Reading time: 7 minutes
Tracey Spicer talks to author Donna Ward about embracing being a single woman in her 60s, the accompanying societal expectations and challenges, and her view that life gets better with age.
Hi, I’m Tracey Spicer. Over the last couple of months, we’ve been looking at issues to do with superannuation and retirement, predominantly through the lens of people who are couples or those who have families. I’d like to talk about something a little bit different and perhaps too invisible and unspoken in society today.
There’s this wonderful book: She I Dare Not Name by Donna Ward. And as you can see down the bottom ‘A Spinsters’ Meditations on Life’. And Donna comes at this from a really fascinating angle about, I guess, the way we used to call spinsters and bachelors. Donna, thanks very much for joining us.
Thank you for having me Tracey. It’s a delight to be here.
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Your book is beautiful and lyrical and evocative. It really got me thinking deeply, actually, about retirement and being a woman and ageing. Is this how you expected to be living in your 60s?
Oh, no, I guess I assumed that I was going to be like my grandparents who had been lucky enough to buy a 10 acre block up on the hills outside of Perth, and they gave an acre to each one of their children.
And I think Gran, who was Scottish and came from an island, the Isle of Islay where all good whisky comes from, I think she was kind of recreating the island myself. But I sort of expected, I guess, that at some point I might end up on one of those acres, perhaps with my own partner and with children in the way that my aunt and uncle had and their children, my cousins, and their partners and now their children.
But my life went in a completely different direction. And so, there’s many good things about living on your own in your senior years. I now have a senior card. I’m still getting over the fact that that got sent to me. But there it is. And here I am. And there are wonderful things, and there are some scary things, particularly with what we’re all going through right now.
I can imagine. When did you first hear the term Spinster? And what is its history?
Yeah, well, to be honest, I can’t remember when I first heard the word, it would have been when I was young and my grandmother taught me a lot of things. And she would have had me reading about Miss Havisham, I’m sure if it wasn’t her, it would have been a school teacher. And so, you know, pretty early on, I would have heard the words Spinster and certainly read that story and would never, ever in a million years have thought any of that applied to me.
I went into this book being a single woman. And that has nothing to do with my age, but much more to do with my understanding of feminism and how feminism in the 70s, 60s and 70s particularly, threw out the word Spinster, because they thought it was so stigmatic that it would be better if we called everybody single.
And as I researched this book I realised that what had happened with throwing that word out and finding a nicer kind of word was that spinsters’ lives became invisible because we used the word single for anyone who’s not yet married, has decided to do parenting on their own, is divorced, is widowed.
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All these people are bundled up into the word Single. And none of those lives are anything like mine because I haven’t had children. And I think that’s the game changer. Having children is a game changer for everything, including ageing I have to say, yes.
Newsweek cited erroneously in 1986 writing your book that women over 40 were more likely to be killed by terrorists than find a husband. In what way did that, quote, rock the world?
Well, I was very close to 40 at that time. Well no, when it first came out. I wasn’t close to 40, so I didn’t think it applied to me. But because it was it was repeated. That fact was repeated. I’m sure you remember it. And I’m sure many of our viewers today will remember that time and probably sigh a big sigh of relief that they had got married because in those days, terrorism was pretty much close to Olympic events and major events.
It was a very unlikely kind of a thing to happen. It’s increasing now as we know. So it rocked the world. Not only did it rock the world because it was such an outstanding thing to say, and it was linked to such a horrific event or several horrific events. It also then got repeated and researched and repeated and research and re-researched and debunked and repeated again. And so it just kind of rippled through the Western world. It was only said in America, but it got said and repeated and repeated.
And when I came to do research for this book and read up about research on being single, that Newsweek article was often cited as the most horrific thing that could ever happen.
Aside from the societal judgment of in particular women being single and indeed women being spinsters, what about the thorny legal and financial issues, because you write about being asked who your next of kin is and how that really threw you?
