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Why over-forties like me still need feminism

Emily Hill declared in The Spectator that the movement’s big battles are all won. Not for older women they’re not

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

If Emily Hill is right in her cover piece for the magazine last week headlined ‘The end of feminism’, then women like me are in a whole world of trouble. And by women like me, I mean women over 40.

The nub of Ms Hill’s argument was that all the big battles are won. She quoted the sparkling achievements of ‘women in their twenties’ and also ‘the under-40s’, who are out-earning men. What happens to women after they have broken through the glass ceiling is a question for an older, more cynical female writer. At your service.

While agreeing with a lot of what Ms Hill says about the pettiness of today’s Twitter feminism, it is important to draw attention to the paragraph in which she reveals her birth year (1983) and to note that articles declaring feminism void are usually written by women in their thirties or younger. ‘Give her ten years,’ I found myself thinking wistfully.

Looking back on my twenties and thirties, I believed equality to be like water, flowing freely and without end. I don’t mean to claim that when I turned 40 I instantly began to suffer discrimination, but rather that a sense settled upon me that the inalienable rights I once held to be self-evident were looking a bit conditional. There was a shocking moment when I realised that all women had a sell-by date, not necessarily linked to their ability to perform. It was in 2009, when the BBC sacked Arlene Phillips from Strictly Come Dancing, to be replaced by a younger model, while Len Goodman and Bruce Forsyth blathered on.

It was like Jenny Agutter finding out that ‘carrousel’ isn’t a ceremony leading to eternal life, but vaporisation. When Arlene was singled out for Logan’s Run-style renewal — complete with a chillingly cheerful interview in which she insisted she was happy to be pursuing other projects — I realised I would not necessarily find the same equality of opportunity in the second half of my life as the first.

If Arlene could be sent to ‘carrousel’, we could all go. Darcey Bussell should know that her tenure on Strictly is about as assured as her ability to ward off eye bags. I haven’t watched the show since Arlene’s vaporisation — my slightly forlorn bra-burner protest at ‘sexagism’, of which there have been other high-profile examples. Former BBC presenter Miriam O’Reilly won her discrimination battle for being one of four middle-aged women dropped from Countryfile.

But such cases get treated as ageism, not sexism, so they are not championed by feminists. We need to label ageism what it really is — a scourge largely suffered by women and the last stand of misogyny. It is not remotely acceptable that being born a woman means you are less likely to be allowed to do what you are good at for as long as if you had been born a man. It means that we have not yet been fully delivered from the centuries-old premise that we must attract a man or face destitution. And yet we declare feminism dead, as if there is no battle left to fight?

Well, some of us do. The young will argue that feminism is an ex-philosophy, has ceased to be, because they don’t need it. Those of us sweating it out in mid-life, meanwhile, insist that feminism is a remarkable bird with beautiful plumage. In this era of longer life expectancy, the notion that equality lasts only as long as sexual attractiveness, that female opportunity is pegged to fertility, should be the biggest feminist battle of our age.

That it is not, and that women are having pointless semantic Twitter spats, is a betrayal of what braver souls chained themselves to railings for. The petty internet trolling of men who so much as squeak a non-PC term; the constant demand for heads to roll simply for voicing an opinion about rape, or transgender issues… all this is deeply unedifying behaviour for a movement which once fought for the universal right to have an opinion. Female campaigners do themselves no favours by being so ludicrously censorious. But just because feminism is fighting the wrong battles does not mean it should shut up shop. Actually, I think younger women do realise subconsciously that their physical attractiveness is going to be a problem — but they don’t quite nail it.

Hence, they alight on the wrong end of the issue and cut up rough when a man compliments them. Instead of saying: ‘How dare he call me stunning on LinkedIn,’ the budding twentysomething feminist might ask: ‘I wonder what is happening to women who aren’t being called stunning on LinkedIn.’


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