An army of grey-haired women

MET DEZE PRACHTIGE FOTO VAN JUDY DENCH, leid ik mijn artikel in dat verscheen in het nummer AGEIVISM ROUNDTABLE, onder redactie van Katrien de Graeve, in DiGeSt, Journal of Diversity and Gender Studies, spring 2022. (foto is er af vanwege rechten)

Anja Meulenbelt – An army of grey-haired women

I am old.

When I say ‘I am old’ in the company of people, friends, their reactions are invariably predictable. There is always that strong tendency to deny: ‘But you still look wonderful!’ ‘But you’re still so active!’ ‘I never think of you as “old!”’ ‘You have a young mind!’ And then the soothing clichés come: ‘You are only as old as you feel!’, ‘Age is just a number!’

‘I am seventy-seven,’ I reply. That is a fact. That makes me old, doesn’t it?
The interesting contradiction in our societies is that we all want to grow older, but we do not wish to be old. Unless we manage to near our hundredth birthday, being old is not a reason to celebrate.

Why is it that we want to deny, to hide the fact that we are old, and that it makes a difference? What is it in our culture that makes us look down on old people, marginalize them, hide them away? How much does it have to do with the fact that we live in an economic system called capitalism, that decides that old people, like children, are usually not productive and only cost money? Yes, there are exceptions. Some old people are celebrated. There are a few famous actors, but even fewer actresses who are still famous. There is wonderful Judy Dench who is allowed to fill about half the roles of elderly women in the movies. It is possible, to become a politician of a certain age and still be respected, like Bernie Sanders who is over seventy and popular. Or to be a public intellectual, like Noam Chomsky, over ninety, still going strong. (It is interesting how often the word ‘still’ enters the language when we speak about old people, preferably called ‘elderly’ because it sounds nicer.)

Nancy Fraser offers us three paradigms for a better analysis of injustice and inequality: redistribution, representation, and recognition. On all three levels old people are at high risk of being discriminated against. There are more old people among the poor. We are underrepresented in politics and in the media, and we are often dismissed in serious discussions. But there is hardly any social movement to fight ageism, if we compare that with the big waves of protest like Black Lives Matter, the Women’s Marches, Me Too, or the movements for climate justice. The reason is obvious. It is not possible to forget that you are female, Black, Muslim, or gay, but being old only starts when you are old. We live in times with a new awareness about discrimination of all sorts, and it is recommended for all organisations, the media, politics, to believe in the need for diversity. But usually, ageism is not included in these recommendations. That is particularly strange, because ageism is not about people who are ‘different’, the ‘other’, it is about our future selves.

We can deny being old matters until we are old, and we find out that it matters. Although we all know the day will come when denial is no longer possible, most people prefer to postpone any awareness of ageism, until it hits them in the face. Said differently: nobody is interested in old people but old people.

Who is hit by ageism most? And does gender make a difference? It does. For people who are dependent on earning a wage, especially in lower educated jobs, the high risks of age starts at about fifty. The fear of losing a job and not finding a new one, or being replaced by younger people is real. For women there are more risks. They may be expelled even earlier, especially from jobs that ask for a representative kind of ‘femininity’, like flight attendants, or women having to use charm and sexiness to sell products, where obviously charm and sexiness are seen as ‘young’ by definition. However, they may also face the fear of losing love, especially when they are heterosexual.

We tend to deny that the choices people make in their private lives are ‘political’. It is nevertheless no coincidence that in the average straight couple he is older, taller, and earns more. It is not merely a twist of fate that when the couple breaks up again, he will usually look for a (much) younger person while she will search for somebody her own age, a little older or a little younger. He will also have a bigger chance to find a new partner than she will have. This is the point: when women still have a romantic wish to grow old with their male partner, most of them will be disappointed. For people over sixty-five, more than twice as many women as men are single and stay single, and this cannot merely be explained by women’s higher life expectancy. This does not mean older and single women are necessarily unhappy. Many state they enjoy their freedom, and seventy percent of single women over sixty-five have no wish for a new partner, says a report of the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek in 2015. The reason they often mention is that they are tired of taking care of another person, and many of the men who are now getting old, have never learned to take care of themselves, let alone to take care of a partner.

