Paula Coston and childless womenfriends march on central London celebrating 'women's otherhoods'. Image courtesy of Roberta Iley.
In my last two posts on this site, I lambasted the persistently patchy and unrepresentative UK press coverage of alternative womanhoods and 'their' issues and lifestyles: single women, women without children, older women, gay women, transgender women, and more. For me, this is a question not only of addressing their (growing) prevalence in western societies, but of giving them sufficient voice. I suggested means whereby the press could address their out-of-datedness on these demographics, for instance by ensuring that they had designated 'alternative womanhoods' champions on their editorial staff.
And then I had a party. Ostensibly this was to celebrate the publication of my novel, On the Far Side, There's a Boy, through which the themes of the single, ageing and childless woman run like a thread; but much more than this, it was an opportunity to test the media's receptiveness to these themes.
To catch their attention, I set about inviting them in an unusual way. I printed their invites in spirals on the templates of paper roses, cut and folded the flowers, and hand-embroidered the word 'Gauntlet' on to some 60 red satin gloves. These were wrapped like gifts in pink tissue paper, along with a transcript of the invitation and print-outs of the relevant pieces I had written for The Huffington Post, and mailed in decorated jiffy bags. Emails and Tweets, with photographic reminders, followed these up.
Gauntlet and rose: components of Paula Coston's teasing invitations to her book launch and women's march, hand-mailed to some sixty female members of the press and media. Image courtesy of Dan Lewis, Five-Fifty Design.
By 24 June, the eve of the party, I had plenty of acceptances from childless women, but only 5 from female members of the press. None the less, some of these women worked on notable national publications, so I was encouraged: a 10% positive response seemed perhaps as much as I could expect.
The Midsummer Gladness party, with me crowned with flowers as a modern-day Titania, took place in the women's venue Bar Titania on Charing Cross Road, central London. It was a sunny summer's evening. The room was decorated with tiger-striped peonies, aglow with sparkles and candles. Guests began to arrive, but it soon became clear that only one press outlet was present: Planet London, to whom my heartfelt thanks. None of the others ever turned up.
The women there began to celebrate their alternative womanhoods, stimulated by rose spritzers with mint and fresh raspberries. Our massed exhibit of small children's shoes, boys' and girls', invoked much comment, and the telling of our personal stories of motherhood-or-not and why. Between us, we filled the shoes with little handmade gifts: knitted brooches, jewelry, scrunchies for the hair, fridge magnets incorporating pressed-flower messages about alternative womanhoods, poetry, perfume, paper fortune-tellers...
At Coston's all-women book launch, Bar Titania, Charing Cross Road, a massed exhibit of children's shoes is on display. Coston is flanked by competition-winning female bodybuilders Dionne Dixon (left) and Donna Maria de Lisser (right), personifying the strength and resilience of women of all kinds. Image courtesy of Camilla Scaramanga.
We were all having fun by now, but the near-total absence of the press was palpable, a laughable hiatus. So after a while, those of us who felt especially brave or foolhardy took to the streets with placards. They read 'We're celebrating women's otherhoods '[with the M' in 'otherhoods' struck through], 'More women than ever never have children', 'AMOs = Alternatives to MOthers', and 'Not-mothers nurture in other ways'.
Sun bathed us. Tourists and Londoners, sauntering in the sunshine in Leicester Square and down to Trafalgar Square, stopped and asked us what we were doing; if they didn't, we stopped them. Many were initially baffled by a march that wasn't a protest but a statement and celebration, but then became drawn in, fascinated, asking to know more. Numbers of women in their thirties laughed that they had no intention of thinking about children 'for, oh, like, decades' (the average age for a British woman to have her first child is the highest in Europe, at around 30; sadly, female fertility begins to plummet dramatically at 32). Unreadiness to think about motherhood is a huge factor in childlessness: but the reality is that you can't force women to reach such a life-changing decision, or find a suitable partner, to a timeframe, a problem that their male counterparts don't have.
Some of the marcher-celebrants posing south of Leicester Square. Image courtesy of Roberta Iley.
Coston and group encounter multitudes of interested women keen to talk about the childlessness and fertility statistics and their life trajectories as mothers - or not. Each woman received a child's shoe from the exhibit, now filled with a unique gift (jewelry, perfume, poetry...) made by one of the marching group. Image courtesy of Roberta Iley.
I can't recount the many telling, individual conversations; but the event snowballed, until a plethora of passers-by were asking about our 'cause' and requesting photos with us - even Jonathan Ross; and it didn't take long before all our bright blue bags of shoes-with-gifts, distributed to our curious interlocutors, were completely emptied, our hand-made presents given away.
Jonathan Ross runs into the march. 'I may have a family myself, but some of my close friends have been through what you're talking about, so I know exactly where you're coming from.' He volunteers to pose for photos in support of the cause. Image courtesy of Roberta Iley.
The press, on the whole and as a whole, clearly won't take us seriously (I exclude one or two outlets, like the supportive Huffington Post). If they won't, then we'll just have to use our own voices, the voices of a huge host of childless women in the UK and the USA (1:5, now increasing to 1:4).We'll sing out there to the public on our own.
A boy's and a girl's shoe before the filling. Image courtesy of Paula Coston.