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SPEAKING OUT ON AGE

We are interested in publishing a book about feminism ... (it) will consist of a collection of letters between mothers and daughters. We are asking women to send us photocopies of any letters they have written to their mothers when wanting to explain developments that have departed from their mothers' perception of normality. These might include explanation of what feminism means and offers, of the adoption of non-conventional relationships, of lesbianism, of the decision to have an abortion, to join a political party and so on.

 

"Since our intention is to publish material that will explain the experience of feminism to a readership that includes mothers, we have chosen the context of the mother/daughter relationship - both because of its intrinsic importance for all women and because of the appeal of identification it will offer to mothers."

This is part of a letter that appeared recently in the London Women's Liberation Newsletter from two named women. For me, it sums up and distils the essence of ageism in the women's movement today. Women who understand my feelings will know how angry I am.

(See letter Spare Rib 79) Women who don't see anything wrong with the extracts (and I fear there may be many), well, start here.

Ageism is the assumption that older people are not real people: not only are their needs fewer, and in some important areas such as sexuality, non-existent; but it is considered that their experience is of little account and is to be avoided. Given the chance, older people will get boring about the past. In fact, older people are OK if they are dead, since death gives the "in" generation a chance to look at and evaluate their work in an historical context. In addition, contact - that is, real contact - with older people is feared because they mirror in their changing looks the common condition of humanity - a tendency to get older. This equates with less beautiful, less strong, and ultimately with death. Death is something that must always happen to others, and must not be allowed to impinge on a personal consciousness. Any contact with age, experience and death is therefore to be shunned.

Most women in the feminist movement today in Britain are in the age-group of 21-40. At each pole, there are a few in a relevant age banding. But there are not many women active in the movement who are 50 plus. Reasons for this may be found as this article continues. At the moment I want to concentrate on the relationship of the activist women to their mothers and to women of their mothers' generation. And in order to do this, I have to ask: Who are the mothers? And to do that, it is easiest for me to say who I am. The relationship of myself to the other mothers will become quite clear.

In 1939 the 2nd World War broke out and I was eighteen. I was therefore the "in" war generation. I was working as a clerk in the London County Council. One of my jobs then was to stand at Victoria Station with lists of child evacuees and check off each as s/he got on to the train. Many of these children were public school boys of my own age and older who would shortly be on their way either to the Armed Forces or to University.

I had been, like so many other girls of my era, "university material", but no question arose of my taking up what was then called a "scholarship" to the college for which I had passed an entrance examination. There was no grant for people between the ages of 16 and 18, and there was no way I could live at home during those years without money. In this I was no different from the mass of my sisters at the time.

During the war I was conscripted in to the Services, first in the ATS and then changed when I became pregnant and had a child, to becoming a cook in the Land Army. In this way I was able to get a roof over our heads and earn a living for us both. There was no other relevant way: "service" was still more than a memory, and it was the only thing a "bad girl" could do. My "badness" of the time was based on left wing politics, and I did not want to be dependent on a man, believed marriage was Bourgeois, and that women were equal (but different). We relied on the sheath as contraception since there was no way I knew then of getting, as unmarried women, anything different. The idea of abortion arose, but the back street stories were so horrific that I discounted the idea immediately. Anyhow even backstreet abortions required cash and I had none. The child's father was also a revolutionary and also believed in all my ideals so therefore he saw no reason to do anything for me, and indeed would not have known what he could have done.

I was a member of "the" revolutionary party, and was interested to notice that all the members of my particular group and branch persuaded me that marriage would be the right thing to do, and withdrew their support when they found I was against it. However there were a lot of strong and vocal women in left wing politics of the time. In the Communist Party, there was then no bar to women getting into what were called the "highest echelons" though none actually became Party Secretary or Editor of the (then) Daily Worker. However at the next level, women were very active and accepted as such. In the Labour Party, lots of women started becoming active in local and eventually in national politics, leading to the rise of such people as Barbara Castle and Jennie Lee. Earlier, Ellen Wilkinson's fight for the cause of the unemployed brought about a national change of consciousness.

The war effort of Britain was held together and run by women. In the factories, in transport, in professional as well as service industries, and particularly in the Armed Forces and the Land Army, women carried the world, indeed upheld the sky. It was women whose "small clever hands" were officially said to be "better" than men's for making the new electrical wiring equipment work. Women who "for some reason" were quicker than men at operating range finders for the Anti Aircraft guns, and whose mathematical calculation and fast response brought down loads of German bombers before they reached the cities. Women were used on radar, then called Radiolocation (see any old tear jerker film about the RAF) and women "serviced" the needs of the men in the armed forces: that is, they did the work no matter what bombs were dropping, fires burning everywhere, or destruction of their homes.

