SHIRLEY CONRAN: At 90, I want to tell women the hardest lesson I’ve learned… money is power

Bestselling author, feminist icon and Femail’s first ever editor SHIRLEY CONRAN: At 90, I want to tell women the hardest lesson I’ve learned… money is power

  • When I was a child, my mother taught me it was vulgar for women to have money
  • I realised this was just another way of keeping women short of money and power
  • I want women to get richer but we are allergic to idea of us making lots of money

When I was a child, my mother taught me that it was vulgar for a woman to have money.

We were middle-class with no financial concerns — my father had a dry-cleaning business — but she wouldn’t give pocket money to my two sisters or me. Husbands didn’t want wives who were nosy about financial matters. As I grew up, I realised this was just another way of keeping women short of money — and therefore power — and it sparked an anger in me that exists to this day; in the week of my 90th birthday, the issue of women and wealth still has me fuming.

Far from sliding into my slippers, my campaigning spirit is as strong as when I led a flaming, torchlit march of 700 women to No 10 in 1969, demanding equal pay. The Equal Pay Act of 1970 was the result.

Looking back on my life, I spent 30 years being ignorant about money; two years in post-divorce penury; 20 years making several million dollars; then another 20 years spending it on one overarching cause — improving the lives of women.

SHIRLEY CONRAN (pictured): When I was a child, my mother taught me that it was vulgar for a woman to have money

SHIRLEY CONRAN (pictured): When I was a child, my mother taught me that it was vulgar for a woman to have money

More specifically, I want women to get richer and stay richer. Some may find that distasteful; we are still allergic to the idea of women making a lot of money.

If you say a man is ambitious, you imagine a godlike figure leading the troops. But a motivated woman is self-serving and cold, unmotherly and probably cruel. Yes, even today.

I experienced great prosperity after my book Lace broke the European record for a debut novel with a million-dollar advance in 1982. Five other blockbusters followed. I was dizzy with delight but never forgot what it was like when my divorce from Terence Conran in 1962 left me homeless and jobless with two young sons.

The issue of money — or lack of it — is particularly relevant today, when the cost of living threatens to engulf us all.

I know only too well the frozen panic when money runs out. What it’s like to turn off the heating all winter, scold children for not switching off lights and fill up on bread and potatoes, never throwing away leftovers which make the soup thicker.

I also know how engaging with financial matters can help in the long run. I feel like shaking young girls and grown women who prefer to stay ignorant about maths and its uses. I’ve grown tired of 13- and 14-year-olds smugly saying to me: ‘The day I leave school is the day I give up maths.’ I growl back: ‘The day you leave school is the day you will start to need maths.’

I have devoted the past two decades to the Maths Anxiety Trust, which I founded in 2018 to raise awareness and to develop a series of groundbreaking, free, online maths books for girls.

Looking back over the past 90 years, this is the work I’m most proud of. And where better to raise awareness of this latest campaign than in the pages of my beloved Daily Mail — in the Femail section of which I became launch editor back in 1968.

Eyes may glaze over, but the fact is, maths is money. Whatever you do in life, whether you dream of becoming a famous footballer, fashion designer, singer, sailor, doctor, nurse . . . maths is essential.

As I grew up, I realised this was just another way of keeping women short of money — and therefore power — and it sparked an anger in me that exists to this day. Pictured: Shirley Conran in Monaco, where she wrote her bestseller Lace

As I grew up, I realised this was just another way of keeping women short of money — and therefore power — and it sparked an anger in me that exists to this day. Pictured: Shirley Conran in Monaco, where she wrote her bestseller Lace

Millions of adults in the UK lack basic numeracy skills, with half of those of working age having the maths ability expected of a primary school child. Regardless of income, they’ll feel stressed and insecure about money. I can empathise because I didn’t get to grips with figures until my 60s.

My working life began in my late teens, when my father refused to continue paying for my art course because I wouldn’t marry the rich man he wanted me to marry. To keep myself at art college for two more years, I started working in London as a photographic model for advertisements.

Then a jewellery firm, Asprey Suchy, asked me if I wanted to be their ‘pro’. ‘Pro’ was what my mother always said when she meant prostitute — a polite woman never mentioned the word.

I said I would think about it, rushed to ask a friend, ‘What’s a pro?’ and at 19, became an extremely well-paid public relations officer — with an expense account at the Savoy to entertain journalists and give them gold jewellery.

Later, I used those valuable connections after marrying Terence Conran in 1955 to help him get his furniture business off the ground.

Terence and I had a lot of fun together but, apart from the infidelities, life became just criticise, criticise, criticise from morning to midnight. It was very wearing.

I said at one point: ‘What I don’t understand is why you want to stay married to me.’

