Wednesday, 7 March 2018

"Identity" Politics and the cost of feminism today

So another "International Women's Day" rolls round and Twitter is awash with discussions and comments on "feminism" - whatever that is or may be. But as a woman, I feel the elephant in the room is not any of the topics being discussed under the umbrella of feminism.

The biggest issue facing women in the West is loneliness.

If we are really going to change the world for women in the 21st Century, it is vital we address the silent majority of women - often older women - who are as concealed in our society as those shrouded in hijab. We are largely invisible, ostensibly superfluous, and yet without the veritable army of middle aged women the country would pretty much grind to a halt. This week BBC Radio Suffolk have aired an excellent discussion about women in the workplace going through the menopause, and how their needs need to be met. With an ageing population and the elevated age of retirement we *need* older women to fill job vacancies, and must recognise their needs. But I would venture as a tentative start before this can happen their existence and daily reality needs to be acknowledged.

Historically older women held a senior social position in communities - and still do in traditional cultures. But in the West we seem to have liberated younger women, at the expense of their mothers. Feminism has been hijacked by the young, who have redefined and liberated it to make it "fit for purpose" today. Or perhaps have they merely rebranded it to meet acceptable, liberal norms that metropolitan society find acceptable?

Gay rights - a hugely important movement - gained mainstream credibility and acceptance during the 1980s and 90s at the same time as women were raising their profile in the workplace, staking their claim to traditional male roles and trying to "prove" their worth as mothers and professionals. It seems to me that this was a useful train that feminists unconsciously boarded more recently to further their cause and raise their profile, but in doing so real feminism, the practical focus on the role of women in society has been tossed aside as a worthwhile sacrifice whilst concepts of gender are discussed ad infinitum. Meanwhile, the fundamental position of women in society beyond those groups goes under the radar. But feminism is not a closed box of discussion and debate, it is alive and kicking in 2018 and should embrace the older generation of women.

Today we live in a society where little girls can be boys, boys can be girls and both can be parents and professionals. But it's a world where too many older women are invisible carers, feeling disconnected from society and lacking a sense of self worth with little sense of identity. An historic social casualty of the modernisation of the role of women, the irony of the feminist tradition is the blow it's dealt the older generation.

I am reminded of my past work on Social History and the sad trend for social isolation as communities break down. There are many reasons for this - increased geographical and economic mobility being the most obvious. Our lives are also so frantically busy that we constantly try to juggle everything and have precious little time to support any notion of "community". Families live miles apart and grandparents frequently continue to work full time as their lives continue to be hectic and demanding. Mothers "lose" their children, often thousands of miles away, and have to reinvent themselves with an empty nest. Rarely sufficiently local to have a regular grandparent role, women of this age are often emerging from years of isolated parenting with a false hope of time to "do something for themselves" only to find society barely acknowledges their existence and they are subsumed into the role of carers for elderly relatives.

It's as if the conveyor belt runs out and you get tipped off into this pool of older women who are all equally confused who they are and where they are headed.

Then there is the lack of confidence. So many women my age have precious little self confidence. Often degree holding, multi-talented individuals, they've sustained years of being told how to parent, how to educate their children, how NOT to parent, how to look, how to cook, how to have it all and hold down a job whilst running the family home. It's not surprising that making choices for themselves is incredibly daunting. But too many of us feel utterly trapped and devoid of options.

I blame much of this on the breakdown of communities. Governments seek to advise, interfere and even dictate "choice" to women in the absence of extended families and close knit communities. My generation have been told to aim high, work and parent, but no one discusses what happens after. Wonder Woman is only a useful role model for so long but as she doesn't age few over 40 can continue to live at that pace no matter how hard we try!

There are few clothes retailers for older women, few role models for those emerging from childbearing years who want to reinvent themselves and few opportunities which take the needs of older women into consideration. Loneliness affects so many,  and a higher percentage of women than men report feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont, 2013).

The "have it all society" I grew up in has destroyed communities, the backbone of society and ultimately our collective emotional wellbeing. It's liberated younger women - to a point, but left many out. People need roots, need to be part of a bigger whole and most importantly, they need to belong. Denying this whilst fostering a virtual social reality is unsustainable and leading to emotional unhappiness and the breakdown of society. There is huge focus on the mental wellbeing in the young, but too many older women I know are struggling too.

Further up the chain of belonging I believe this is precisely why populist political parties are gaining strength across Europe. People need to belong, and have so little control over their lack of family, local and extended social connections, that increased immigration and social migration feels far more threatening and disturbing than it might need to. Losing national identity on top of personal and local identity is just one step too far.  We fundamentally need to belong, to understand whom we are and where we fit in. Like millions of other older women, I'm not sure I do.

I've been watching "Back in Time for Tea" on BBC iPlayer with interest. Like its sister series, "Back in Time for the Weekend" for me the most revealing observation was by the mum of the family who observed "The 1960s seem to have passed me by".  Just as they did for millions of older women, whilst the younger generation let their hair down and felt liberated. The mums in both series feel the same way, that the 1970s were a glorious decade of family, local community, less hard work due to modern technology but without the all-encompassing, isolating and individualist rise in tech and social media which came later. For older women, and society as a whole, it's been downhill since then in terms of belonging and identity.

So let's refocus today on what we mean by feminism. With an ageing population it's about time older women felt noticed and valued. Women may well have been liberated from the kitchen, but the front door is still fundamentally locked to too many. 

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