For women like us who have spent numerous years creating our identities around our work or our families, taking a step in a new direction can feel like a katydid molting its exoskeleton. It’s unsettling and liberating in equal measures, possibly painful–we can’t ask the katydid–and we suspect, itchy.
Here we share stories of women who have scratched a new itch. We hope these stories may provide the insight and encouragement for others to leave their old skin–familiar and easy as it is–and go into a new world a little naked and scared. But not alone.
Today, we’re happy to highlight the work of Jennifer Townsend of Seattle, Wa.
What kind of work or passion are you pursuing now?
I am in the distribution phase of a feature documentary film which I began producing and directing six years ago. Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise has taken over my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t wrestle with challenges and learn something new.
I am passionate about Catching Sight because it gives voice to what is it like to be female in a world created by and for men. It is an entertaining film for all gender identities. But its emotional heart speaks especially to women who know what it is like to be silenced; to not be believed; to be blocked at every turn; to fear walking home at night. And because of that deep connection, it acts as a balm for women in the audience and opens a space for them to say ‘I am not alone.’
How old were you when you began in this new direction?
I was 75 years old when I was called to make this film.
What did you do before you made this change?
I was happily retired and living the easy life before I decided, reluctantly, to produce a film. I had time to visit with friends, read books, travel, do volunteer work, and so on. My prior working life included a number of occupations and professions. I was a venereal disease investigator, a sales rep, a real estate appraiser, a stock options trader, a commercial real estate broker, and an attorney.
What prompted you to make this change?
Years ago, in 1991, I took it upon myself to conduct a research project about how Thelma & Louise impacted viewers in the audience. As you recall, it was a very controversial film. It was labeled ‘toxic feminism.’ It was praised and loved and it was vilified and hated. The documentary goes into more detail about this. Suffice to say, I was profoundly moved by the film, gathered the data and then I set it aside, for later. But it plagued me. For years I would say to myself: You have to do something with the stories that women wrote to you. I knew that unless I finished the project, I would not die in peace.
I never intended to make a film about the responses. I simply felt the stories deserved to see the light of day. I was going to write an article about my findings. But then I realized that I needed to find the people who wrote to me and let them tell their own stories in their own way—not with me paraphrasing them.
What from your previous work or life situation helped you in your reinvention?
I have faced difficult challenges my entire life. My family was poor. But we never saw ourselves that way even though there were times we didn’t have two pennies to rub together. We always had a roof over our heads, even if it meant seven of us living in a small one-bedroom cottage.
As a young woman, I had four children in four years and then got a divorce. I was part-way through college at the time and went on welfare for a couple of years, until I could finish college and get a full-time job. Later I went to law school while raising my family and even worked part-time as a research assistant. That was scary time in my life, but a piece of cake compared to making a film.
So, given my background, I was prepped for difficulties and, given my family responsibilities, I had no choice but to persist.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?
When something is totally new to you and you don’t have a mentor, or the background, or the experience required, but you still have to put one foot in front of the other and do the best you can, that’s the biggest obstacle. And it is scary as hell.
How are you overcoming them?
I have gotten as far as I have with persistence, by talking myself through the rough spots and disappointments and reminding myself that I have made a truly good film that has helped women heal from trauma they have suffered in silence.
I am still overcoming the last aspect of making a film and that is: getting it out into the world. This is another thing I have no experience in doing. So it’s little by little.
What fears did you have to face?
Oh my god! What fears did I face? I was absolutely terrified. Night in and night out I awoke from sleep asking myself how in the world I could make a film when I knew nothing about what I was doing? Where to start, what to do next? How to get from point A to point B? Who would help? What would it cost? How would I pay for it? What horrible mistakes would I make? Was it even possible to do it?
What kind of support did you receive in your reinvention?
My contemporaries, family and friends are especially proud of my reinvention as well as the film. And, at festivals and interviews I receive tremendous support for having become a filmmaker at an advanced age. Many women have said that I am an inspiration to them and they hold me as an example of what older people can do.
At the beginning of my reinvention, only one of my four children was fully onboard with what I was attempting to accomplish. The others were supportive and conflicted, at the same time. They wondered why I was committing to such a huge undertaking. They also had concerns about my financial situation. As time went on and I faced one obstacle after another, they began to question (among themselves, not to me) whether I would get to the finish line. Two of them told me later that they thought I might give up on it. I was surprised by that response because in my own mind, regardless of what I was up against, that thought never crossed my mind.
How have you grown or how has your life improved as a result of taking on this new pursuit?
If it’s really true that learning new things will grease the wheels of one’s mind, then my wheels should be set for the next decade, at the very least. I take satisfaction in knowing that Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise has been enjoyed by thousands of people of all ages and gender identities.
Catching Sight has screened in festivals across the U.S. and abroad. It has taken me to South Korea where it was the closing night film in a women’s rights festival. I was interviewed on stage for an hour, after which women queued up for autographs and photos. It has been licensed to Public Television in Finland and Sweden. It took me to Iceland for a #MeToo Conference.
As the documentary grows in awareness, I grow along with it. Next year I have been invited to speak to university classes in Ireland and England. The film is available to colleges and universities, together with a 78-page academic study guide, through an educational distributor.
The work I do forces me to come up with creative solutions. It challenges me to try to catch the carrots hanging out in front of me. And sometimes I do! But, most of all, it gives me purpose. It makes me feel that I am doing my part in the constant battle to make the world a safer place for women and girls.
What advice would you give to other women at this age who are looking to reinvent themselves?
You have to have faith in yourself. Think about what you’ve done in your life up until now. Remind yourself of the obstacles you have overcome. In ten years (if you are still on this earth) you will be ten years older. Would you rather be ten years older and not have done whatever it is you want to do? There’s no time like the present. Take the leap! Trust.
How can readers find your business?
Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise can be viewed online through the website.