preferred and a surprising (to me) number didn't care. A name is not important, they say. So true, so philosophical, so confident.

In a resigned, humorous way, they genuinely don't care. They don't need the title, the accolades, revealing a deep-seated, impervious self-confidence.

Changing names has made them virtually untraceable in history, where women's invisibility is notorious. Yet in a way their invisibility makes them stronger - like Invisible Woman the superhero. Truth resides in what we, as women, know and it lives on a different plane from any historical record or media representation.

The mature women in my audience knew their worth and were faintly amused that onlookers maybe didn't.

Yet the fact remained that they had responded to my Invisible Woman bait. They recognised that older women are invisible in a western, affluent society saturated with images of youthful female beauty.

I think we women relinquish a lot of power the moment we care what people think about our appearance. Dressing or putting on make-up for anyone other than ourselves immediately puts us in the power of the observer. We are holding ourselves up for their judgement.

It is enlightening to see more and more women, like the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, appear on television without make-up and without dying their hair and dressing only to please themselves.

Sarah Millican waited for the anniversary of the press onslaught on her choice of dress for the BAFTA awards to publish a withering indictment on how her ability as a performer was judged on the dress she wore.

The majority of men applaud and admire these women. Most are now happy to be considered feminists. We women, especially us older women, should take the lead here and not let slights go unheeded. The Irish mammy, a particularly feisty and praiseworthy breed, is subjected to an atrocious amount of condescension and parody.

In a country where the Constitution deems it best for a woman to remain in the home, I struggled during child-rearing years to fight the impression that I was gradually disappearing. I remember taking the children on holiday once and being distinctly surprised that two young motorcyclists on the ferry engaged me in conversation. Why would they want to talk me?

This September, for the first time, I don't have a child returning to school. All those years of packing lunches (no school dinners), being tied to the house (no affordable childcare, short school days, long, long school holidays) made me feel more invisible than my English compatriots.

On top of this I was one of Ireland's first divorcees (Edinburgh audiences were shocked to learn there was no divorce in Ireland before 1996). I was also living in a state highly influenced by a church which does not allow female officiates.

I have shaken off the invisiblity cloak by taking to the stage. A surprise turn of events for someone whose words until a couple of years ago, only ever appeared intermittently in print.

Born in the 1950s, I was a shy, retiring girl, terrified of speaking out or drawing attention to myself. To command a room of people with nothing but my words for nearly an hour seemed unimaginable but has proved a liberating and joyful experience.

I cast a light on the dark years and mould my endless trips to Lidl and difficulties with teenage sons into material that evokes laughs of recognition. My career is starting at an age where many careers are ending.

During my stint at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I went to see several female comedians. The two performances that remain with me were by women over 10 and 20 years older than me. Seventy-year-old Virginia Ironside's Ageing Disgracefully and 80-year-old Lynn Ruth Miller's Not Dead Yet are shows I would urge you to see if you get a chance.

I have three sons at home now for a couple of weeks, so before writing this stocked up on groceries at Lidl. The young man on the check-out said to the old guy in front of me. 'Change in the weather.' The old guy in front of me said, 'It's not a change in the weather we want. It's a change in the women.' Nothing like a bit of random misogyny with your shopping.

The young man on the check-out exchanged an amused glance with me, and that glance told me that the tide had turned.

Words by Maxine Jones.

Invisible Woman is on at the Mill Theatre, Dundrum, 8.15pm, October 16 and 17 €12/€10 www.milltheatre.ie, 01 296 9340.

Health & Living

Editors Choice

Also in Life