Do women become invisible as they get older? That is certainly the opinion of this week’s guest the fabulously funny author, Toni Kief. Author of five independently published books, she made a conscious decision to have her heroines buck the trend and consequently they are smart, opinionated, determined and are definitely what would be termed – ladies of advanced years. I asked her what first triggered this realization that us older girls become more or less invisible to society, and she responded with the statement below.
“There is nothing more amazing than a four-year-old girl. Confident, cute to the max, all-knowing, and energetic, she can dominate a room. This moment is before the demands of society wrestles her into insecurity. Doomed to forget that she is more than a reflection and a fractured comparison to photoshopped beauty. By the teen years, she hates her unique perfection and tries to undermine her brilliance.
Often the girl chooses to stifle her genius and dedicates decades to the success of those she loves. Then one day, the shock of fading into the background from the social scene hits. This phenomenon is usually in the mid to late forties. Simply another step is taking her to a trivializing, “cute.” But this time it is the precursor to the dismissive label of elderly.
When I turned sixty, I realized I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. By that recognition, I had already become completely invisible, and any attention felt like charity. So many years dedicated to the success of husbands, children, and maintaining food and shelter, I didn’t make time to dream. After accusing my mother of sneaking around behind my mirrors, I started to look deeper. We crones were everywhere, but you have to search. There’s one carrying a covered dish, another offering aspirin, one more babysitting, or over there sitting quietly in the corner. NO, it’s our turn. I decided to do something, anything to celebrate us.
In an unintentional challenge, never meant to be serious, I started to write. Unlike many who have silently written for entire lives, that wasn’t me. After a couple of hundred short stories, there was the afternoon I saw a woman of an unexpected age. She was walking, no stomping, on the side of the road. She was deep in an animated conversation with the cosmos, and she was angry. That was the moment that birthed my first book, Old Baggage. Gifted with the realization that all of us have stories to tell, I continued. Women, not girls, face choices and make new beginnings when least expected. Our stories are sometimes shocking, victorious, heartbreaking, and funny. They arise from an unplanned change. However it happens, those twists make us who we were meant to be.
Our confident, beautiful, all-knowing selves from the age of four, are back. So, I decided to make invisibility a superpower, to celebrate my regrets as a tool that brought me to here. I’ll continue to embroider personal stories into legends hoping for a form of immortality.
Today is the beginning. Your assignment is to make art. The art of your choice and move it to primary importance. Right now, form a unique creation with no concern about measuring up to anyone but our four-year-old epic self. Ready, set – go!”
Toni, that’s quite a forceful and poignant statement, but do you really believe that when women reach a certain age, we become invisible?
It happens quickly along with a particular birthday, between 45 and fifty. One day, we walk in the room, and heads turn and there are greetings. A week later, around the season of menopause, there is no notice at all. Instead of being asked to dance, I’m now asked to save a chair.
Why do you think that is? Is it because we’re no longer considered attractive to the opposite sex?
The realization that when the Beatles came into popularity, I was too young for Paul McCartney, and now at the age of 70 I’m too old. I agree it has to do with sexuality and a society that has been moulded to worship a glorified idealization of youth and fashion.
As the attention from the opposite sex wanes, I watch the communities of women grow. Little do “they” know that we are coming into our strength. Educational opportunities have grown, and we are no longer considered a victim or frail. In reality only the exceptions were weak.
Throughout history, we women receive a minimal education and placed in a position of support. Many of us have been listening, and reading – growing to a greater role. We are asked daily to prove we can not only take care of ourselves, but children and elders too. Today, I hear the mature voices speaking and building in power, but it is slow going.
Or does it go deeper than that? Perhaps it even has its roots further back in history, to a time when once a woman was no longer able to bear children, she was considered a burden on society?
The historical research I have found genius and accomplishments that were co-opted and demeaned. In earlier times we were witches and hags. Now it is bitches, shrill, and emotional, but things are changing, and it is an exciting time. There were a few women in positions of power. There are some very respected women in history, but at the time, I’m sure they had to battle the patriarchy. In my research I find names daily that have slipped to the foot notes.
Or maybe it’s simply that many middle-aged women dress for comfort and no longer to impress. I must admit, I have heard the siren call of elasticated waistbands and the colour beige myself, which I am so far resisting.
I stopped wearing shoes you couldn’t run in during the women’s rights marches in the 80s. I was the President of the Tampa National Organization for Women. I started a movement to mail our shoes to President Reagan. He had been against women’s rights and the transition from the home and subservience. My last pair of high heels were sent along with over 200 pairs of shoes. There was no acknowledgement in the press, but I was rewarded with an FBI file, which I’m sure is paper and in the back of a cabinet. P.S. the Equal Rights Amendment has never been ratified so American women are still not protected on the Constitution.
Now, I understand that you didn’t start writing yourself until you were a lady of advanced years, what gave you the push to begin?
I didn’t start writing until I was sixty years old. I was in metaphysical group that was disbanding. James Johnson said, “I want to write more.” I’m not sure where the answer came from, but I said, “If you write I’ll write.” Now ten years later we have a total of eight published books between us, and that doesn’t include the cookbooks we never published. (Dangerous Dishes and the Food they Inspire were short biographies of women of history and myth with recipes to go with them.) I have the only printed copy.
What’s your favourite thing that you have written?
Of all my 200 short stories and 5 books. My favourite project is Mildred In Disguise with Diamonds. The first in the Mildred Unchained trilogy. Mildred Petrie is 71, widowed and broke. She walks to a casino, and they offer a job working in security undercover. She isn’t your usual crime fighter and I’d love to hang out with her.
