XX marks the spot

Baroness Haleh Afshar in the House of Lords
Baroness Haleh Afshar in the House of Lords
  • As a new exhibition opens in Bradford, Sarah Freeman speaks to photographer Nancy Honey about 100 Leading Ladies.
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On one wall is a portrait of fashion designer Betty Jackson. On another are agony aunt Virginia Ironside and Baroness Shirley Williams. In between are some less recognisable faces, from contemporary artist Maggi Hambling to Baroness Usha Prashar, who was the only woman on the Iraq Inquiry. What unites American photographer Nancy Honey’s collection is that they are all women who have left a lasting impression on British society. That and the fact that they are all over 55.

100 Leading Ladies is currently on display at Cartwright Hall in Bradford. It’s the first time that it has been shown outside London and Honey hopes it will provide a springboard for a discussion about why the achievement of women is often overshadowed by their male peers.

“Whenever a list of influential Brits is printed it often feels like the women included are a bit of tokenism. It’s as though they feel obliged to scatter a few in, but without any real thought about who,” says Honey, who now lives in London. “While it might be a slight generalisation, part of the problem I think is that women tend not to shout about their achievements in the same way that men do. There were a number of times when the women we asked to be photographed said: ‘Are you sure you really want me?’ They don’t necessarily see themselves as leaders in their field when that is absolutely what they are.

“In our society, there comes a point as a woman where you start to feel invisible and while the project evolved over time I did want to redress the balance. I wanted to show just how great these women are and what important work they are doing.”

While Nancy started out with a wishlist of potential portraits, including a few of her own heroines like Barbara Hulanicki, the woman behind the iconic clothing store Biba, and Virago Press founder Carmen Callil she also asked each woman who sat to recommend someone else. And so began her journey into people’s, homes and workplaces travelling up and down the country with former Times journalist Hattie Garlick who conducted interviews with each of Honey’s leading ladies.

“Initially I sent out more than 100 emails and when 12 of the portraits were complete, I knew it was really the start of something quite special. Everyone was so positive about wanting to be involved and that really confirmed to me that I was onto something. As the numbers crept up and up, I thought ‘to hell with it, why not aim for 100?’

“While I didn’t set out to get five politicians, two lawyers and three artists, there were certain areas that I thought it was important to cover. One of those was definitely science and so we have Professor Jane Anderson, a doctor and researcher in the field of HIV, Professor Dame Kay Davies, who specialises in genetics, and Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics.”

As well as the exhibition, Honey and Garlick have also produced a book bringing together the portraits and interviews which offer a snapshot of Britain today.

“Not all of the women are British, but all have left their mark on this country and they all have something interesting to say about how they got where they did,” says Honey. “I asked everyone who was willing to take part in the project to choose where they wanted to be photographed. There were no boundaries, the only stipulation was it had to be the place where they went to think. For some people that was their office or a particular room in their house, but World at One presenter Martha Kearney chose the Chelsea Physic Garden and The Food Programme’s Sheila Dillon took us to this fabulous little garden in north London that most people would never know existed. When you ask someone to invite you into their lives, you never know how it’s going to turn out, but I can honestly say it was a real privilege and completely life-affirming.”

The exhibition in Bradford will run for five months and Honey hopes there will be a series of linked events inspired by her photographs.

“In my own lifetime I have witnessed a profound shift: from little girls imagining their future as marriage and children to the now total belief from childhood that a woman will grow up to have a career outside the home. It is more important than ever to see the important women from all fields in our society and hear their voices of experience.

“There are a number of women who I photographed who I admit, I had never heard of. I would like to think the collection has three audiences. Initially I assumed it would appeal to women in their 20s who are just starting out in their careers, but I quickly realised that it also appeals the generation below that who are crying out for role models. Today’s students have a very different idea of what lives are possible for women than their parents and grandparents did. They are told they can be anything they want to be, regardless of gender, and are used to seeing women in certain kinds of leadership roles.

“But what is not clear to them, or indeed to others of many ages and stages, is how these women at the top got to where they are, and how to follow in their footsteps as well as how to work towards a fair and balanced workforce.”

Honey’s next project will be based around stay-at-home fathers and she has already put out an appeal for potential sitters.

“Childcare is, I think, one of the biggest issues facing men and women. Of all the issues everyone is talking about that promote the advancement of women, this is going to be the hardest and the most obstinate, and has the most strands to pick apart,” she says.

“I thought it would be interesting to look at it from a slightly different perspective. And, the more I get involved, the more I realise how important it is to represent men. To make society more equal, we have to change our whole culture. For that to happen, everything needs to be shared more. We need to restructure our society without gender roles that are inherited from long ago.”

• For more information about 100 Leading Ladies go to thesoroity.org. Anyone interested in taking part in Nancy’s stay-at-home fathers project can email her at nancy@nancyhoney.com