The feminists who made waves in the 70s and 80s are ageing, and some of them are talking publicly about it. Lynne Segal gives her perspective in Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing.
She ponders the question “how should we live our lives?” A question just as relevant in old age, which, she says, “should be posed so long as we are still capable of asking it.”
Out of Time offers a psychological and political perspective on inner questions, rather than focusing on failing bodies and minds. Though academic in parts, stories and quotes from older people permeate the book. Older writers, poets, activists, carers, friends, and Segal herself, remain engaged with the world and its causes even in poor health.
“I have been mainly concerned with the ways in which conceptions of the elderly impact upon self-perception, sapping confidence and making it harder to feel that we remain in charge of our lives as we age.”
Keep young and beautiful
There is some discussion of older women in the media and in culture – the “monstrous old hag” or witch – but the book is not mainly concerned with that aspect. Segal also discusses briefly how ageing gets equated with failing health, and how feminists who used to object to narrow definitions of sex and beauty try to keep old age at bay by looking young and fit.
Promotion of healthy lifestyles and beauty treatments encourage us to believe we can get rid of signs of ageing if we’re vigilant, strive hard and pay enough. Yet “such relentless buoyancy allows no space for neediness and dependence; it is also quintessentially shallow, self-centred and elitist in its refusal to engage with the suffering and helplessness of others.”
It’s OK to be dependent
Paradoxically, given feminism’s struggle for women’s independence, older feminists like Segal, and Betty Friedan in The Fountain of Age, urge acceptance of dependency in old age. Differing modes of dependence are essential to the human condition, Segal argues. From our first breath, we are never truly self-made independent creatures.
“forms of dependency are a part of the human condition, and we only gain any sense of ourselves through our ties to others.”
Yet western societies teach us to value autonomy and self-sufficiency above all else. Dependence becomes something to be feared, equated with psychological inadequacy or ill health. Segal acknowledges our increased dependencies in old age, but shows how we also give back.
For Segal, this is, in fact, an essential strand in feminism. While 70s feminists did encourage women to assert themselves, they also talked a lot about the collective, and mutually supportive relationships.
Don’t blame the baby-boomers
Segal challenges the narrative of the selfish baby-boomers ruining life for the next generation. All old people are clearly not the same. Some are very comfortably off, and some struggle with poverty. Many over 65s are net contributors to society, paying taxes, acting as volunteers or carers, and donating to charities. (Women may experience what Margaret Mead refers to as “post-menopausal zest”!)
“Many boomers have no good fortune at all to feel guilty about, remaining instead often vulnerable, sometimes isolated, and with meagre pension entitlements.”
Blaming the baby-boomers for the current recession obscures the political dimensions. Segal quotes Beatrix Campbell: “simplistic attributions of generational blame stand in the way of a political understanding of the policies that have triggered the present recession, with its high unemployment, insecure and highly stressful working conditions, and lack of affordable housing.”
Many of the older generation opposed these policies and campaigned hard for a fairer society and social justice. Whether or not we agree about the politics, Segal is right to stress that the generations need to tackle economic crises together rather than seeing it as a battle between us.
Living with loss
There is an interesting section on sexuality in later life, highlighting the loss-of-virility narrative in fiction from male writers such as Roth, Updike and Amis. This fails to reflect many men’s alternative experience, Segal notes, which includes being “comfortably partnered”.
She also has a moving chapter on bereavement, drawing on literature such as Elaine Feinstein’s poem “Beds” in Talking to the Dead which helps us understand that loss is “not simply an experience to be surmounted but rather an event to live with.”
Last night I wondered where you had found to sleep.
You weren’t in bed. There was no-one in your chair.
… I called out miserably: You will catch cold
Waking, I let the daytime facts unfold.
How should we live?
Old age is the time when each day brings more to look back on than to look forward to. By late middle-age, we know far more about past than we will ever know of the future, and one task is to consider how that past impacts the present.
Sarah Pearlman uses the phrase ‘late mid-life astonishment’ for the disruption of identity and self which many people experience in their 50s and 60s. For Segal, ageing gives space for self-building. We are free from some projects of self-making, the call to make plans and seize the moment, but not from the question of how to live the lives we have left.
So, should you read Out of Time? Yes, if you’d like a thought-provoking discussion of how we live in old age from a key contributor to gender studies – Segal’s 1994 book Straight Sex is being republished in February 2015.
Alternatively, subscribe to my newsletter to read further posts on the topic. Like Segal, my focus is the “possibilities for and impediments to staying alive to life itself, whatever our age.”