“How old am I? Don’t ask, don’t tell. The question frightens me.” The opening of Lynne Segal’s latest book, Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing, read to a predominantly, but not exclusively, female crowd, resonated with many judging by the reaction.
As an active feminist in the 1970s, Segal had high hopes that the prejudices of the time would be abandoned by now, that there would be less inequality, and the world would be more human, humane and caring. That didn’t turn out so well.
Feminism has not been instrumental in shaping politics or culture she says; sexism and the beauty myth are still prevalent, racism and homophobia are still around, and old age is still viewed as a bad thing.
As Segal enters her seventies, she says she has felt the cultural pressures of being old, but that writing this book has helped her deal with these issues and become clearer about what is going on. Why do we consider old age, and old age in women in particular, to be a problem?
As she did her research she noticed that older people are still engaged with the world, but the world is not always engaged with them. Over 50, you start to be come invisible, ignored, disregarded. Right now, that means ten million people in the UK are persona non gratae, and this figure is set to double in the next decade. Despite her own extensive bibliography, Segal says she struggled to get a publisher for this book.
She talks with passion about the way older people are treated, how they are not allowed to look or feel old, how they are ignored and vilified. The baby-boomers have even been blamed for the recent global economic crash, because of their pensions. All they did was exactly what they had been encouraged to do, namely to work hard, save money, buy houses, pay their taxes and national insurance, and look after the grandchildren. And now they are vilified because they ‘cost too much’.
Sex (for women) in old age is another problematic area for society. Single men tend to outnumber single women early on in life, but single women massively outnumber single men in later life. Whilst older men are accepted as still being virile and attractive, and have second families with younger women, women are expected to grow old alone and be happy they no longer have to deal with sex. But sex is more than copulation, argues Segal, it is also about intimacy, friendship and support. Single women are missing out.
Women tend to internalise and accept these social ideals, and Segal calls us to resist. We should consider ageing to be the next part of the journey of a well-lived life, and get angry at the stereotypes and abuse. We can refuse to conform to the beauty myth, and accept that ageing is normal. Being young is not the be-all and end-all.
Segal argues now for what she argued for in the 70s; a society where being caring is more highly valued, people are more important than profits, and everyone is allowed to be a valuable member of society. Not much to ask, really, is it?
Also at Ilkley Literature Festival Review site 14th October, 2014