A generation of feminist writers is approaching old age. But the same debates, about beauty, wealth and power, rage on, writes Sally Feldman
This article is from the Spring 2014 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.
‘‘Hope I die before I get old,” carolled The Who’s Pete Townshend, in what was to become an anthem for the ’60s generation. But now that the baby boomers are coming of age and find that they’re still alive, if wrinkled, how are they going to cope? A plethora of new books by leading feminist writers offer bagsful of advice – albeit with varying degrees of persuasiveness.
All of them begin with the assumption that old age is a shock – a state we never expected to reach. Simone de Beauvoir couldn’t believe it when she first stood in front of her mirror and said, “I am forty.” Gloria Steinem noted that “One day I woke up and there was a 70-year-old woman in my bed.” While the novelist Penelope Lively, in her memoir Ammonites & Leaping Fish, regards old age as “this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise – ambushed, or so it can seem”.
So how, then, are we to manage what WB Yeats called “this absurdity, this caricature, decrepit age ... that has been tied to me as to a dog’s tail”?
Angela Neustatter provides a relentlessly upbeat approach in The Year I Turn... A Quirky A – Z of Ageing. Surprised but not too dejected to find herself a septuagenarian, she extols the opportunities of maturity. She’s taken up Pilates, so she and her husband are now fit, supple, able to jump and whirl and have great sex. Which comes in handy when crouching on the floor to play with the grandchildren – another compensation for old age. Okay, she concedes, there are downsides: like infirmity, the loss of loved ones, the fear of death. But there’s still plenty to enjoy.
Some of her advice, though, is disappointing: be a good friend; take inspiration from resourceful elders; exercise; resolve family rifts. And just as obvious are her motivational maxims. “Don’t give house room to regrets, recriminations and disappointments,” she advises. “Build a dossier of things you dream of doing but don’t have time for ... then set about making some of the dreams happen.” And whatever you do, banish negative thoughts and emotions.
Such bland exhortations smack of Hallmark card sentiments. And Anne Karpf’s remedies are just as banal. “Recognise what endures and what changes,” she suggests in her treatise on How to Age. At least Neustatter is positive; some of Karpf’s recommendations are just plain depressing. “Each time we see an older person, imagine them as our future self,” she advises. And instead of fearing frailty and weakness we simply need to accept it’s going to happen and see it as just another stage.
According to Karpf, the best way to come to terms with ageing is to be at peace with death. So think about it much more, she urges, incorporate it into our daily lives. Practise remembering death. Memento Mori. All of which rather contradicts her claim that she’s really advocating “ageing zestfully,” with “pragmatic optimism”.
But there’s one major factor that is glaringly absent from either of these books. They don’t attempt to reflect upon the cultural and political differences between men’s and women’s experience of ageing. In other words: where is the sexual politics? Enter Lynne Segal, whose Out of Time provides a more fully researched and, thankfully, more feminist approach. Like Neustatter and Karpf, Segal is a little bewildered to find that she’s reached that unthinkable dark planet: old age. But, as a sociologist who has written widely about the women’s movement, Segal is careful to set her study within that context.
Back in the ’70s she identified strongly with the campaigns of the women’s movement: the demand for equal rights, for sexual liberation, for an end to women’s dependence. It was a time of energy, hope and absolute belief in change. But, she warns, as that generation began to age, so did their confidence erode. She quotes the writer Marina Warner who is “heartbroken that we were defeated, politically, culturally”.
In her analysis of the political as well as the personal aspects of ageing, Segal pays tribute to Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal work Coming of Age. No one, Segal writes, depicted the contradictions of ageing more sharply than that intrepid feminist avatar: the sorrows of all that is lost, combined with a determination to work for change.
Rather surprisingly, Segal echoes her heroine in suggesting that ageing is even worse for men. With testimonies from such alpha males as Philip Roth, John Updike and Martin Amis she argues that men in their prime felt all-powerful. Women never did. So for them ageing comes more easily, more expectedly. And men also suffer, Segal suggests, because they are more intractable in their sexuality – unlike women, who, especially as they age, become more open to different ways of being and different kinds of sexual love. She should know – as she’s now happily settled in a relationship with a woman.
