I was very honoured when Gillian asked me to take part in the celebration of Women’s History Month and accepted her invitation enthusiastically. Only later did it occur to me that I had no idea what to write about.
I am in my early fifties and I lead what I consider to be a perfectly unremarkable life. I work as a freelance proof-reader and copy-editor, I have a husband, three cats and no children. I like to cook, I like to garden, I like to read, and I worry about the same things as everyone else: war, taxes and whether the cats have left another dead mouse in the laundry pile. You wouldn’t look twice at me if you passed me in the street. In fact, many people don’t look, and I am accustomed to them walking straight into me when I don’t step out of their way fast enough. These days I am not inclined to be the one who always steps out of the way. The collisions are increasing.
Maybe I’m just feeling a little bolshie but I am becoming increasingly interested in the way middle-aged women are invisible and how difficult it is to be noticed. This is nothing new, of course. Actresses complain about the difficulty of finding really good roles once they pass forty. In the UK, a tv reporter recently took the BBC to court for dropping her from a programme when they moved it to a better slot and tried replace her with a younger woman. When she won her case I enjoyed listening to BBC executives forcing themselves through ever-tighter hoops, denying they’d ever discriminated against any woman on age and looks. Let’s just say I’d have to work hard to find anyone on the terrestrial channels with whom I could identify. When I was watching Al Jazeera during the recent uprising in Egypt, I was fascinated by Jacky Rowland as much for her appearance as for her outstanding reporting on the situation. At last, there was someone on tv who looked like me!
I’ve spent the last eight years studying part-time for a BA in English Literature and then an MA in Postcolonial Studies, and have just started a Ph.D. One of the things I have found most interesting about the whole experience is encountering young people and watching how they respond to older women. All young people are to some extent self-absorbed – it’s part of the process of growing up and I don’t doubt I was just the same when I was their age – but I can’t help noticing that even at a university which prides itself on the eclectic and diverse composition of its student body, and where about 20% of the students are somewhat older than the norm, the undergraduates seem to be constantly amazed that middle-aged women can have thoughts, ideas, can actually do things other than keep house, even in 2011, when I am fairly sure their mothers and grandmothers must have had working lives. The men don’t seem to puzzle them in the same way, I assume because they expect them to have external lives. When they learn I expect to have a meaningful academic life once I’ve got my Ph.D I can see their brains exploding as they try to deal with this idea.
In fact, it is quite difficult to make contact with the younger students in any meaningful way because they really don’t want to see me. I am too complicated for them. This has its up side in that no one ever bothers me with leaflets during union election campaigns (and yes, I do ask; they need to learn not to make assumptions) but was always more problematic in class when no one really wanted to be assigned to do group work with their mum (though they usually found that in part thanks to mum they got a good mark for participation). The situation improves somewhat at the MA stage because we’re all more serious about the academic life, though I notice that the organisation of an extra-curricular campus life for graduate students is still based on the assumption that one is under 25 and an incipient alcoholic, and the graduate association can’t see past this, despite many graduate students being that bit older, with families, living off campus.
Inevitably, being a science-fiction reader (‘You read science fiction?’ one student asked in amazement. ‘Yes, and I review it for Interzone’) I find myself thinking of Tiptree’s ‘The Women Men Don’t See’. It’s a story that is resonating with me ever more powerfully as the years stack up, and I am developing a taste for challenging people’s assumptions about me. Recently, I was talking to someone I got to know last year when we organised a conference together. She’s about half my age and we get on well because we are both passionately interested in literature and politics and generally have a burning desire to fix the world right now, this minute. In passing, she told me that her boyfriend had been really startled by me when he first met me. ‘In what way, I asked. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘he was surprised at how politically radical you are for someone your age, and at how comfortable you are with social networking, blogging, all those kinds of things. He thinks it’s really cool.’
I don’t consider any of that to be particularly remarkable. I know many other women like me, many of them more radical, many more of them adept with computers and the internet, many of them doing far more interesting things than I am. On the other hand, he doesn’t know them, he knows me, and I have successfully challenged his preconceptions about someone my age. my work here is done. Except, of course, that it isn’t. There is always someone else who needs to be reminded that middle age is not about becoming invisible, and insofar as I have a mission in life these days, apart from getting the Ph.D, it is to live my life visibly. Not flamboyantly because that is not my way, but visibly, rather than lurking in the chinks of the world machine.
Consequently, I should just note that alongside the things I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I am also an sf critic and reviewer, my Ph.D will be in Native American/First Nations literature and critical theory, I have a blog, a Twitter account, and I am passionately devoted to barbecue grilling. Also, if the path is two people wide, there are two of you and one of me, I probably won’t be pressing myself against the wall or stepping into the gutter to let you pass unless you’re helping someone else or you are walking an enormous dog.