More radical with age

Older women are the true gender rebels

Artillery Row

Older women — old-style women, that is — really need to get with the 21st century. That’s the message we’re hearing from young people and new-style women alike. 

It’s not enough that we’ve had the temerity to age whilst female, losing all those essential markers of femininity (firm breasts, smooth skin, all-round sexual and reproductive serviceability). We’ve carried on having our own opinions and boundaries, despite such things being hopelessly passé. What are we like?

There was a point — I think it might have been a Friday late in 1988 — when female opinions and boundaries were on trend. This came at the end of feminism’s second wave, when the right to have opinions had been fought for, and just before the start of the third, when it was recognised that the women who’d fought for such things were hopeless bigots, imposing freedom of thought on a generation who had more important things to acquire, such as the right to get one’s tits out for the lads. 

Getting in a tizz about misogyny is all a bit nineteen seventies

I was thirteen at the time, and too busy debating the relative merits of Bros versus The Pet Shop Boys to make the most of that special moment. Now in my late forties, I, like so many of my female contemporaries, am caught reliving it, opining and boundary-setting like the new millennium never happened. 

Last week comedian, wannabe Labour MP and all-new, upgraded woman Eddie Izzard issued us an ultimatum: “People have got to just sort themselves out. It’s the 21st century. Join the 21st century, you know?” Izzard was responding to a question about Rosie Duffield MP, who has said she would be unwilling to refer to Izzard using the female pronouns required for operating in “girl mode”. 

Like Duffield, and countless other middle-aged women, I do not have a “girl mode”. This is because I am an old-model woman, old enough to remember when women were ridiculously — and, as it turns out, quite unjustifiably — grateful to a younger Eddie Izzard for deflecting the charge that he was a man wearing women’s dresses with “they’re not women’s dresses. They’re my dresses. I buy them”. 

Like many, I saw Izzard as someone who got it, who understood that women, like men, are full, complete human beings, not a set of stereotypes to be put on and taken off at will. Izzard’s descent into boorish sexism has surprised me; I thought he was better than that. Then again, his boorishness is in fashion, whilst the resistance of women such as Duffield and me is forever out of date. 

The past week has seen numerous articles claiming that the modern, progressive view of gender, the one embraced most by young people, replicates that of 60-year-old Izzard, leaving women in their forties and fifties — penis-owner equivalent, roughly 150 — out in the cold. 

Writing in the Times, Olivia Petter suggests that older generations “might not be as well versed in” issues such as violence against women and feminism, what with their insufficient years of immersion in Tiktok, Instagram and Twitter. It would seem actual experience of male violence — experience which accumulates over the years — is nothing compared to watching a short clip of a teenager yelling at you about the importance of not misgendering the person who put his/her/their hands around your throat. 

Meanwhile in the Guardian, Sammy Gecsoyler proposes that younger people just are more diverse: “less likely to inhabit a social world that is straightforwardly Christian or straight or cis-gendered”. Which is convenient, to say the least. It would be a right pain if it turned out that middle-aged women — who carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid labour and face the widest gender pay gap — didn’t identify with the gender that had been assigned to them at birth, either. 

Whilst numerous studies have indicated that younger men are no less sexist than their fathers — that, on the contrary, they may be more so — this has not dented the view that the young, supported by older males such as Izzard, have a more sophisticated understanding of sex and gender than their boring old mummies, who still believe that statements such as “I campaign for politics in girl mode … I just switch, change, take off your heels, flat shoes” smack of male chauvinism. 

Then again, calling Izzard, or indeed anyone, a male chauvinist is old hat. Raging at misgendering, or boundary policing, or the very idea of sex as immutable, are where it’s at. Getting in a tizz about misogyny is all a bit nineteen seventies, whereas protesting against transmisogyny — which is like misogyny, only serious, because it affects people with penises — is the 21st century way. 

At the same time, the underlying dynamic, whereby young people and older males project conservatism onto older women — largely because older women are saying “no” to older males — is age-old. As Bonnie Burstow wrote in 1992’s Radical Feminist Therapy, “often father and daughter look down on mother (woman) together”:

They exchange meaningful glances when she misses a point. They agree that she is not as bright as they are, cannot reason as they do. This collusion does not save the daughter from the mother’s fate.

Today’s “join the 21st century” lecture is a new way of telling the mother she is stupid, and the daughter that if she is good and does not stand up to the men who reduce her to parody, she will be okay. The sexism doesn’t change; what changes are the marketing strategies. 

We need to distinguish between what is fashionable and what is actually a challenge to existing power structures. There is something insane about the idea that young people have cracked the code to millennia of misogyny and it is … rehabilitating the word “women” so it includes the proper humans — the ones who have penises — and not letting female people organise as a class, because that way everyone will forget to exploit them. This is fashionable, but what does it actually change?

As for Izzard, yes, male people — assigned-male-at-birth people, whatever you want to call them have been “subverting norms” by wearing what they like for thousands of years. Funnily enough, they’ve managed to do this without achieving very much in the way of rights for female people. It’s almost as though these things aren’t inextricably linked. 

Older women are the eternally uncool mummies

My own view is that older women are the true gender radicals, both inherently — as the act of ageing subverts the link between femaleness and youth-coded femininity — and actively, in our willingness to challenge male entitlement even when it lowers our social status to do so. When we are told we are out of date, we’re really being told to get on board with a shiny, all-new iteration of patriarchy. Feminism for female people is old! Shut up and listen to an ageing comedian tell you why the most basic rules — female people exist, matter and deserve resources for themselves — no longer apply! 

When you are younger it is hard to accept that the reason why women do not have equal status with men, and still face obscene levels of sexual violence, is not because older feminist arguments were wrong. It is easier to think that stage of feminism is irrelevant, and what’s needed now — in the amazing, gender-curious 21st century — is for older women to be silent. 

Gender fluidity is supposed to operate in a way similar to the great invisible hand of the free market, sorting everyone into their ideal, true self roles without anything so inconvenient and restrictive as male people being told they’ll have to give things up as opposed to gaining access to even more stuff.

Older women are the eternally uncool mummies, pointing out that no, it will take more than changing pronouns and shoes to end violence and redistribute wealth and power. Patriarchy is the eternally raging teenager, convinced he’s invented the same structures used by his dad, and his dad before him. 

Lecture us all you like. Tell us we need to get with the programme. The changes that happen — the ones that actually transform lives — are enacted by those who don’t care about appeasing 21st century sexists. Your tactics might be novel; your aims haven’t moved on at all. 

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