But her assertion that ageing is harder for men just doesn’t ring true. They may feel keenly the loss of impregnable power. Women, however, have to face the vanishing not only of their looks and allure but of their fertility: something that has defined them.
Segal is accurate and rightly angry when she points out the ways that older women have always been stereotyped as hags, witches, gorgons: she cites numerous myths, fairy tales, examples of popular culture that reinforce the denigration. But she doesn’t identify the underlying reason for such misogyny: the belief that a woman’s function is to reproduce and that, once that facility has gone, she becomes useless. And the great shift comes with the menopause: the most painful reminder of what we have lost.
The assumption that women are useless after the menopause is still prevalent. Beauty, after all, is a sign of fertility. So as women lose their youthful radiance, pert breasts, supple bodies, fresh skin and glossy hair, they also lose their sexual allure. And, as Julia Twigg shows in Fashion and Age, the different styles they adopt tend to downplay or even deny any claim to sexuality. Brightly coloured leisure suits favoured by American women, for example, denote a return to a childlike, virginal and most definitely sexless state. The British version adopted by many older women – flat shoes, longer skirts, disguising blouses, sleeves with everything – has the same effect.
But Twigg goes on to observe that this stereotype is now changing. Those baby boomers, “the cohort who had worn jeans and hippie dress, had shopped at Biba and aspired to Mary Quant, who once sported mini-skirts, dressed like Twiggy, and idolised Quant, are no longer willing to accept frumpiness.” Paradoxically, designer and clothing brands tend to appeal to older women with younger-looking styles that no longer label them as old.
Even those magazines that are aimed at the older market persist in showing their fashions on much younger models. “I don’t think people do really want to look at older women as kind of exemplars of fashion and beauty,” Alexander Shulman, editor of British Vogue, told Twigg.
It may be true that women prefer to look at beautiful young bodies and may even aspire to them. But it’s no good wearing the latest skin-tight dresses and tiny skirts if you’re also sporting a sagging bottom and layers of midriff. So as women begin to lose their looks it’s all too often goodbye to TopShop and hello comfortable frump-wear. And as this transition is a result of a natural bodily change, some would argue that we should simply accept it.
“Only when a woman ceases the fretful struggle to be beautiful can she turn her gaze outward, find the beautiful and feed upon it,” proclaimed Germaine Greer in her 1991 exhortation to older women, The Change. “She can at last transcend the body that was what other people principally valued her for, and be set free both from their expectations and her own capitulation to them.”
It was Greer who set the tone for a bevy of prominent followers, eager to discard patriarchal notions of womanhood, which she derides as “centuries of conditioning of the female into the condition of perpetual girlishness called femininity”. So women like me, who prefer to disguise the visible signs of ageing and to preserve as much as we can of our youthful, energetic, sexual selves, are now in danger of being regarded as sex traitors.
Greer insists that rather than fighting the ageing process we should welcome it. “There is no point in growing old unless you can be a witch,” she asserts, “and accumulate spiritual power in place of the political and economic power that has been denied you as a woman.” If we all do as she says, she promises, we will acquire “peaceful potency ... a feeling of tenderness so still and deep and warm that it gilds every grassblade and blesses every fly.”
It sounds enticing, unless like me you’d rather strive for some of that political and economic power that Greer appears to believe is beyond our reach. If peaceful potency were that great, you can bet that men would have snatched it centuries ago. On the other hand, if we choose to aim for the boardroom rather than the wild woods then there’s not much use in looking like Miss Havisham or dressing like Red Riding Hood’s granny. That, perhaps, is why, when the Guardian asked a series of prominent women which single development had done most to advance their cause, the screenwriter Nora Ephron answered “hair dye”. Not only does young hair make us feel good. It actually helps us through the glass ceiling.
The earlier feminist mistrust of such reliance on looks is beginning to change. “Whilst feminist work of the second wave tended to be critical of such interest,” writes Julia Twigg, “with the rise of postmodernism, feminism has been more willing to acknowledge the inescapability of matters of dress and of the presentation of the body, so that the dream of second-wave feminism of transcending such matters has gone.”
