Artist Maggi Hambling, awarded a CBE in 2010
Photographer Nancy Honey has compiled portraits of 100 inspirational senior women for a new project which aims to challenge perceptions of age and celebrate lesser-known female role models.
100 Leading Ladies features images of women aged over 55 who have been influential in their field, from fashion to art, medicine, science and politics. As well as Biba founder Barbara Hulanicki, journalist Kirsty Wark and feminist writer Germaine Greer, subjects include Patricia Scotland, the first female attorney general for England and Wales, Daphne Selfe, Britain’s oldest supermodel and Averil Mansfield, the UK’s first female professor of surgery.
Each subject was photographed in a place where they go to find inspiration and interviewed about their career by Times journalist Hattie Garlick. Photographs and interviews are compiled in a new book, published by Dewi Lewis, and will be on show at London’s Somerset House from October 2-26. Here, Honey explains the idea behind the project and why she hopes it will inspire confidence among young women…
Professor Wendy Dagworthy, OBE, formerly the Royal College of Art’s head of fashion
When did you come up with the idea for 100 Leading Ladies?
Towards the end of 2011, after the recession had really started to bite photographers and the revenue stream I’d been used to from commercial work wasn’t really coming in, I went back to my roots to make a personal project about womanhood, as I had made quite a few in the first 15 years of my career.
One of the last big projects I did on this was around 20 years ago, when I interviewed older women about the men in their lives and the values they held: older women and high-flying women had always fascinated me, but then I became so busy with commercial work, and I hadn’t worked out how to go about doing a project about them. As I got older, it all seemed to come together.
Feminist, author and journalist Germaine Greer
How did you decide who to feature?
I wanted to feature influential women who loved their work and have influenced all walks of British life. It started with diverse personal heroines – from Barbara Hulanicki, the founder of Biba, to Shirley Williams [the co-founder of the Social Democratic Party]. I’d been familiar with Barbara Hulanicki’s work since she was an illustrator, and when I heard Shirley Williams speak a few years ago, I couldn’t believe how vast her mind was and how articulate her speech was without any notes.
From there, it evolved organically. I thought these women would be very difficult to get to, as they’re all Google-able and are on lists of the most influential women in Britain, but after I’d photographed 12 or 14, I realised they were all keen to give me their personal contact and suggest further people to photograph. I started asking everyone who they would suggest and was able to find women I never would have heard of otherwise.
A good example of that was Averil Mansfield – if I hadn’t had her name from another doctor, I probably wouldn’t have come across it, yet she is so amazing and influential. It was an absolute delight speaking with her, as she was able to talk about women she had taught and inspired over the years.
Some categories were really difficult to access – such as athletics and show business – but I just kept trying and trying. With Barbara, I had almost given up hope until someone I met later told me they had a personal email address for her.
Professor Praveen Kumar, former president of the British Medical Association and Royal Society of Medicine
Why did you photograph subjects in a place where they go to find inspiration?
It’s always been important to me, in all of my photography, to have some sort of collaboration with my subjects. I was intrigued to see where they would choose, and thought it would say a lot more about their background than doing it in a studio. A lot of the women invited me into their homes – Helen Hamlyn for example, has a beautiful art deco home designed by Eric Mendelsohn and I felt very privileged to be able to see it.
And what were you hoping to convey in these portraits?
I wasn’t sure at the beginning, but as I came to editing and looking through them, I felt a sense of pride was very important. I didn’t want them to look like head and shoulders press pictures. When I told each subject it would take around an hour [to photograph them], they were quite surprised – I think most were used to people coming in and just taking a quick mugshot.
Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press
You also said the project aims to reflect a period of social change…
Yes – in my life time, the changes that I’ve seen in terms of what girls expect is phenomenal. Girls have a total expectation of a career now. When I was growing up, although it was felt that education was valuable, most girls would have families and stay at home.
What do you hope people will take away from this project?
I originally designed it as a series of role models for younger women but I think it has evolved and become more diverse. It’s great to have the achievements of women outside traditional fields in the foreground.
The interviews are really important, too, because I feel the whole thing is really life affirming and optimistic. I hope it will inspire younger women, anyone with a negative view of feminism, or people wondering how they’ll balance family and work. One of the things that came through from the project is a lack of confidence that we seem to have as women, and each woman had adopted different methods of getting over that lack of confidence.
I also want it to show that getting older is good and that enjoying your job is about more than just work. It is so interconnected with your life and confidence and self esteem, and I think that’s an important message.
Caroline Michel, CEO of literary talent agency Peters Fraser & Dunlop and former MD of Harper Collins’ Harper Press
Mary Contini, cookery writer and partner of famous Italian delicatessen and cookery school Valvona & Crolla
We’ve recently covered initiatives such as Getty’s Lean In project which are attempting to challenge cliched representations of women in photography (particularly commercial and stock photography). Do you think the way women are represented is changing?
I think it has slowly been changing – we had the nude photography in the 1950s, the power dressed Joan Collins types in the 1980s and now, it’s multi-tasking women running out of the door. I think the many more diverse roles women play are beginning to be represented in popular culture – one of my favourite examples recently is Always’ Like a Girl campaign [below, shot by Lauren Greenfield].
One of my hobby horses, which I’ve been on for 20-something years, is why aren’t we photographing older women? Real women? But I think that is changing – projects such as Advanced Style [photographer Ari Seth Cohen’s series exploring the style of senior women in New York, which has been made into a book and documentary] make a gigantic difference, and we are beginning to have older women represented in advertising too, in a non-patronising way. When I started working on this project, I was amazed by how fascinating the women I photographed were and the great stories they had, and I hope this celebrates that.
Baroness Haleh Afshar, OBE, a Muslim feminist and life peer in the House of Lords
Caroline Neville, founder and chairwoman of Neville McCarthy Associates
100 Leading Ladies is published by Dewi Lewis Media on October 2 and costs £30. Portraits will be on show at Somerset House in London from October 2-26. For details, see or to view the full list of women featured and a selection of interviews, see 100leadingladies.com