Have the crones made poor decisions?

Should older women be angry? There is much talk in London about inequity in pay, and Guardian columnist Melissa Benn challenges females over 50 to protest the pittance they will receive as pensions because of it.

Up till now, she says, women have blamed themselves for “poor decisions” which so often includes putting family first. We have “come out with less money, diminished social status and greater self-doubt.” She says “things are shifting. Older women are talking about the grey pound and asserting their right to wear leopard skin with attitude.” And a government report is going to come out soon, presumably to help them along.

As an American, I feel as if I am seeing the 1970’s all over again. We burned our bras and threw away our makeup to be ourselves instead of what we thought men and our mothers wanted us to be. We thumbed our noses at marital security. Some of us found our career callings; others of us stumbled our way into the 21st century “life-work” dilemma, now also enjoyed by men. It is probably true that we weren’t thinking about our pensions at the time. We were a short generation out from the tradition of being looked after by someone else. Most likely, our parents were not yet pensioners, so it was a subject seldom or never discussed. The luckier few might have expected to inherit money, and probably did.

Thanks to Wall Street et al., that money did not last as long as it was meant to, and now people of even “secure” finances are hard-pressed to leave something for the children. Baby Boomers pretty much got squeezed out. And that is the real issue. If women want to feel guilty for making bad choices as feminists – and I would agree that “no-fault divorce’ was a big one – we should recognize that when we turned our backs on tradition and took up new lifestyles, whether they be on career ladders (briefcases and shoulder pads) or “back to the Earth,” (granny dresses and granola), we may have missed a chance to improve things for everybody.
My contemporaries remember The Man In the Grey Flannel Suit, which in 1955-56 suggested that a focus mainly getting ahead in the corporate world could ruin a marriage.  We thought we would find a way to move into the workplace and show men how to make better choices. That did not happen, in large part because we were educated and continued reading.
In 1963 we encountered The Feminine Mystique, based on a survey of college women. Author Betty Freidan concluded that many were not satisfied with their lives as loving and lovable wives and mothers, that they wanted something more. Some had put their own aspirations aside to get their husbands through college, and then were divorced. Hence began “consciousness-raising” and political movement. We wanted recognition of our economic, intellectual, and social value.
Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch came out in 1970 and we learned that men hated us and we hated ourselves. Greer argued for liberation, not just equality. As she said later, “… the visionary feminists of the late sixties and early seventies knew that women could never find freedom by agreeing to live the lives of unfree men. … Liberationists sought the world over for clues as to what women’s lives could be like if they were free to define their own values, order their own priorities and decide their own fate.” [i]
The same year, Kate Millet published Sexual Politics, which aimed at oppressive patriarchy, and suggested doing away with the traditional family. She criticized “sexist” literary works by males and offered an alternative view for consideration, that of the motherless homosexual, political activist, Jean Genet.

This controversy was fuel for the sometimes violent “sexual revolution” that divided my generation.

However, these authors and some of us who were curious enough had been influenced by the challenging English (1953) translation of The Second Sex ( 1949) by Simone de Beauvoir, who said, “One is not born but becomes a woman.” She insisted the only way  to be free was if we were ‘obliged’ to provide for ourselves and then come to some agreement with men we loved for a marriage that could be broken, and to choose motherhood – or not. Birth control would be allowed, and mother and children would be provided for by society.[ii] Her philosophy was existentialist, and directed out attention to being true to ourselves. One might be opposed to restrictive gender roles, but ultimately must choose her own way of being, and possibly live in nonconformity and isolation.

Leaning toward Marxism in the 1960s did not comfortably fit with being a housewife, but some of us gradually moved from the conservative politics of our parents to what stood for social democracy in America, and from marriage to perceived independence. Our daughters turned out differently, and our granddaughters even more so.

Sexual politics has evolved to encompass the biggest cultural change in my lifetime, insistence on gender free identity. It is a slowly rising tide. One might think that the problem is being solved, and perhaps it is, culturally and personally, and to some degree politically. Yet we don’t know what this means economically. State by state, we are still hedging our bets.
Why? Because, gradually fractionalized, and worn to the bone, feminists have not had the amount of energy and will it takes to demand the sweeping policy changes we intended a half-century ago to bring about for the good of our societies. Witness London in 2014, not just pay equity, but housing shortages and the huge outlays of public money for matters as equally concerning and threatening as overburdened health care and elder care systems, inadequate transportation networks, the unsupportable influx of mixed-culture immigrants – not to mention the disastrous rains and apparently uncontrollable flooding.

This is the time to feel strong, to answer the call of humanism, to feel agape, not eros.  

[i] Greer, Germaine, (1999), The Whole Woman, Transworld Publishers Ltd, pp. 1–2.


[ii] P 760, The Second Sex

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