‘Life is too short to stuff a mushroom’ – Shirley Conran redefined role of women

Author and campaigner Dame Shirley Conran rose to fame in the late 70s writing about the expectations on women to be superwomen, coining the phrase “life is too short to stuff a mushroom”.

The 91-year-old, known for her best-selling feminist books including Superwoman and Lace, was also made a dame for her services to mathematics education as founder of the Maths Anxiety Trust.

Designer Jasper Conran announced his mother’s death on Thursday night.

Born in London on September 21 1932, Dame Shirley trained as a sculptor and painter and worked in textile design until she was 30, serving as a member of the selection committee of the Design Council for eight years.

She became a design consultant for the Daily Mail newspaper and then home editor, before taking over as women’s editor and launching the Femail section.

She would later become women’s editor for the launch of the Observer magazine and a columnist for Vanity Fair magazine.

Dame Shirley began writing books after she was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) in her late 30s and could no longer work full-time.

In 1975, she wrote acclaimed non-fiction book Superwoman, recognised as a feminist practical guidebook.

Her first novel, Lace, was published in 1982 and later turned into a TV miniseries in the US starring Bess Armstrong, Brooke Adams and Arielle Dombasle.

Her other novels included Savages, The Revenge, Crimson and Tiger Eyes.

Aside from writing, Dame Shirley had a long history of workplace campaigning, which began in 1998 when she founded Mothers In Management which aimed to improve working conditions and flexible practices for working mothers.

In 2001 she founded The Work-Life Balance Trust, a charity which lobbied for flexi-hours for men and women, and she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2004 for services to equal opportunities.

It was also in 2004 that Dame Shirley began pushing for better educational resources, after she failed to find a good maths textbook for her goddaughter and decided to write her own course.

Dame Shirley Conran
Dame Shirley Conran in 2005 (David Cairns/Alamy)

In 2009 she founded Maths Action, an organisation with the aim of improving numerical performance in Britain – and five years later she published Money Stuff, a maths course that follows the GCSE syllabus.

In 2018 Dame Shirley founded the Maths Anxiety Trust to “raise public awareness and understanding of the condition known as maths anxiety and to find solutions”.

She said she funded her education campaign work in the UK from her book royalties and for her efforts she was made a dame in the 2023 resignations honours list of former prime minister Liz Truss.

Dame Shirley married Habitat co-founder and restaurateur Sir Terence Conran in 1955 and they had two sons – designers Jasper and Sebastian Conran – before divorcing seven years later.

Sir Terence died in October 2020.