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Victoria Smith spoke to workingwise.co.uk about her new book Hags: the demonisation of middle aged women.
A Guardian review of Victoria Smith’s new book Hags is headlined ‘welcome to the age of rage’. The book is an angry response to a whole litany of gendered ageism, from name calling and verbal violence to the cumulative effect of unpaid labour which is disproportionately dumped on middle-aged women. It’s a passionate call for recognition and for a voice.
So I expected the author to be fairly angry and opinionated. Yet Smith is in fact deeply invested in proper conversations about the difficult world that women of all ages negotiate, a world of cuts where more and more is offloaded onto women “as if we are a free resource” – with all of this care that women do served up as ‘love’, something that makes it hard to push back against.
But she is definitely passionate. She says: “I think of myself as mild mannered, but not when I’m writing. I have to put my feelings somewhere. Quite a lot of them are in the book and people have picked up on them.”
Her main argument is that each generation of feminists is taught to disregard the one that came before. Girls, she says, are often encouraged not to empathise with their mothers, to think that they will do things differently and that it is somehow their mothers’ fault that they have ended up in lower paid jobs with less status.
She recalls growing up in the 1970s and 80s with an image of women that was either the traditional carer model or the shoulder-padded career woman. You had to choose, she says. You couldn’t have it all. That was the impression given, she says. And yet feminists at the time like bell hooks were debating these issues, talking about family life in a nuanced way – as a place of liberation for black women rather than being simply about domestic imprisonment. “There were so many different ideas fizzing about, but the narratives that came through to the mainstream were lacking in nuance,” says Smith.
The idea given, she says, was that nothing much could be learned from previous generations. Similarly, today’s young women are being taught to discredit ‘Karens’ and ‘radical feminists’ who they paint as a load of raging bigots. Maybe some are, but so too are some people in every group in society.
Smith has had really positive feedback about the book so far. “It seems to have struck a nerve,” she states. And she adds that younger women in feminist networks have also welcomed it. Smith is keen to say that she doesn’t want to suggest that all young women reject the older generation and succumb to its demonisation. She agrees that, in part, the rejection of older women by some of their younger counterparts is just part of growing up and becoming independent. “I sometimes feel I am in dialogue with my younger self,” she says, adding that she herself viewed the feminists who came before her as somehow responsible for the ‘traps’ they got caught in rather than attempting to understand how that happened. In fact, she feels younger women today are maybe more aware of this tendency and that there is a possibility of greater empathy between the generations.
We talk about the way people are pitted against each other these days and how this plays out between the old and the young, with the young being told retirement is a continually moving goalpost, that they may never own a house, that everything in their lives is insecure while older people have the homes, the pensions and the free time. Smith points out that it is only certain older people to whom this applies and that it is more important for people to focus on the webs of power and disadvantage and how they play out than on things like age.
Social media often amplifies division and we talk about the divisions around issues relating to women’s biology. Smith says she remembers feeling very uncomfortable in her body as a teenager, as many young women have over the ages, struggling with the enormity of what society considers a woman to be. She can understand why someone might want to be gender neutral. She talks of starving herself to halt the process of becoming a woman, to stay neutral, but she says that in the end it is futile to deny the body and she worries about taking life-changing decisions at a time of exploration, self-doubt and enormous emotional upheaval. She also draws a parallel between the fear of puberty and fear of the menopause – of becoming an older woman.
We also discuss breast binding and plastic surgery. Smith says that if you are surrounded by people doing it, it becomes normal and the ideas behind it can be difficult to question because they pit women against each other or are wrapped up in ’empowerment’ messages. Women can’t win anyway, she says – they are judged if they have plastic surgery or not.
Smith says that while it is easier for women to join up now through social media, it is still hard to create spaces where the different generations can learn from each other. She is very aware that being a girl growing up in a social media age comes with huge pressure, greater than the previous generation faced, but she says it is important to focus on the structural issues that women have in common. She is hopeful when she talks to radical feminist student groups and feels some of the feminist events she has attended seem to be harking back to earlier attempts at consciousness raising.
As for older women themselves joining forces to amplify their voices, she says one of the problems is a lack of time which makes it harder to organise. Online networks for older women, including mums, can be a good solution as people can drop in whenever they can, but Smith thinks it is still important for women to meet in person. She says: “It’s taken me a long time to see that groups I used to think of as “traditionalist” – because they in some way reinscribed the association between being a woman and being a mother and/or domestic life – could be quite radical in the way they claimed time for women to do things together without men.”
Hopefully, her book will galvanise more older women to come together and talk – and also reach out across the generations in a spirit of empathy and support.