It is difficult for me to know where to turn for statistics: but anyone in a position to do so might like to look up the casualty figures of 1941-44. The impression we all had then was that usual war custom had been reversed. The archetype was of the suffering wife and mother being brought news of her man killed in active service - and indeed I do not put these people down for an instant, and of course it happened constantly. But much more was happening than that: we saw the soldiers, the sailors coming home on compassionate leave to walk miserably, in their uniforms, up and down the smoking streets, looking for their homes, and beneath them their mothers, wives, lovers, sisters, daughters. It seemed then that many more men came home to mourn lost "civilian" female kin than women had to mourn war heroes. There is no quantifying sorrow, and I mention this only because I see so little is known of what actually happened at the time.

All those people trapped in tube stations, "sheltering"; all those people going to work in the morning, mourning dead relatives of the night before. All those women sweeping up the glass and rubble on their way to the factories; and myself - working a 72 hour week in the Land Army with my sisters there, sheltering under the good wooden kitchen table every night with my child, before getting up at 5 in the morning to cook the women's breakfasts. And without those women, no food for anyone. What abut sexuality? Ask anyone (but who will ask?) of the stories of the ATS. The women in the army who found their sexuality and who went looking for men; the lesbian women who found in the women's services a secure place to come out and enjoy their love. The women in the factories, and those who went in the evening to the pubs, finding suddenly that to be a woman was also to be a free person - within limits. The limits of course were of pregnancy: but, suddenly, it was possible to have a baby and to get a second ration book: to find quite easily a place in the nurseries, aid to have lunch at the "British Restaurants" for (I think) l/6d. If you wanted to breast feed, there were even factories with creches where you could take a break every four hours on a "Truby King ticket" - following the method of the period's leading paediatrician, ten minutes feeding each side at 6, 10, 2, 6, 10 and so on around the clock.

[In 1916, as thousands of women march for suffrage in Chicago, a male bystander heckles a young girl saying, "You ought to be home with your mother," and she replied "Mother is here marching with me."]

Well, I suppose I am being boring about the past, so I will make my point (in case it isn't made already). Mothers of activist women in the movement today know all about activism, sexuality, abortion, unconventional relationships and joining political parties. And a lot more too. This goes through the classes. The WRENS (Navy women) were always, it was thought, more "upper class" than the WAAF (RAF), while the ATS was the "lowest" of all. In the professions, suddenly offices were full of reporters, administrators, solicitors' clerks (who did the work), social workers; women trained fast to become midwives (a two year course, and what lovely women on the domiciliary beat; I know, I had my second baby at home with one). Women doctors suddenly blossomed from under the doormats of their fathers' and husbands' dingy surgeries.

It has to be remembered that every woman of my generation was "called up" to a job or the forces or nursing unless she was caring for young children, and even then public opinion was very much against her staying at home with them unless they were sick.

At this time, Britain was not alone; we were allies with the United States and the Soviet Union. We didn't hear much about America; we heard a lot about the Soviet Union, and about the women partisans there and in Yugoslavia. As time went on we heard about the heroic network of women on the continent of Europe who at fearful and horrendous cost to themselves (SS torture to death) got stranded RAF fliers out of Europe and back to Britain. Very well. But what happened? Why are our daughters so contemptuous of us; why do they seem to hate us so, revile us so; why, even if they are "fond" of us, do they think so poorly of us? Why are we not "active"?

Recently a woman told me that she had invited her parents to a gathering; telling her friends this, they opted not to come and not to ask any of their friends. "If you've asked your parents, you can't expect us to come too" said one. Some little time before this, I had attended a women's conference and gone into a workshop on motherhood. As I sat down, two younger women got up and walked to the door. Said one, "I'm not going to stay here if a woman of that age is going to listen to everything I say". At another conference I joined an "older woman's" workshop. Safe there, I thought. But no. Several women in their late 30s were anxious to talk about "what should be done with ageing parents", and found my presence and that of one or two of my contemporaries an embarrassment.

I find women often resent me and criticise me, or worse, avoid me, because I am of their mother's generation. A writers' evening held publicly late in 1978 devoted a sizeable portion of its content to relationships between mothers and daughters. In every case, the mother was at fault; even where one woman tried to "excuse" the mother, her ogreish possessiveness was the more emphasised.

Something has happened to make the daughters of some of the most active and independent women the world has ever known feel that these mothers are shameful and foolish; and the mothers acquiesce in this.

Why? Much of the reasons lie in the very post war history that the women's movement finds so boring. Come 1945: a letter in the post one Friday morning: "This nursery shuts today (for good) at 6pm. Please remove all your belongings with your child this evening". And I was a single parent; no more nurseries. The Government needed jobs for the returning heroes; women had to make their homes and beautify them with feminine charm (up the birth rate). Came Macmillan and we'd never had it so good. Came Bowlby who told us that it was all our fault if anything went wrong with our children's lives if we left them for any time at all. Came demand feeding, babies inseparable from mothers on slings around our backs and fronts; came television, washing machines, and durable goods to make us feel wanted in the home. Came Do It Yourself. Came Guilt ... never never think of yourself as a person, never have sex outside marriage, never never never leave your child, be content with Uncle Government's lovely domestic hardware; never breathe a word of the orgiastic nights on the gun site (or the warmth of the all-women's residential Nissen huts and officers' buildings, not a man for miles).