But clearly not for everyone. Karpf, for example, displays more than a hint of that traditional disapproval. She opens her book with an introduction to a couple approaching old age. Sarah, 56, “in between her Pilates class and collagen-implant appointment, is packing for a weekend at a spa ... 62-year-old Clive is going off on a jet-skiing trip, after attending a public lecture by the author of Generation Angels.”
Fun, spirited, life-enhancing? Not a bit of it. “Though they might seem to have vaporised any anxieties about ageing – having lasered them away along with their forehead furrow,” scoffs Karpf, “in fact they are suffering from a painful condition: a deep fear of ageing. Sara, as she swallows her glucosamine and does her daily Sudoku to keep her joints and mind supple, has signed up enthusiastically to the concept of ‘successful ageing’.” And this, Karpf insists, is delusional and dangerous. Like Greer and Oakley before her, she advocates sinking into old age rather than delaying or denying it.
Ageing, it seems, is yet another territory that demonstrates the fissure between two feminist lines: the radical rejection of any form of traditional femininity, and the idea that women can accommodate and adapt those features for their own emancipation.
But there are also very strong areas of agreement. Karpf, for example, like de Beauvoir and Segal, powerfully denounces a culture that not only idolises youth over age, but also the affluent over the poor. Staying young for as long as possible, after all, is an expensive business. So, Karpf points out, those able to do so are contributing to the denigration of those who can’t.
And she also deplores the separation of the generations, so that older people tend to be hived off into separate homes or communities, with no contact with the young. Penelope Lively agrees. “To be corralled with one’s own age group must seem like some kind of malign exile, a banishment from the rich every-age confection of society,” she observes. “To walk along the street and see a toddler in a buggy, a bunch of teenagers, business people on their mobiles, middle-aged women with their shopping, someone else elderly like me, is to feel a part of the natural progression of things, to be aware of continuity, replenishment.”
Other societies, at other times, have dealt more humanely with their elderly. These examples were documented by Simone de Beauvoir. “Once we have understood what the state of the aged really is, we cannot satisfy ourselves with calling for a more generous ‘old age’ policy, higher pensions, decent housing and organised leisure,” she writes. “It is the whole system that is at issue and our claim cannot be otherwise than radical – change life itself.”
It’s an appealing rallying cry. But since life itself doesn’t seem to be making that much headway in changing, the latest batch of commentators settle for rather more achievable consolations. Twigg welcomes the new emphasis on agelessness in fashion as an opportunity for older women. They are less confined by assumptions about what they should be wearing – and modern fashions offer “a lessening of the cultural marginalisation that has traditionally marked out the state of old age.” And besides: “Dress remains for many older women ... a source of enjoyment and a site of aesthetic pleasure.”
Neustatter itemises the many pleasures of age: wisdom, a new contentment, and – somewhat unexpectedly – a sense of recklessness. “How refreshing it is to have reached an age where I care less and dare more,” she writes. “If I can’t stop being inhibited ... now, then when can I?”
Segal, also approaching her seventies, talks of “ways of living a good life in old age” – treasuring connections with those who are younger; seeking out joy and ignoring all instructions to opt for invisibility and celibacy. And she ardently recommends remaining politically active, quoting approvingly the writer John Berger, who, in his 80s, asserted that “one protests ... in order to save the present moment, whatever the future holds”.
Perhaps the most gentle reassurance of all comes from the octogenarian Penelope Lively. “I think there is a sea-change, in old age – a metamorphosis of the sensibilities. With those old consuming vigours now muted, something else comes into its own – an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in.”
Even though old age brings frailty, illness, decline, there are still deep pleasures to be savoured. “On a good day, aches and pains in abeyance. On a bad day – well, on a bad day a sort of shutter comes down, and the world is dulled. But I know that it is there, the shutter will roll up, with luck, the sun will come out.”
Books discussed: Fashion and Age: Dress, the Body and Later Life by Julia Twigg (Bloomsbury); How to Age by Anne Karpf (Macmillan); The Year I Turn ... A Quirky A-Z of Ageing by Angela Neustatter (Gibson Square); Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time by Penelope Lively (Fig Tree); Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing by Lynne Segal (Verso); The Change by Germaine Greer (Penguin, 1991)