Being old does not make us unhappy per se, but it takes getting used to. Our bodies change and we might have to learn to love a body that aches more often and has lost the suppleness it once had. And where can we find solace and advice in this new phase in our lives? I tried Simone de Beauvoir and was disappointed.

The fat book she wrote about aging is depressing. Coming of Age (which is the English translation of La Vieillesse and is a confusing title – because it is definitely not about young people growing up) spends a lot of words on the way old people are marginalized and stigmatised. However, de Beauvoir did not personally suffer so much from losing status – she was certainly no less famous in old age that she was when young. What she did suffer from was the fear of losing love. She hated her own older face in the mirror, ‘I loathe my appearance now: the eyebrows slipping towards the eyes, the bags underneath, and that air of sadness around the mouth that wrinkles always bring. And it was unfair, she said, ‘an old man’s body is after all less ghastly than an old woman’s’. Her fear was substantiated because after an unexpected relationship in her forties with the younger Claude Lanzmann, she indeed seemed to have had no more affairs. Meanwhile the most important man in her live, definitely not a very attractive man, usually had more than one younger lover, and even at an old age started a new relation with a twenty-year-old woman. De Beauvoir was a passionate woman, and she mourned the loss of sexual love. In Force of Circumstance she writes about the calamity of getting older: ‘Yes, the moment has come to say: “Never again! It is not I who am saying goodbye to all those things I once enjoyed, it is they who are leaving me. Never again a man.”’

Don’t we have more inspiring examples? Who? Is it Jane Fonda who is eighty-four, and must have spent an enormous amount of time and money to look as slim and youthful as she does, but then she says she is single and happy never to undress again in front of somebody? Or is it Simone Signoret who was married to the forever sexy Yves Montand, refused to try to look younger than her age, drank, smoked and ate as much as she liked, and accepted that her husband had affairs with younger women? Marilyn Monroe was among them.

Time for a small confession? I had my crisis when I turned fifty. I had just separated from a man, my choice, and was unhappily in love with another. I was angry and sad, and found it absolutely unfair that I would probably stay alone. And alone meant lonely. No more passion, no more friendly body to fall asleep against. But then, as a surprise, there was a new love that lasted twelve years. Now that relationship is over, I face a new surprise: I am not lonely, I am not unhappy. There are different kinds of love to make my life beautiful, and most of all I enjoy a new freedom. I have a pension, I don’t have to prove myself anymore, I did all that, and I still work, as a writer, as an activist, because I want to, not because I have to. My role model would be Angela Davis.

There is so much that needs doing: the climate, capitalism that is destroying us, fighting racism. I support the rights of Palestinians. I fight the discrimination of Muslims, migrants, refugees, poor people. I discovered that single mothers are still among the people with the greatest chance of living in poverty with their children, and as a former single mother I join them in protesting the undervaluation of the work of raising children. I joined a new, radically left-wing political party that is founded on an intersectional approach, including fighting ageism. Doing so, I was proud to support the first black woman, Sylvana Simons, to represent the party in the Dutch parliament. I have no time to waste, and I grow more radical every day. And I hope, with my activities, to be an example to other women.

Fighting ageism is important. The feeling of being written off, being dependent on charity, of being invisible and not touchable hurts women. Fighting ageism is not only about protesting prejudice, out there, but also protesting the internalized judgements that Simone de Beauvoir suffered from. It is also about turning around the self-fulfilling prophecy that comes with the accompanying negative feeling about being old: women who are more positive about being old live longer. And happier.

It is Gloria Steinem who said: ‘Women grow radical with age. One day an army of grey-haired women may quietly take over the Earth!’

Anja Meulenbelt is a feminist, politician, activist and writer.

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