Do old women need role models?

The end of the year and into my 81st year. Time to take stock and reflect. There has been so much change around ageing issues since I started being interested in the representation of old women 20 years ago. At the time, 60+ was the age when women were considered old and the few academic papers published took this as the bench mark. I had to search hard to access information about ageing and attended seminars and conferences planned for social workers. I joined the Older Feminist Network, a campaigning organisation at the time, and Growing Old Disgracefully network. I started, with the support of the local authority, the U3A in the borough of Brent.

Now Ageing is being studied in all its aspects by Academia. There are dozens if not 100s of sites about ageing: from the International Longevity Centre to blogs written by individuals (I will include my own )

Today I would like to reflect on three items in the news.

From ageuk website:  Each winter, 1 older person dies needlessly every 7 minutes from the cold – that’s 200 deaths a day that could be prevented… Age UK estimates that 1.7 million older people in the UK can’t afford to heat their homes, and over a third (36%) of older people in the UK say they live mainly in one room to save money.

From the Guardian Comment is free 26th November 2014:   On Tuesday he (the Pope) addressed the European parliament in Strasbourg. Speaking of the need for Europe to be invigorated, he described the continent as a “grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant”, and went on to say it risked “slowly losing its own soul”…

The Independent Dec 2nd: Mary  Beard calls for a grey revolution: ‘Let’s reclaim the word old’. Speaking at Cheltenham Literary Festival, the classicist said reaching old age should be a source of pride and suggested Agatha Christie’s character Miss Marple as role model.

To me these three news items encapsulate what I find disturbing in the climate of denial that surrounds old age. The age uk information about the plight of old people who have no other voice is reported in the press on one day and disappears from view the next. As with the abuse in care homes, the extreme isolation of some old people that leads to mental decline, the social problems of old people do not feature in high visibility campaigns.  As mentioned in my previous blog, and argued by Jay Ginn, old frail people have no public voice. We do not want to know about the end game (Prof. Kirkwood’s term for the end of life). Old frail, disabled old people, are ‘other’.  We prefer to identify with the ‘still doing it’ campaigns: the positive living, growing old healthy, independent age, age and   culture, growing bolder and the myriad of other sites. But as shown by the 77 years old Pope sexism sticks closely to ageism. Ageing is a feminist issue but  in the feminist communities old women are hardly visible. The OFN (Older Feminist Network) and the OLN (Older Lesbian Network) have now been joined by another network (7 sisters network). They are networks of friends who get together for sharing experiences, hidden from view. I am not aware of any old  women groups who are campaigning for the rights of  the frail, abused and lonely. The only two workshops about ageism at the Feminism In London Conference did not consider the Crisis in Care.

This leads me to Mary Beard’s proposing Miss Marple as a role model.  Do  we old women need ‘role models’? I do not think so. What we need is high-profile people who would advertise the contribution that we make to society. Our diverse roles: volunteers in the Health Service and hospices, philosophers, music teachers, workers, painters and singers, peace campaigners, grandmothers, great grandmothers and many more .  At any meetings, demonstrations against war, against violence, against the savage cuts we are there white hair and all. We  are often the foundations of community groups, religious associations. The research produced  about our ageing society by the universities is often inaccessible and does not permeate the general public’s consciousness.  What we need is for feminist writers to explore and close the gap between the  60+ healthy old and the old who face the end game.  What we need is for the young old to fight for the old who are unable to make themselves heard. For the old who die alone because of the cold weather. What we need is creative thinking and a way to combat the false choice given to old people in need of care. The false choice between living alone at home or being neglected and abused in care homes.







London Feminist Conference 2014

In spite of a very busy time I felt I  had to attend the Feminism in London conference. I managed it, arriving late and leaving early but the few hours spent in the exhilarating atmosphere made it worthwhile. To be in a crowd with so many women – specially the young ones  revived my feminist identity and commitment. I appreciated meeting old friends from past campaigns and the art stimulated my imagination.

However I felt a bit sad. In the multitude of stalls, old women were not represented. There were no workshops on the crisis in care or the plight of caseworkers, on ageing, ageism, on the relationship between disability and ageing. I do think that ageing is a feminist issue. To date, while academia and even the media are shining their spotlight on age, there is no public old feminist voice. But academic papers on the culture of old age does not seem to permeate the general consciousness and the media’s misrepresentation of old women in images and language attract no interest.  It is not that there was a lack of old activists at this conference.  Splashes of white hair were seen from the back of the lecture hall and among the workshop facilitators. Individuals were present but not the groups. What I mean is old women’s activism was invisible.

The OFN Older Feminist Network, the oldest group (1982) of old women to get together as feminist old women were not there. OWCH the Older Women Cohousing  group were not there.These women challenge the false choice between the isolation of growing old in one’s own home and the anonymous uninspiring retirement home. The new 70s sisters network were not there.  Only G.O.D. Growing Old Disgracefully advertised their existence with their banner on the wall of the stairwell.

I appreciated enormously Gail Dines plenary speech. In her words  ‘Feminism is not for each individual, it only works as a collective movement. We’re all in this together’.