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Why don’t we value older women?

Men are allowed to age. Women are not.

I’m reluctant to write about older women in case it makes people think I’m one of them. After all, why would any woman wish to be associated with the post-menopausal hordes unless she had no choice in the matter? Anyhow, just so you know, I have not yet reached that point. I may be clinging on by my fingernails, but I haven’t yet crossed over to the dark side.

And what a dark side it is. While I don’t quite hope I die before I get old, I’m still desperately praying for an overthrow of the patriarchy before I get my first hot flush. Being an older women is, by all accounts, grim. It’s not just that women in their fifties are hit hardest by the gender pay gap, with most drives for pay parity aimed at their younger countertparts. Nor is it simply that, to quote a recent Guardian correspondent, older women “face daily insinuations in the media that we are ugly”. As women get old, their age is seen to cast a shadow over every contribution they make and every belief they hold.

As shown by the recent furore over Germaine Greer lecturing at Cardiff University, it’s not enough to disagree with an older woman. One must cast her as “a dinosaur” facing “a slow and painful extinction”. Thankfully, we do not have to witness too many of these pathetic creatures on our TV screens. While you can be a man in your 70s and still host mainstream current affairs programmes, the “woman of a certain age” tends to be shown the door (chivalrous as ever, the reporter Michael Buerk likens this process to “pruning the raspberries to make way for new growth”).

It’s a depressing state of affairs. Moreover, I do not think what we are witnessing is simply the intersection of ageism and sexism as separate axes of oppression. Rather, it seems to me that a particular form of ageism is integral to how sexism operates.

As soon as we go through puberty, women are told that the biological clock has started ticking. Regardless of whether or not we can or even want to have children, all of us have been given a sell-by date based around when menopause is assumed to start. It’s not that we then stop being useful; it’s that our usefulness becomes taboo.

According to the rules of patriarchy – a system which seeks both to appropriate the reproductive labour of women and to deny that a woman can do anything but gestate – a woman ought not to outlive her reproductive usefulness. Yet most women do, and for a very long time. What is more, they remain important to society, as workers, carers and thinkers. They hang around for another thirty-odd years, demonstrating that half the human race does not exist merely to be objectified and/or impregnated by the other half. No wonder so much effort has been made to devalue older women, these representatives of female potential whom one cannot even attempt to define solely in relation to men.

You would think, then, that younger feminists would champion the cause of older women. “Help the aged”, as Jarvis Cocker sang in a song only some people will remember, “’cos one day you’ll be older too”. To which, alas, the standard younger feminist response seems to be “no, I won’t. I’ll identify my way out of it.” Unfortunately older women have come to symbolise everything that contemporary feminism seeks to deny: biological necessity, the body, the limits of internal self-perception as the sole arbiter of truth. These women let themselves get old! How could they have been so stupid? Ageing is such a deeply unimaginative, essentialist thing to do!

Men are allowed to age. Their lives are not subject to the same schedule and cut-off point. Responding to the “male menopause” means buying a motorbike, getting a tattoo, perhaps taking up jogging. No one expects a man over fifty to disappear into oblivion. He still has something to offer. When young people draw on the work of older men, they do so to add stones to the edifice, or to stand on the shoulders of giants. When they refer to the work of older women, it is to show how out of date it is. Older men are still potent and virile. Older women are barren and intellectually spent. But don’t, whatever you do, draw any parallels between this and the rhythms of human reproduction. Patriarchy might genuinely operate on these terms, but only an ageing harpy would be ill-mannered enough to point it out. Only someone who no longer appears to be of childbearing age could be stupid enough to think that whether or not one appears to be of childbearing age has anything to do with the form of misogyny one experiences.

The tragedy of this is that all women eventually succumb. Not only that, but we’ve trained ourselves to see it as a failing on the part of the women who fell before us. In Of Women Born Adrienne Rich describes how “thousands of daughters see their mothers as having taught a compromise and self-hatred they are struggling to win free of […]. Easier by far to hate and reject a mother outright than to see beyond her to the forces acting upon her.” To distance oneself politically from the older woman is to assume that one will avoid her fate, at least until one becomes aware that a new generation of women are now distancing themselves from you. You discover, too late, that there is no way of ensuring that no one will notice you have body that is both female and getting older. Take whatever measures you like – from over-priced night creams to over-wrought self-definitions – but people will still know.

The denigration of older women cannot be a niche concern because, unless we are very unlucky, each of us will get old. Nor can we assume that we will be “better” old women, earning a place at the table unlike those bigoted old biddies who apparently deserve everything they get. Right now feminism and patriarchy seem to be in agreement about the point at which all women lose value. That leaves a very long time in which to be considered worthless. If we don’t speak up now, we shouldn’t be surprised if no one is listening when we most want to be heard. 