Just remember, everything is always your fault. You don't have rights. The children have rights. The children are always right. You are always wrong. Just get on and do the washing and bake a cake. Don't speak. Be silent. You are no-one (except a machine to spend money). The double bind worked precisely. Don't put yourself forward: if you do, your children suffer. So your children never think of you as a person, and take you at your face value, so you cease to be a person.

If you show some care for them after about the age of 11, they claim you are possessive (no doubt you are). There is nothing for you but to sit back (don't mention grandchildren) and preferably to die quietly and quickly. You couldn't have a profession because you were needed for the children. The children were your profession and they don't need you now.

Why are there so few older women in the women's movement? Because most older women have children.

But suppose there is a common cause in which older and younger women are working together. Older women may seem, to younger ones, not to be as "revolutionary" as they should be, or to go off onto tacks which have no relevance. But the older women have been at it a long time. They compare things now with things "then".

Sex, contraception, child care, food reform, education, the woman/man relationship, woman/woman relationships - all these things have been fought for by women of this century. The contraception clinics (every time I go to City University, I think of the Spencer Street Birth Control clinic once on its site). The pioneer medical women of the 20s, 30s and 40s who fought for contraception, family planning - Cecile Boyeson, Mary Adams, Joan Malleson, Helena Wright, and of course earlier, much maligned, Marie Stopes. The women who fought for sex education and the right to orgasm - Hannah Stone comes to mind particularly, but there were many others. Dora Russell who formulated the Working Women's Charter in the 50s pre-dating the demands of the Women's Liberation Movement. Vita Sackville-West, Charlotte Mew - open, pioneering lesbians. All those educationists for progressive (now called alternative) education - Dora Russell again, Susan Isaacs, Beatrix Tudor Hart. The Food Reform movement (cut out toxic commercial rubbish, eat vegetarian unspoiled natural produce) - this was very much a woman's area though sadly I can't remember names; again some research is called for.

There are gaps in comprehension between the generations. The young blame us for the world they have found. Much of what the fighters of the 30s and 40s stood for has gone wrong: slum clearance which was meant to provide good quality housing actually destroyed communities and created deserts; comprehensive schooling devised to abolish privilege achieved a police-state for young children; the spread of local authority welfare systems whose aim was to introduce human dignity and alleviate misfortune turned into a mean backlash of humiliation and spying. There must be many examples of this kind of thing.

All, it must be noted, put into effect under patriarchal government, with women, if represented, entirely subordinate. Suppose those strong women of my generation had gone on to put into practice the ideals and politics they have lived and worked through during the War. The situation would have been very different.

But our daughters blame us for the world they found, and for accepting it. It appears to undermine them; and they do not find the need to look for reasons, to enquire for them. It is the ultimate irony and triumph of patriarchy that the women's movement has built itself on a shame of mothers instead of a glory of them.

And then there's the menopause. Younger women are conditioned to approach it with horror: the end of everything, depressions, no sex, old age, the lot. Perhaps Hormone Replacement Therapy might help, but then there's the cancer risk. What about' Vitamin E, C, B... Oh God(dess) don't let's think about it.

How many women know that the menopause is immensely releasing. There is a surge of strength and freedom: after about the age of 50, I didn't really want any more periods. I felt I'd served my time. And then - the strength and energy, the release. And the return of sexual interest and energy ... oh yes, you get rid of the flooding, the aches and pains, cramps and physical depression which do drag you down on your way to the menopause: and there you are a free person. Note: men no longer can enslave you by pregnancy; you no longer have to bother about contraception. You can freely let go, at last ...

But you are old, you are not beautiful. No man (perhaps no woman) could possibly be interested in your body. Rubbish. Remember Oedipus? And his mother Jocasta; Cleopatra; I suspect Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. All sorts of women in the past exercised their sexual energy and strength. The comment of a man who saw the Women's Film Groups Rapunzel was relevant: did the prince have to lose his eyesight because he couldn't bear the sexuality of the mother? (Compare Oedipus).

Men are terrified of the strength of older women and the fact that they can be free. Paula Weideger in her book Female Cycles makes the point that until recently only about five years elapsed between the end of the menopause and the death in our Western cultures (fewer in "less developed" societies).

Today in Britain women have an average of 15-20 years between post-menopause and death. The period is lengthening all the time. Nobody knows what "to do" with such women. Experienced, survivors, skilled, healthy, energetic and beautiful. There is no place for them in our society. And in The Women's Movement? The answer was made by a younger woman. When I first thought of going into a women's group she encouraged me: but I demurred because of my age (50). She said:

"We can learn from you and you can learn from us." I came in, and she was right. Let hers be the last words.

(Spare Rib, May 1979)

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