In Praise of Older Women: A Love Letter to My Big Sisters

A disturbing trend has been established over the last few years – implying that, as women within the feminist movement age, they become less relevant. It is not simply unrepentant misogynists airing this view – although they are responsible for starting it – but rather relatively young and often liberal women who openly describe themselves as feminists. Kaite Welsh of the Telegraph branded Germaine Greer a “dinosaur”, suggesting that she “face[s] a slow and painful extinction.” Similarly, Jessica Valenti used her Guardian column to lament when older feminists “lose their way“, the implication being that doddering old dears like Susan Brownmiller are no longer fully aware of the world around them.

I do not dispute Welsh’s right to critique Greer’s perspective on gender. Valenti’s objection to Brownmiller’s comments on sexual assault is, in my opinion, perfectly reasonable. That being said, these criticisms should not be couched in ageist language. As Lorde says, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In using ageism to reproach older women, younger feminists give tacit permission for men to do the same. There is nothing revolutionary or progressive about employing the same misogynistic tactics used to silence women.

Across Twitter, older radical feminists are slammed for being “anti-sex”, “fossils”, and “pearl-clutching prudes.” In addition to perpetuating ageist misogyny, these phrases are also symptomatic of intellectual laziness – challenge the ideas of our older sisters, not their right to participate in public discourse.

Susan Brownmiller quite literally wrote the book on rape culture. Without her contributions to feminist theory, ongoing discussions about male sexual violence and the patriarchal society that enables it simply wouldn’t have evolved to their present format. Irrespective of the controversy currently surrounding Greer, her writing and activism have proven hugely influential in critiquing social models built upon male dominance. She was a pioneer and deserves to be acknowledged as such. We know that trashing our fellow women gets us nowhere, let alone anywhere in the direction of liberation, so why do so many of us still fall into this trap? When women are pitted against women, we are fighting each other – not patriarchy – no matter how progressive we are told this in-fighting makes us.

Disagreement is not justifiable cause for demonising someone. Older women receive a disproportionate amount of flack in this respect, perhaps from women who haven’t yet realised that in twenty or thirty years time their youth will have faded and they will be in the same position. If we’re being honest, I used to oscillate between dreading middle-age and thinking I would, somehow, prove an exception to the invisibility of older women. Now, having spent time with and listened to so many amazing older women, I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to being bolder, wiser, and stronger than my 23 year-old self with the same enthusiasm I once anticipated evolving my Pokémon.

Taking off the blinkers and really looking at older women has filled my world with positive role models. With this in mind, here is a letter of love and gratitude addressed to my older sisters.

Dear Older Feminists,

                                           I am writing to thank you for the battles you fought before I had ever even heard of feminism, and for continuing to fight by my side to this very day. We have a long way to go, there is no doubt, but it all seems much less of an uphill struggle when we stand together. That sisterhood is a nourishing, sustaining force. Without it, I might easily have given up or stayed silent in favour of an ‘easy’ life. But, as Audre Lorde pointed out, our silence will not protect us. Every time my mentions are flooded by trolls suggesting I kill myself or “go back to Africa”, your fortitude and support are what inspire me to carry on with activism.

Even when we disagree, and it does happen (e.g. some of you are strongly pro-Hillary Clinton, and I am not), you acknowledge my stance and treat my voice as significant in itself. You have encouraged me to write, to speak out, to stand up for myself – even when the you are the people I’m disagreeing with. You have built the communities and spaces where I now flourish. You have taught me my own worth. By seeing my skills, knowledge, and creativity, you made it possible for me to see these things too. You have also given me plenty to aspire towards – keen cleverness, intellectual rigour, unerring kindness, awareness of others, steely determination, the strength of will to change the world.

All the traits I most admire are the traits I find in older women, older feminists. After years spent drinking the patriarchal Kool-Aid, and then trying to be the “right” sort of feminist, it was something of a revelation to find that both older and radical women are nothing short of [s]heroic. Your campaigns to support women, to end violence against women, to offer women the space to grow and learn, really have made this world a better place. How my life would have gone without your encouragement and enthusiasm doesn’t bear thinking about. It is thanks to you that I have purpose, determination, conviction, belief in myself – in short, all the tools I need to change the world as you have done, as you continue to do.

Yours in Sisterhood,