Book review: Hags: the demonisation of middle-aged women

A new book by Victoria Smith is an angry defence of the right of middle-aged women to be heard without being demonised.

Front cover of a book called Hags: the demonisation of middle ages women


The demonisation of older women means many younger women don’t learn from the experiences of the generations of women before them, according to a new book.

Victoria Smith’s book, Hags: The Demonisation of Middle-Aged Women, states: “The demonisation of older women ensures we do not wish to identify with or learn from them, so cannot gain any knowledge to prepare us for our own experience of ageing. Instead we turn away from our future selves.”

She says ageist misogyny has always existed, but that this has become more intractable nowadays because “it frequently masquerades as feminism”. She argues: “Older women, just by virtue of being older, are associated with a ‘more sexist’ past and thus appear complicit in a sexism which, of course, is on its way out. They are ‘dinosaurs’. Raging against them can feel like a break with the patriarchal past. The target of misogyny becomes an emblem for it. Get rid of her, and the problem is solved.” In this scenario, older women are painted as losers, past their prime, undesirable, not worth caring about and the message given to younger women is don’t worry, ‘you will never be them’. In this way, argues Smith, misogyny is ‘outsourced’ and internalised.

At the centre of the book is the current stand-off between feminists [dubbed ‘gender critical feminists’] – many of whom tend to be older – and the younger generation over the trans issue.  For Smith, feminism works as a movement because there is agreement on what women have in common and that this is informed by a variety of different experiences – from childbirth to the menopause – which affect them at work and outside it.

The book is not just about that debate, which has become extremely polarised and charged, however. For Smith it is about the silencing of older women through abusive language and threats and how these frame older women, which she terms ‘hag hate’, as well as the way ageism is ‘weaponised’ in that debate to prevent women coming together. Smith rails in particular against the term ‘terf’ used against so-called gender critical feminists which she says “follows a particular pattern of justifying violence against older women as an act of virtue”. But she is also concerned about other ways that she says language is used to silence women, for instance, the use of the word Karen to denote a certain type of supposedly privileged woman.

Negative stereotypes

As such, the book is a much broader discussion of the representation of older women and the challenges many face in midlife, from being stuck in the middle of a care sandwich [the sandwich generation], looking after children and older parents to the negative stereotypes in literature and film of witches, awful mothers-in-law, evil stepmothers and so forth. It is fair to say that Smith is furious about the load women are carrying these days, particularly older women, despite talk of progress.

She cites one writer, Ada Calhoun, on the sandwich generation effect on women: “I prefer to think of it as being on a rack, wrists and ankles tied to opposite ends, with two pulls every strengthening.” Smith remarks: “It shouldn’t be this way” and calls domestic inequality and the imbalance of unpaid labour “a form of theft”.

She adds that the lack of value attributed to older women is symptomatic of how we value people at all stages of their lives. She writes: “When we constantly short-circuit the passage of knowledge between generations, or dismiss the importance of the body, or demonise dependency and human connections, or render the formation of communities suspect, we devalue some of the most important things we can do as human beings, male or female.”

The book finishes with a direct appeal to younger women not to ditch their older counterparts in the belief, as she states, that pronoun badges and ‘Male Tears’ coffee will undo centuries of patriarchal power, although this is perhaps to tar all younger women with the same brush, given many are very much protesting against patriarchal structures.

However, the passion that fuels the book is clear, even for those who don’t agree with everything she is saying. It is a rallying cry against ageism and against the silencing of older women.  Smith ends: “Ageism is a story we tell ourselves about who we are and might be; given that every feminist achievement so far has been  based on women disbelieving the old stories about ourselves, we are more than capable of doing this in relation to age.”

*Hags: The demonisation of middle-aged women by Victoria Smith is published on 2nd March by Little Brown, price £9.99 paperback and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.

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