Who’s afraid of old age? Most people, it would seem. And what could be scarier than a wrinkled old woman? This was certainly the hackneyed thought of model Heidi Klum, paying some Oscar-winning make-up artists a huge sum of money to age her for Halloween this year. A few commentators mocked Klum’s insensitivity, yet her antics highlighted a cultural truth, which is why age is a feminist issue. Wherever we look, first and foremost, fears of ageing have targeted the ageing female, fed by those terrifying images from myth and folk-tale – the hag, harridan, witch, or Medusa. These frightening figures are not incidentally female, but quintessentially so, seen as monstrous because of the combination of age and gender. So much effort is required, Collette wrote almost a century ago, ‘to disguise that monster, an old woman’, herself resorting to cosmetic surgery at a time when it would have been both exceedingly painful, and also very dangerous. How much have things changed?
It was writing my political memoir, Making Trouble, in my early sixties, that brought me sharply up against the contrast between my shared dreams as a young woman, coming of age in the radical 1960s, and the realities of old age. My feminist attachments should, you might think, have prevented this outcome. ‘Goodbye to all that’, the voice of the American writer, Robin Morgan, had declared, in January 1970. Women would create a new world, one closer to our own heart’s desire, one in which we were no longer forced to become the sort of women men wanted us to be. ‘Stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved’, we sang with glorious irony as young women on International Women’s Day in March 1971. I was on that march, so surely, after forty years and more of feminism, things have changed. We shall see.
Certainly, as young women, second-wave feminists were accused of excluding older women from our midst. In this country the Older Feminist Network was founded in 1982 by feminists, who felt that the women’s liberation movement took little notice of them or the challenges they faced as women in an ageist culture (including, so it seemed, the women’s movement itself). ‘Old age’, they said, was self-defining, though most of them saw it as ‘starting with the menopause’. These older feminists and activists, such as the poet, simply calling herself Astra, began working on issues such as housing, sheltered accommodation, living wills, and more. It was also only around the mid-1980s that books by and about older feminists began to appear, again suggesting older that they had been systematically patronized, stereotyped and, above all, ignored in the women’s movement. One of the first collections, edited by the American lesbian feminist writer and activist Barbara Macdonald, and her younger lover, Cynthia Rich, angrily confronted their fellow feminists: Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Agism
However, while older feminists had indeed begun meeting in the 1980s, it would be over a decade more before things began to shift more decisively, if still slowly, within mainstream feminist thought. Indeed, it was only after more of us ‘old-times’ reached middle age ourselves that ageing was more widely addressed. This might seem strange, given that one key feminist goal was always to try to reach out, embracing all women, everywhere. Furthermore, as feminists we had always objected to the cultural dominance of the male gaze, with its almost exclusive focus on youthful female flesh when presenting acceptable femininity. We confidently tried to reject all those male-defined images of women’s ‘attractiveness’, and seemed aware of its harmful ways of ranking women, observing or disregarding us, according to our ‘beauty’. We also noticed of the artificial and ephemeral nature of ‘good looks’.
For all that, ageing feminists remained largely unprepared for the fear, anxiety, even for some the sudden horror, of realizing we were no longer young. ‘Late mid-life astonishment’, is how the American feminist Sarah Pearlman referred to the disruptions of identity and self-esteem that almost all women can suddenly experience at the first intimations of old age, and the feared marginalization and invisibility that so often comes with it. Indeed, as Simone de Beauvoir’s many words on the topic exemplify, it can be easier to fight the realities of ageism, than to accept one’s own ageing face. A few years ago, for instance, a large survey of elderly Americans reported not just a disparity between actual age and the age people said they felt, but found that this gap increased with age. Over fifty, most interviewees said they felt ten years younger than their chronological age, while a significant minority over sixty-five reported that they felt up to twenty years younger. Given the cultural diminishment accompanying our images of the elderly, this is hardly surprising.
Nevertheless, feminist resistance to ageism and the neglect of the needs of the elderly has now been growing for years. In addition, more older feminists have been trying to confront, rather simply rage against or disavow, the losses that inevitable multiply in any long life – always sharply etched by class, race, ethnicity and more. It led one of my feminists mentors, Adrienne Rich, to articulate a new role for the older woman, or older activist, as ‘passionate skeptic’, the person who could look back through time and help explain the continuities, slides, shifts and inevitable ruptures in radical thought and action across the generations. It has also led me to write my own book on ageing Out of Time, in search of richer, mutually beneficial narratives, which might encourage more communication between younger and older feminists. It isn’t always easy, with resentments springing from either side, but at least in my dreams, it certainly is possible.
Lynne Segal is a feminist writer and activist, and Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. Her new book Out Of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing is published by Verso.