Journalist and author Shirley Conran prepares for a night out in London with her husband, designer and restaurateur Terence Conran in June 1955

Journalist and author Shirley Conran prepares for a night out in London with her husband, designer and restaurateur Terence Conran in June 1955

Jasper and Shirley Conran with Sir Terence Conran at Her Book Launch Party at Quadlinos in 1993

Jasper and Shirley Conran with Sir Terence Conran at Her Book Launch Party at Quadlinos in 1993

He had a good think and then said: ‘Because you are a very valuable business asset, because you make me laugh and because I’ve got used to you, like my old school rug.’

What I wanted him to say was: ‘I love you.’ And I knew he knew that. So after seven years of marriage, I walked out of our house with a coat and handbag. Luckily, my two young sons were spending Easter with my recently widowed mother in Portsmouth.

It was our divorce in 1962 that really lit the feminist fire in me. It may have been the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it was also the best because it led me to help improve the lives of women.

On a personal level, though, I always wonder whether I should have divorced Terence — particularly when I consider how it made our sons, Sebastian, then five, and Jasper, one, feel lost and miserable. The impact lasts to this day.

Mind you, Terence was just as godawful with the rest of his wives, so I think I would have ended up having a serious breakdown if I hadn’t left.

Two weeks after I walked out, Terence sacked me from my role as design and sales director of Conran Fabrics. For two months I slept on the sofa at my sister Juliet’s small flat until I found a bedsitter. I had a bed, some self-assembly shelving, a folding table, an antique chest for my things and a clothes rail on wheels. That was about it.

I wore a dressing gown over my clothes in the evenings to stay warm. My sons ended up staying with my mother for two years — I visited at weekends.

I remember sitting alone on the corner of the bed one day in cold panic, my arms and legs leaden. Unable to think straight, I was flooded with horror and shock. I had never had no money before.

It makes me tearful even now, recalling my humiliation that my mother was paying for my sons. I never thanked her; I never mentioned it. I think she understood I felt such shame.

I didn’t feel OK about it all until I received a letter from her on my 70th birthday, saying I’d dealt very well with the challenges in my life and that she had always been proud of me. It’s the most valuable thing I have.

As for the boys, they never treated me differently. At one point, when he was a little older, Jasper commented that it was us three against the world, and it did feel like that.

I scraped and saved so that we could live together again.

My best friend Mary Quant commented that I was so determined.

The whole thing made me wake up to financial reality. Beyond the weekly housekeeping budget I’d had when I was married, I had no idea what things cost. How much did running a home cost? Could I afford a car? (No.) Could we afford to go on holiday? (We stayed with my mother.)

Two weeks after I walked out, Terence sacked me from my role as design and sales director of Conran Fabrics. For two months I slept on the sofa at my sister Juliet’s small flat until I found a bedsitter

Two weeks after I walked out, Terence sacked me from my role as design and sales director of Conran Fabrics. For two months I slept on the sofa at my sister Juliet’s small flat until I found a bedsitter

The boys never treated me differently. At one point, when he was a little older, Jasper commented that it was us three against the world, and it did feel like that

The boys never treated me differently. At one point, when he was a little older, Jasper commented that it was us three against the world, and it did feel like that

I became fastidious about checking every penny I spent. I scoured every receipt for mistakes and kept a list of any money I got back from being overcharged, say, for a pub meal or a lipstick. The list was on a pink piece of paper pinned to the back of my basement flat front door.

My friends used to laugh at it: ‘How’s the pink list going?’

They stopped laughing the year the pink list total was bigger than my earnings.

Meanwhile, I became a design consultant at the Daily Mail and went on to launch Femail in 1968. I adored it from the moment I stepped into that office — besides, it was warm and you got free tea.

During my divorce proceedings, I did not apply for alimony because I was earning a living. The judge awarded me full custody of the children and Terence was ordered to pay all costs for them — including the provision of a home — which the judge decided was a total of £37 a month. Clearly, that judge did not know the cost of vests or a jar of marmalade; nor how quickly a growing child’s shoes and overcoat would need to be replaced.

Terence was supposed to provide the boys’ school fees. When he failed to pay, I couldn’t afford a lawyer, so a friend, the playwright and barrister John Mortimer, represented me at no cost.

John knew Terence was by then a rich man who had all the power to pay what the judge had ordered. But he also had the power not to pay it, instead paying for lawyers to keep the case pending for years (a rich man’s trick).

Meanwhile, I became a design consultant at the Daily Mail and went on to launch Femail in 1968. I adored it from the moment I stepped into that office — besides, it was warm and you got free tea

Meanwhile, I became a design consultant at the Daily Mail and went on to launch Femail in 1968. I adored it from the moment I stepped into that office — besides, it was warm and you got free tea

As a woman, it was almost impossible for me to get a mortgage, but eventually my mother guaranteed me, so at last I bought our family home from Terence — for three times what he had paid for it — and lived happily with my sons in London.

