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Victoria Smith’s book Hags is a passionate appeal for conversation across the generations about the experiences that unite women.
Victoria Smith’s new book Hags is an angry response to a whole litany of gendered ageism, from name calling and verbal violence to the cumulative effect of unpaid labour which is disproportionately dumped on middle-aged women. It’s a passionate call for recognition and for a voice.
Smith states: “The demonisation of older women ensures we do not wish to identify with or learn from them, so cannot gain any knowledge to prepare us for our own experience of ageing. Instead we turn away from our future selves.”
She says ageist misogyny has always existed, but that this has become more intractable nowadays because “it frequently masquerades as feminism”. She argues: “Older women, just by virtue of being older, are associated with a ‘more sexist’ past and thus appear complicit in a sexism which, of course, is on its way out. They are ‘dinosaurs’. Raging against them can feel like a break with the patriarchal past. The target of misogyny becomes an emblem for it. Get rid of her, and the problem is solved.” In this scenario, older women are painted as losers, past their prime, undesirable, not worth caring about and the message given to younger women is don’t worry, ‘you will never be them’. In this way, argues Smith, misogyny is ‘outsourced’ and internalised.
At the centre of the book is the current stand-off between feminists [dubbed ‘gender critical feminists’] – many of whom tend to be older – and the younger generation over the trans issue. For Smith, feminism works as a movement because there is agreement on what women have in common and that this is informed by a variety of different experiences – from childbirth to the menopause – which affect them at work and outside it.
The book is not just about that debate, which has become extremely polarised, however. For Smith it is about the silencing of older women through abusive language and threats and how these frame older women, which she terms ‘hag hate’, as well as the way ageism is ‘weaponised’ in that debate to prevent women coming together. Smith rails in particular against the term ‘terf’ used against so-called gender critical feminists which she says “follows a particular pattern of justifying violence against older women as an act of virtue”. But she is also concerned about other ways that she says language is used to silence women, for instance, the use of the word Karen to denote a certain type of supposedly privileged woman.
Smith’s main argument is that each generation of feminists is taught to disregard the one that came before. Girls, she says, are often encouraged not to empathise with their mothers, to think that they will do things differently and that it is somehow their mothers’ fault that they have ended up in lower paid jobs with less status.
She recalls growing up in the 1970s and 80s with an image of women that was either the traditional carer model or the shoulder-padded career woman. You had to choose, she says. You couldn’t have it all. That was the impression given, she says. And yet feminists at the time like bell hooks were debating these issues, talking about family life in a nuanced way – as a place of liberation for black women rather than being simply about domestic imprisonment. “There were so many different ideas fizzing about, but the narratives that came through to the mainstream were lacking in nuance,” says Smith.
She is keen to point out that she doesn’t want to suggest that all young women reject the older generation and succumb to its demonisation. And she agrees that, in part, the rejection of older women by some of their younger counterparts is just part of growing up and becoming independent. “I sometimes feel I am in dialogue with my younger self,” she says, adding that she herself viewed the feminists who came before her as somehow responsible for the ‘traps’ they got caught in rather than attempting to understand how that happened. In fact, she feels younger women today are maybe more aware of this tendency and that there is a possibility of greater empathy between the generations. At one point she talks, for instance, of the parallels between the fear of puberty, of becoming a woman, and the fear of the menopause, of becoming an older woman.
Smith talks about her own experiences of starving herself to stave off becoming a woman and all that goes with that and says she understands why someone might want to be gender neutral or change gender. But she says that in the end it is futile to deny the body and she worries about taking life-changing decisions at a time of exploration, self-doubt and enormous emotional upheaval.
Smith has had really positive feedback about the book so far. “It seems to have struck a nerve,” she states. One reason is that women are angry about the lack of progress when it comes to sharing unpaid labour, with middle-aged women often carrying the bulk of the load, particularly the so-called sandwich carers who have young children and look after older relatives.
In the book, Smith cites one writer, Ada Calhoun, on the sandwich generation effect on women: “I prefer to think of it as being on a rack, wrists and ankles tied to opposite ends, with two pulls every strengthening.” Smith remarks: “It shouldn’t be this way” and calls domestic inequality and the imbalance of unpaid labour “a form of theft”.
What matters, she argues, is that women talk to each other about all of these issues, and across the generations, rather than denigrating each other. Smith adds that the lack of value attributed to older women is symptomatic of how we value people at all stages of their lives. She writes: “When we constantly short-circuit the passage of knowledge between generations, or dismiss the importance of the body, or demonise dependency and human connections, or render the formation of communities suspect, we devalue some of the most important things we can do as human beings, male or female.”
The book finishes with a direct appeal to younger women in a rallying cry against ageism and against the silencing of older women. Smith ends: “Ageism is a story we tell ourselves about who we are and might be; given that every feminist achievement so far has been based on women disbelieving the old stories about ourselves, we are more than capable of doing this in relation to age.”