I really enjoyed reading Mildred in Disguise with Diamonds and admired her strength and determination not to let her age slow her down in any way. How much of you is in Mildred?
I’m noisier and more strident than Mildred. But we do share a drive for justice. I considered her completely separate, but as the further books came along, I can’t deny there are some connections.
Before our interview, I thought long and hard about whether I could think of any older heroines in literature at all, other than your own of course, but all I could come up with was Miss Marple from the Agatha Christie books. Can you think of any others? And if you can, did they have any influence on your own heroines?
I’m racking my brain. Most older women in literature are Queens, murderers, or supporting characters. I found The Little Old Lady That Broke All the Rules, by C. Ingelman-Sundberg and found it delightful, but I already had Mildred cooking. I’m noticing a change creeping into the entertainment industry starting with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I love that the older actresses are refusing to be pushed aside and building their own projects.
Do you read indie books? If so, are they any that have had an impact on you, and why?
The past four years I have read almost exclusively Indie authors. It has been a wild ride into genres I wouldn’t have read before when I was awash in best sellers. This sounds like a commercial, but one of my favorites was The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ written by you. The story was complex, the characters were deep and thoroughly real. There was also Circle of Time by Debra Shiveley Welch, she combined history and time travel in a fascinating way. The Shark God’s Son by Kia Bertrand, this was a modern story into Hawaiian myth and unique read. Last, was another dive into a genre I had avoided before, The Immortality Cure by Tori Centanni, a mystery with a unique vampire twist that is out of the stereotypes.
Did you think about trying for a traditional publishing contract? Or did you go straight to being an indie author? If the latter, why?
I didn’t even try traditional. Since I started writing so much later in life, I didn’t want to wait for agents to reject me and then publishers all adding more months and years to a book. So, I simply went to work, published and then wrote some more.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a historical fiction about my 8x great grandmother, Susanna Jackson/White/Winslow who was on the Mayflower in 1620. I’m struggling with her book; it is so much more complex that the story that has been given to us in our American history. She also had disappeared for a long time, but was a true foundation to the colonization. Sue Allan from Scrooby Manor has been successful and learning about Susanna.
That sounds fascinating, and of course despite history being mostly told from the male perspective, there are examples of remarkable women doing extraordinary things. Is there any one woman from history whom you particularly admire?
When asked if there is a person alive or dead that I could meet with, I always chose Mary Magdalene and a translator. Since I have spent some years researching women’s history this could read like the movie credits at the end of The Greatest Story Never Told. I’d like to meet Elizabeth Freeman, AKA Mum Bett, she was a slave in the 1770s and sued for her freedom. She was the reason that there wasn’t slavery in Massachusetts from then on. I had researched her and couple years later found my family was the bad guys in the story. In my time in politics I have been fortunate to meet several modern women and I would love to spend more time with Maya Angelou.
What is your pet hate?
Frogs and I don’t know why. I must have seen one with a knife and a sneer when I was a baby. Just thinking about this answer gave me a chill.
Have you ever built it into a character or used it in your writing?
No, it is a silly enough hate it would make a character unbelievable.
What movie can you watch over and over again?
I don’t tend to re-watch movies or reread books. I am embarrassed to say that I’ve seen Grease seven times, but that was accidental – it was on in front of my face.
Grease is the word – if you’d said those seven times were on purpose there’d have been no judgement from this side. Okay, is there one movie you saw and absolutely hated?
I can’t believe how hard it is to answer this question. If I dislike something, I let it go. I have walked out on films, and if it is in a multiplex simply go to the next theatre. I’ll go with the Fast and Furious franchise. I don’t care about fast cars and violence once, let alone 8 of them. Ever since seeing The Mummy’s Ghost on late night TV at the age of 10, I have avoided 99% of the horror genre too.
What’s your favourite quote, ever?
Oscar Wilde, “I’m too old to know everything.”
Name two things in life that you wish were easier.
Getting a good education and cleaning the oven.
Totally feeling it on the oven cleaning front, and I’m not ashamed to admit I actually pay a little man to come and clean mine. It’s my guilty secret, sshh, don’t tell my mother. Do you have a guilty secret? And are you prepared to share it with me – I promise I won’t tell anyone.
I have 23 years of community college and no degree. My father was 43 when he was disabled as a firefighter and went to college. I was a senior in high school, and decided to take the pressure off of him so he could finish. I took classes one at a time and never took math; we can also add 5 years of yoga. I did get a standing ovation in a women’s studies class for the record.
Apart from your cloak of invisibility, if you could have any other superpower, what would it be?
I have thought about this, and I’ll stick with invisibility. I used to dream I could fly, but it was like swimming, about 5 feet off the ground and was about as fast as running. With invisibility I can catch a commercial flight and sneak a sandwich under my cloak at the same time. I assume that as I age the desires become more basic.
Finally, what would you like people to know about being an Indie author?
The writing is the joy, editing the equalizer and marketing the battle. Remember commas are Ninjas that creep around into the night trying to make you look bad. I used to be an insurance investigator called to horrific scenes of destruction in the dead of night. I spend more time and energy writing, but it gives me more reward (well not monetary, but reward none the less). At least before I didn’t wake up at 2 am trying to craft a scene for three hours then doze off and forget most of it.
Many thanks to the amazing Toni Kief for being my guest on A Little Bit of Blake, and thank you for taking the time to join us. I hope you have a great Sunday and look forward to chatting with you all again next week.