Yes, it repeatedly threw me, in fact, until I actually wrote that essay. Every time I was asked for a next of kin, at the doctor’s mainly but, you know, if I went into hospital or anything. I don’t have a next of kin anywhere near me. They’re on the other side of the country.
And also I’m not, they’re, not really intricate parts of my life. That didn’t sound right, but they’re not involved or threaded into my everyday existence. They wouldn’t know about my health. That’s an assumption that we make that next of kin know about our health. But I can tell you that mine really seriously don’t. Mainly because it’s not a key subject in our discussions.
But next of kin to have someone there on call who knows your body, who can advocate for you. I think to assume that that would be a next of kin is a really significant problem. And I think that that has been really, has laid at the base of the same sex marriage debate, particularly when a partner is ill, and we have this idea that the next of kin are more legitimate than a partner or a best friend.
And so, for me, next of kin, rumbled me. Now I’ve written it and it’s out there in the world, and I’ve said to my doctors please don’t ask me again. I’ll tell you at the time. So I guess at the time, I’ll know who’s around to help or not. You know, my doctor’s really my next of kin if there was anyone else like it.
Sounds like it. And it also sounds like you’ve worked out ways of navigating this. What’s your advice to other people, particularly women who are trying to navigate not only this, but the prospect of retiring with no superannuation, or much less superannuation than men in society? The rising rate of older female homelessness. What do you say to these women?
Oh, that’s a tough one. I’d say, be proud of the life that you’ve lived. Don’t feel ashamed for not having what our systems require of us because our system is antiquated. Our system is not moving or pivoting, if you like to use the word the lingo, to our needs at all.
So I say, yes, you will have to woman up and say, I don’t have next of kin. I don’t have superannuation. I can’t work. I’m too old to be employed. Woman up and say these things because that’s the only way the system is going to change for us. And it may not change in our lifetime, but if we start the conversation, we start the conversation, it will ripple out. Look at Newsweek.
That is such good advice. Towards the end of the book, you write that life gets better with age. In what aspects, personally, has that happened for you? What resonates most deeply when you hear your own words like that back to you?
Oh. I’m always surprised when people repeat my own words back to me. And I quite often think, oh my goodness, did I say that? That’s quite incredible. So it’s shock. And I think that’s something with age as well. I tend to, I’ve come to a point where I live each day as it comes, and I don’t want that to sound superior or, you know, like I’m some great monk on a on a hill in a cave. I am not that, I’m totally unmonkish – couldn’t think of the right word.
But I think the main thing that has occurred to me, and it’s kind of snuck up on me, I have to say, is that, I’ve spent all my life hoping that it would be otherwise. And a few years ago, I thought to myself, well, actually, this is life. And if I don’t start living it now. If I don’t start enjoying this amazing experience of being consciousness in flesh and watching the way my body changes and watching the way the world changes and be amazed by it. If I don’t do that, I’m gonna miss out. I’m gonna miss out. We’ve got no guarantees we’re coming back. This is it. And that has brought an incredible amount of happiness to me and then allows me just to live one day at a time.
Right at the moment I’m really having to employ that because one day at a time I see my my superannuation diminish, and then maybe come up and then go down again. Yes. I think it takes an incredible sense of calmness. So I’ve just said, well, you know, I’m not even looking at it until December, you know, because you can’t and there’s nothing that I can do.
I could worry about it or I could use this incredible experience that we have, I have to say, not entirely positive, but incredible experience. How many people get to live through a pandemic? How many people get to stay in their house and do nothing but write? Because that’s what the government wants you to do. That’s incredible to me.
You have a marvellous outlook, Donna. One of the quotes and again, I’m going to be sending your words back to you because they are so wise. I am now 65. I am a writer, publisher, blooded crone, and pretty good cook. I am Peregrine Gold. You certainly are. Donna Ward, thanks very much for the chat today.
Thank you. Thank you, Tracy. It’s a delight to have been here.