Then, in 1969, I collapsed with viral pneumonia. After a month, I left hospital unable to stand up. I thought I was dying. I could not return to my beloved Daily Mail and I would never be able to work full-time again.

Unable to afford home help, I took notes about the housework and used them to write Superwoman, a guide for the first generation of working mothers. It became a bestseller in 1975, leading to an exhausting book tour — and a diagnosis of ME (chronic fatigue syndrome).

I didn’t make much money despite Superwoman’s success. I couldn’t type, so my typist bills were huge, as were the research costs: hiring plumbers and electricians to show me how to fix things was not cheap.

By this point, my sons were away at design universities. I continued to struggle with my health and, realising I’d probably need expensive medical help for the rest of my life, I decided I had better try to write an international bestseller. A bold ambition considering I’d never written a novel before.

The writer Anthony Burgess persuaded me Monte Carlo was the perfect place to write from. Mary Quant, who had a house in Nice, paid my travel expenses to visit her and then on to visit Anthony and his wife in Monaco, where I found, to my astonishment, that wonderful, sunny flats cost very little at that time.

I saw my chance: I sublet my basement flat in London for £135 a week and took a £35-a-week Monte Carlo studio flat with a big balcony that overlooked the sea. Every Monday, I bought a roast chicken from the street market and ate my way through it during the week, leg by leg.

I was anxious throughout the 18 months it took to write Lace because I knew I might never find a publisher. Luckily, it sold to Simon & Schuster in 1982 — with film rights — for a million dollars.

For one year I was the lead author at one of the world’s top publishers, which came as much as a surprise as a relief. With success came touring, though, which I grew to loathe.

You got up at 5am to be rushed off to breakfast TV, followed by local interviews, radio and afternoon TV, until you just caught a plane by 7pm with the hope of reaching your hotel in the next town by midnight.

You were allowed Sundays off but all you did was flop on the bed all day, trying to phone your family in a different time zone. What do bestselling international authors talk about to each other? How much they hate touring.

I loved meeting adventurous Judith Krantz, who was very funny; I was already friends with Barbara Taylor Bradford and her delightful, clever husband; but the most impressive author I met was beautiful Jackie Collins.

I had dismissed her as someone who wrote characters called Evangelista or Tempestua, but Jackie was highly intelligent and gave me a lot of good financial advice — as did Barbara Taylor Bradford. We’d talk about everything except the books we were writing; we weren’t even allowed to mention the title. In fact, at one point, Jackie and I were unknowingly both writing books called Revenge.

I was made to call mine The Revenge Of Mimi Quinn because Jackie sold more books internationally; in all, Jackie wrote 32 bestselling novels to my six.

For one year I was the lead author at one of the world’s top publishers, which came as much as a surprise as a relief

For one year I was the lead author at one of the world’s top publishers, which came as much as a surprise as a relief

Shirley Conran and Jasper Conran attend the David Hockney Private View at the Royal Academy of Arts on January 17, 2012

Shirley Conran and Jasper Conran attend the David Hockney Private View at the Royal Academy of Arts on January 17, 2012

When Warner Brothers paid me an advance of $600,000 (£512,910) to write my first screenplay, Savages, Jackie predicted they would never make the film because it was too anti-men. She was right, they didn’t.

Having money brought new problems that I don’t expect anyone to sympathise with: tax demands, accountants, lawyers, business consultants, pensions advisers, bankers . . . I was at their mercy.

That million dollars was disappearing fast. And I couldn’t understand why.

When I timidly told people I didn’t understand money, they told me to read newspaper City columns until I did understand.

Twelve years later, I still didn’t get it, so I decided to teach myself. I used simple books and learned bit by bit.

After that, I decided I had better research and write books aimed at girls and women about maths and money — something I simply couldn’t find at the time.

Money Stuff, a free, online, simple maths course which includes budgeting and basic bookkeeping, is the result. During my research, I discovered that in the 17th century, the Church encouraged doctors to tell parents not to allow their daughters to study maths because it might shrivel their wombs and they wouldn’t be able to have children. A powerful deterrent.

This notion that maths is a male subject persists to this day. How often have you heard a girl say: ‘I’m hopeless at maths’?

Covid home-learning awakened many parents to our collective maths problem — they saw close-up how badly their children were doing. And they also realised that it’s not the children at fault, but the teaching and our attitudes.

For too long, we’ve accepted women’s aversion to money. I’m sure this is part of the reason why in the top 100 British businesses, nine CEOs are women and 91 are men.

That shows two things — who has the power, and that at least nine women made it to the top, so it is absolutely possible.

I am in the process of working on two further free online maths books to help more girls reach those fabulous top salaries.

Never mind ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’. These days I say: ‘Life’s too short to be short of money.’

  • For more information, visit mathsanxietytrust.com and moneystuff.com

© Shirley Conran

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