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

Photo: Getty
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South Africa’s new dawn: How Jacob Zuma’s misrule was ended

“We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade.”

On the afternoon of 13 February, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a popular Johannesburg radio station began receiving calls about a peculiar incident.

A truck had lost its load along the M2 highway and people were scurrying to pick up what they believed to be tiny nuggets of unprocessed gold. The highway became congested as motorists pulled over to join the search. Even for a city that rose from the dust of a gold rush, this was a bizarre scene.

The first radio caller was giddy with excitement, as was the second. The third did what South Africans do best: he made light of an otherwise confusing and anxious day in the young nation’s history. “It’s manna from heaven,” the caller said. “Zuma’s just been recalled and already the roads are paved in gold.” Nine years into the president’s disastrous rule, South Africans had not lost their sense of humour – and were awaiting a new dawn. The police cleared the scene along the M2, no one proclaimed a worthy find and the nation returned to waiting for Zuma’s next move.

Technically, the president did not have to resign as head of state, despite the opposition of the ANC, the proud liberation movement turned ruling party that Zuma led for a decade until December 2017. Realistically, he had no options left.

With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the ANC was ready to table a motion of no confidence the next day. Defiant to the end, these final hours on the eve of Valentine’s Day were Zuma’s last stand.

They called him the “unstoppable tsunami” and with good reason. Zuma damaged South Africa and the ANC in ways only history will fully capture. He wrecked a country struggling to rebuild itself under the shadow of apartheid. Under his rule, the economy stagnated, unemployment rose, poverty grew, violent crime spiked and corruption became endemic.

“South Africa was headed in the wrong direction,” says Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which governs in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town. “We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade,” the political analyst Stephen Grootes concludes.

Zuma lurched from one scandal to the next. He was acquitted of rape, avoided almost 800 corruption charges for over a decade and nearly crashed the economy by recklessly firing a respected finance minister. Taxpayers were misled over exorbitant upgrades to his private mansion (a swimming pool was defended as a fire-fighting feature) and his friendship with the controversial Gupta family placed him at the heart of what became known as “state capture”: the looting of state coffers through the corruption of senior government officials.

“State and independent institutions were repurposed for the enrichment and protection of Jacob Zuma,” says political commentator Justice Malala. “He went through the guts of the framework, pulled out the institutions he needed and systematically broke them down or took away their independence.”

The institutions ranged from the tax revenue service to the public broadcaster, from the police to the prosecuting authority, and from the intelligence services to crucial industries such as mining.

Although constitutionally barred from governing beyond 2019, Zuma was widely believed to have engineered a plan to hold on to power (and avoid prosecution) through his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was campaigning to take over from him. By December, when the ANC met to pick its next leader, who would go on to become the country’s president in 2019, a mood of despair and hopelessness had set in.

The race was close. In the end, 179 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast separated Dlamini-Zuma from her challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader and businessman who had campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-growth platform.

Ramaphosa’s victory in mid-December was a turning point. It removed the prospect of Zuma’s continued rule, began an instant shift in political power and sparked a moment of renewed hope. Ramaphosa had his own controversies, but was viewed as largely incorruptible. He had risen through the trade unions, served the ANC and built his wealth in the private sector. 

Following Ramaphosa’s election, the extent of state capture emerged through superb investigative journalism.

Politically driven prosecutions fell away, a hugely unpopular nuclear energy deal with Russia was frozen and, as Zuma was being recalled, police cars arrived outside the home of the Gupta family.

And yet, the president refused to leave the Union Buildings quietly, prompting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. “He was the worst possible combination of ignorance, selfishness and incompetence that could have been inflicted upon the long-suffering people of South Africa,” read an editorial in the Daily Maverick on 13 February. “Now, stripped to the bare essence of being Zuma, the final image emerges, one of the selfish man who cared only for himself.”

Journalist Richard Poplak concluded: “What is born in chaos dies in chaos.”

 Zuma’s departure allows for the rebuilding to begin. The role played by the media, civil society – which found its voice during the Zuma years – and the judiciary (particularly the constitutional court) is being recognised. New president Ramaphosa delivered an inspiring state of the nation address the day after being sworn in.

“You can survive bad leadership, but what you won’t survive is bad institutions,” Mmusi Maimane told me.

There are no delusions over the epic challenges ahead. Unemployment is at 27 per cent (and is much higher for young, black South Africans) and GDP growth is stranded at 1 per cent. However, there is optimism, too: the “lost decade” is over and the Rainbow Nation’s renewal has finally begun. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia