Why does feminism have to come in waves?

Ageism is a fundamental dynamic within feminism. We haven’t yet found a way to deal with what has gone before us, other than rolling our eyes and believing we are better.

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Does feminism care about older women? In theory it has to do so. It is a movement for all women, of all backgrounds, at all stages of their lives. A feminist movement which has no time for women once they are past a certain age treats them no better than patriarchy itself.

And yet this happens, time and again. We’ve even chosen a metaphor which sees women’s activism surging then dissipating, wave upon wave upon wave. Men get to leave something permanent; we seek to wash away the traces our foremothers left.

I am nearly forty – but not quite, not yet. I offer up my not-forty status in the hope that it will grant me some vestige of credibility. To write about ageism is to expose oneself to accusations of bitterness and jealousy, hence my eagerness to stress that I am not “one of them”. I am not a second waver. It’s not my fault that things aren’t yet as they should be. Blame the others, they’re older than me: more prudish, more exclusive, more blinkered. I don’t want to be considered an older feminist, but I know I’m getting there.

Ageism isn’t just something which intrudes upon feminism; it’s a fundamental dynamic within it. Indeed, we haven’t yet found another way to work. In The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, Betty Friedan described how feminists of her generation saw those who went before them as “neurotic victims of penis envy who wanted to be men”. Susan Brownmiller, whose memoir In Our Time describes feminist activism in the 1960s and 70s, writes of “leftists habitually [denigrating] the suffrage battle, belittling it as a racist, upper-class white women’s campaign”. Both of these sound like descriptions of second-wave feminism, but these are second wavers discussing how their predecessors were perceived. The belief that we are better – that we are not similarly flawed and compromised, muddling through without even noticing our mistakes – is inspiring, even if it leaves us going round in circles. It’s a depressing irony that our desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past becomes the very thing that keeps us doing so.

In Overloaded, Imelda Whelehan’s dissection of 1990s “ladette” culture, the author criticises what she calls “new feminism” for its flawed analysis of the past:

New feminism can be challenging and its belief in a feminist future is heartening. At its worst it exploits the most archetypal and ill-thought-out criticisms of feminism – particularly around its alleged puritanism – and is not always clear to signal its own indebtednesss to the fundamendal precepts of second-wave feminism, or to make clear that these issues have been kept alive entirely by the commitment of these self-same ‘puritans’.

Overloaded was published in 2000, when I was 25. As a “new feminist” I wasn’t especially interested in what it had to say. It made me feel patronised and judged. Almost 15 years later the debate has stayed in the same place, but I’ve moved further along the conveyor belt, towards the position of puritan and prude. We, as feminists, should be controlling the narrative but instead it’s controlling us.

The feminist academic Lori Marso points out that “feminists rarely seek to identify with the lives of their mothers”:

Instead, we seek to distinguish ourselves from our mothers, rather than note our similarities, overlapping struggles, and issues in common.

It is a form of self-protection, and it feeds into our attitudes towards all women, especially those who never were feminists at all. If we are critical of our feminist foremothers, what do we feel for those who never even seemed to protest? For a long time I genuinely felt women of my mother’s generation were less real than women like me. It’s not a thought I ever allowed to rise to the surface, but I saw how they were treated – how they were spoken to, the assumptions made, the restrictions imposed – and I knew I didn’t want that for myself. So rather than dread the future, I assumed these women deserved their fate. To me they were less complex individuals, and their conservative politics (because all older women, especially mothers, are assumed to be conservative) meant they didn’t even care if they were viewed as inferior. It wouldn’t happen to me because I wasn’t like that at all.

My generation were more inclusive, more open-minded, simply more liberated. We wouldn’t take any shit, and hence when shit did start to come our way – pretty early on, as I recall – we had new, convoluted narratives to put in place: it’s not the same because irony. It’s not the same because choice. It’s not the same because neuroscience. It’s not the same because “it’s the Nineties!” as the introduction to Generation Sex reminded us. The sexism we experience isn’t really sexism; it just looks and feels exactly like it. And hence it can take years to realise that it’s not that your mother’s generation weren’t noticing what was done to them; it’s that, like you, they were creating their own narratives in order to cope with it. What’s more, for many of them, it was far, far worse than we could ever imagine. We didn’t care because to us, they were just “those women” – the past we needed to avoid.

It’s only now that I see how much I resented the resentment of older women. I was irritated by any sign that they were unhappy with their lot. Don’t blame me if you find yourself forgotten in your fifties. You should have planned things better, like I will. It was imperative to make their suffering their fault. If they mentioned the limitations imposed on their lives by reproduction, I decided this meant they had always seen themselves as baby-making machines. If they criticised the men who had mistreated or left them, I wondered why they hadn’t chosen better partners. If they questioned the cultural pressures that surrounded me, I saw not politics – because older women don’t do politics – but mumsy, judgmental sniping. I sensed jealousy, of course (because there must be jealousy – who would want to be so old?). The notion that such people might empathise with someone like me seemed absurd. My grandmother once told me that had she had my opportunities, she’d have done the things I’d done; I saw it as appropriation. I look back now and think, actually, she’d probably have done a hell of a lot more.

As women we know we don’t have our fair share of space. You can argue that if youth grants all women a period of relative, albeit limited, advantage, that’s just how things balance out for the time being. Anyone who is old at least had the privilege of being young once. Moreover, at a time when the generation born in the 50s and 60s are seen as having pulled the ladder up behind them, what’s a little ageism to deal with? Women who were born when abortion was illegal, when husbands were allowed to rape their wives, when there were no refuges to flee to … well, at least they had a sliver of a chance of going to university without paying tuition fees. Our perspective is skewed because we don’t notice all the victories these women won on our behalf. Instead we make a game of spotting their inconsistencies and failings, knowing all the while that actually, we’re not that different to them.

I think much of our fear of ageing is to do with this. No one wants to be “that old biddy”. No one wants to be seen as irrelevant, unattractive, without any definable purpose (other than the low-paid caring work which keeps our society functioning, but hey, who notices that?). With older women, we can’t even feel a patronising sense of pity – the type that allows us to be “inclusive” without really seeing the object of our pity as equals – because they are not truly other. They are not people experiencing a marginalisation we will never know; they are our own future, and that is terrifying. For so many of us, feminism is about hope and change. It is our route to not becoming what our mothers have become. No wonder we shut them out. Even acknowledging the existence of the older woman casts a shadow over our future hopes.

Right now I start to see, in my own children, tiny hints of future resentment. I’m becoming aware that I won’t be Mummy forever; soon I’ll be Mum, conservative, nagging, out of touch. It is inevitable. I’ll want to say “I know you see me like this – sometimes I see myself like this – but I’ll still listen. I’ll still hear you. I’m not what you think.” Eventually, I hope it will pass. But when it comes to feminism?  I’m not so sure. We seem caught up in endless repetitions, wave upon wave upon wave.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.