Starting from her entry into the work force at age 14, when she left school, Marj has progressed through various types of work, from factory work and shop work to office work, after taking shorthand and typing classes in the evenings. Following a stint as an au pair in France, the next significant move in her life was to begin training to be a counsellor with the British Association of Social Psychiatry. This continued throughout her thirties, while she worked at a secretarial job during the day.
In her forties, Marj had the opportunity to go to university – to what was then a polytechnic – as a mature student, graduating with a degree in English Literature. Following this, she became involved with an organisation that enabled her to take training to be a psychotherapist. She saw clients for several years, but while in her early sixties stopped taking on more clients, and eventually stopped seeing them altogether.
Now Marj uses her skills in various other jobs, both paid and voluntary work, using both her counselling and secretarial skills. One organisation is for the benefit of men who are violent in their relationships and want to change their behaviour. Through another organisation she has developed an ongoing relationship—the official term is partnership —with a woman, offering her support on a regular basis as well as during times of crucial life change. Another endeavour was assisting a friend who was translating and assembling her short stories. As well, Marj has written about her own life, reflecting on what being a spinster has meant to her.
I wondered if Marj had ever thought of having children, but for her, marriage and children go together. She tells me she has had relationships but nothing “really deep and sensitive,” no one that she ever met that she felt she could marry. Without a partner she thought parenthood would not be for her. She says “I’m beginning to think now that a child does need two parents, whatever gender, and – for the sake of the parents as well as the child, I think.”
She, herself, was one of six children, three of whom have died. She was seven when World War II started, and recalls mainly that her mother managed the home while her father worked. In her area, she says, it seemed most of the women stayed in the home. By the time she was 14 she was out in the work force. She had found it frightening, she said, adding, “But it never occurred to me to ask my older brother and sister what it was like for them . . . it wasn’t that kind of family.” Each of her two sisters had several children – one had six, the other, seven, and her mother had had six, but Marj considers herself not unlucky in the sense that she did not ever get pregnant, and lucky in the sense that had she married, she might have discovered she was not able to conceive.
It has mainly been since she has grown older that Marj has thought about what it would have been like to be a mother. She thinks that when she was young, like others of her cohort she did not know a great deal about how to bring up children. She has since learned parenting skills through counselling courses – a little too late, she adds, although sometimes she thinks about it and wishes she were able to pass on something useful from what she has learned.
As a child, Marj was quite shy, she says, and has to fight against that much of her life, but since she has become older she finds it a lot easier to make friends. She mentioned the first time she heard someone say, “That old lady over there” and realised it was her being talked about. The realisation that the description “grey-haired with glasses” applied to so many people was comforting, she found. She has been going to the meetings of the Older Feminists’ Network, based in London, since its inception in 1982. Her friendships with women are an important part of her life. Marj is in good health, but she finds she experiences more aches and pains as she grows older – and more often – but she says she has changed in other ways, too.
Travelling abroad – she has been to India, Sri Lanka, and America, in the company of friends – has given her more understanding of different peoples and attitudes, and of racism, in particular children – one of her biggest concerns now. Seeing how women are treated, and class differences among men and women generally are also of concern to her.
Marj believes that as she grows older she has become wiser. In a given situation, she says, she might previously have become rattled, but “gradually,” she explains, “I’ve learned, okay, maybe I don’t have all the answers here but I know something – let’s get on with it. . . . And the thing I’m coming to terms with is, if it gets too hard you don’t always have to be right. You want to think you’re always right and you’re not. And you have to handle that.”