Battle the stigma of old age and keep passion alive

Lynne Segal

Reflecting on aging can help to build bridges across generations of women, once we see ageism as a common enemy

Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studied at Birkbeck University of London and author of Out of Time - The Pleasures and Perils of Aging

Having emigrated from Australia as a single mum with a PhD in psychology in her pocket, Lynne Segal made her home in Islington, North London in the Seventies. There, she contributed to setting up and running a women’s center, community printshop and alternative newspaper - The Islington Gutter Press, aiming to cover the news of the area ignored or distorted by the commercial press - and to support anti-racist politics.

One of the things that I appreciate in particular about Lynne is that, although she was immersed in the polarizing political and feminist debate of the post-war activists, she doesn’t look at politics in terms of us-vs.-them, but shows an uncanny ability to take nuances into account. Stemming from this particular vision, Lynne wrote Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Aging in which she dissects “the paradoxes of aging, the increasing stigmatization of old age and the notion of dependency, while searching for ways of affirming life.” 

Today, she works as Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck University of London. In a few weeks, on September 12th, she’ll be amongst the panelists of the two-day conference “Narratives of old age and gender”, organized by The British Academy in London, the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences, with more than one thousand members of leading scholars.

Lynne has been so kind as to answer a handful of questions and she promised to send an excerpt of her talk after the event to share in this space.

Where does your interest in aging come from?

Many people think they never want to hear about aging, and perhaps once I was one of them. But actually the topic is inescapable. Over a decade ago, I published a political memoir, Making Trouble: Life and Politics, mainly about my generation of Left feminists. And there was one chapter all my women friends said moved them most, which was the one on aging, entitled ‘When Sexual Warriors Grow Old’. ‘Write more about that’, many said. Write more about that? Oh dear! I’ve always liked to respond to what I think those around me want to discuss. But write about aging! Like so many, much of the time I too don’t even want to think about aging, or at any rate, I was ambivalent and apprehensive. But once you start to address it, you realize there is just so much to say, so much to do, facing the enduring gerontophobia of our time, not to mention the scandals of loneliness and neglect many old people experience. 

The title of your upcoming talk at The British Academy is: "Who will be my mirror? Spectres of aging." Can you tell us what the main highlights will be?

Today, on average, we are all living longer, our longevity increasing all the time. Yet, instead of celebrating this fact, research indicates most of us start fearing the aging process from very early on. Enduring images of aging as seamless decline persist, despite official encouragement for us all to be ‘aging well’, alongside commercial promises to keep us ‘forever young’. 

Nowhere is our anxiety stronger than around issues of desire, sexuality and bodily change, just think of Goya’s withered witches, flying around on their broomsticks. In my talk I’ll survey some of the contrasting gendered dynamics of aging, which remain quite as strong as ever, whatever our contemporary awareness of greater gender and sexual fluidities. 

What suggestions would you give for aging women to choose their mirror and affirm themselves in a youth-obsessed society?

I don’t think it’s easy, unlike some, including Germaine Greer, who have suggested older women should rejoice in being ‘solitary crones’, no longer objects of desire for men. I think as women we have first to confront all the noxious ways in which we are ‘aged by culture’, and far earlier than men, before we can find ways of resisting them. 

However, it is true that battling the stigma of old age is itself one way to keep passion alive as we age. Social and political engagement generally are the best ways of keeping ourselves alive to life itself, whatever our age, health or fragility. We see this, for instance, in the deliberate provocations of the late Maggie Kuhn, who founded the Gray Panthers movement in 1970 in the USA, determined to flout the frequent dismissal of the post-menopausal woman. But then that particular life-long sex radical, peace campaigner and civil rights advocate, was determined, as she said towards the end of her long life, to do something outrageous every day. Her provocations included not just insisting upon the frequently renounced reality of older women’s sexuality, but continuing to engage in all the old battles she had fought throughout her long life. 

Then again, we also have many of the old pleasures we once loved, which rarely completely disappear with age, whether rejoicing in music, landscape, reading, or any other creative pursuits. They are likely to remain all the more pleasurable when we can share them with family or friends, old and new. 

Because aging is an "unmanned territory" can this, in turn, be an area where we are free to create a new social consciousness? Do you think we're beginning to move the first steps in this direction?

Well, I think the outlook is mixed. To some extent, age prejudice has actually been increasing rather than decreasing in recent years, despite and because of the growing numbers of old people. Indeed, it is sometimes even socially and politically orchestrated, with my generation of aging ‘baby boomers’ (born into or soon after World War II), targeted as the selfish and greedy generation, even bizarrely seen as responsible for the economic downturn as we enter old age. 

For instance, when holding a key government position, the Conservative MP David Willetts published his tendentious book: The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back. Thus the scapegoating of older people has sometimes been deployed to justify austerity measures and further curbs in welfare spending. However, it is true that such practices have met with resistance, and aging is being celebrated by many more people today, at least those not living in isolation and poverty. For some, old age is not only a time for consolidating family ties and enduring friendships, but for finding new creative pleasures that paid employment and other commitments had hitherto restricted. You might be surprised at the talents many old people suddenly seem to acquire, far too numerous to list.

Considering the growing awareness of ageism and aging as a social construct, could a more profound understanding of these dynamics be a catalyst for feminism, women's rights, and a new pact amongst female generations? After all, younger women cannot ignore that, if they accept the status quo, they will be subjected to the same "rules" of social exclusion when they age.

I think reflecting on aging can help to build bridges across generations of women, once we see ageism itself as a common enemy. The essence of ageism is its repudiations of human frailty and dependence. Yet we all depend upon routine forms of care, recognition and support from others throughout our lives. We flourish in and through our relations to others, and the responsibilities this places on us to care for one another. And this in turns means, as feminists have always known, that we must address all the ways that the work of caring has been and remains undervalued. Especially in these times of growing environmental danger, admitting our shared human vulnerabilities can help to unite us in revaluing all practices that promote forms of flourishing – human, non-human and planetary. 

In your book Out of Time: the Pleasures and Perils of Aging, you wrote that age is "a state when we have access to all the selves we have been." How has this awareness impacted on your life as a women and a professional?

In my book I referred to what I called ‘temporal vertigo’. Yes we age, physically, and are certainly aged by culture. Yet in another sense we also feel we remain the same. Certain threads through time, the identities we have constructed for ourselves and try to hold on to at all costs, usually remain, unless, tragically, our sense of self is destroyed by general neglect and isolation.

Thus Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, at 49, “I sometimes feel that I have lived 250 years already, and sometimes that I am still the youngest person on the omnibus.” At 73, Doris Lessing also summed up this feeling, “The great secret that all old people share is that you really haven't changed in 70 or 80 years. Your body changes, but you don't change at all. And that, of course, causes great confusion.” This is a simplification, but it does tell us much about the paradoxes of aging, which I explore in Out of Time.