For Books’ Sake Talks To: Lynne Segal
11th Apr 2014
As the average life expectancy increases, concerns such as love over sixty, death and loss and the difficulties of intergenerational feminism are bubbling to the forefront of contemporary discourse.
Author Lynne Segal, 69, was a prominent feminist activist in London from 1970 onwards. Writing about ageing was hardly a glamorous project, she explains: ‘I had to overcome my own inhibitions, which is exactly what Simone de Beauvoir said in Old Age – everybody told her not to write it. Now, the situation [for older women] is not as bad as it was in the 1960s, when she was writing, but I don’t think it’s changed fundamentally yet.’
According to Segal, simply facing the problem of ageism is the best way to overcome it. ‘The only way to tackle it is to sort of embrace it,’ she explains, ‘which is the same with every stigma, really, like sexism or racism. To ageism you have to say, “Yes, we’re old and proud now” – one always has to try and turn it around.’
As a former psychologist, Segal found the most joyful aspect of ageing was our capacity to remember life: ‘Memory survives, even in dementia.
Oddly, it’s old memories that survive longest. In the book, I write about people who’ve written about dealing with dementia and how they can be playful together – you can, for instance, go back into the old songs they loved.’
She praises Penelope Lively’s new book Ammonites and Leaping Fish during the interview, but takes issue with the author’s problem with becoming more dependent as she ages.
‘Lively said that when you’re old you’re nothing but a drain on the community and you give nothing back,’ she recalls. ‘I don’t know why she said that because it’s really echoing the main ageist assumption of the moment, which is that old people have nothing to give. Many old people now end up on their own and ignored, and that’s one of the big issues that we have to address now.’
Say to yourself, "When I’m old, I’m not going to be an object of desire in the same way I always objected to when I was young. I won’t be leered at or have my bottom pinched."But suffering in old age – physical pain, loss of loved ones, loss of youth and fear of death – also poses a serious challenge to what Segal calls ‘the happiness industry’, and calls for us to reconsider what we mean by joyfulness or happiness:
‘How “happy” you are seems to be a facile thing compared to something around meaning and significance in life, something around feeling connected to the world,’ she explains. ‘You may feel angry and cross and indeed you may personally suffer, but never the less you may be able to feel something, and know how you feel about yourself and the world.’
She mentions Out of Time’s chapter on mourning, and strategies we develop in old age to channel pain – for example, after grieving we learn to keep loved ones ‘alive’ in our memory.
Lynne Segal also mentions Adrienne Rich, who used her own physical pain as an arthritis sufferer to meditate on other people’s pain. Living with suffering, Segal says, ‘seems to be a way of being alive – an important and significant way of being alive.’
In terms of the political priorities for feminists, she thinks the movement ought to spend more time focusing on the role of the carer – both relative or friend-carers and those working professionally as carers.
But perhaps the biggest challenge ageing poses to feminism is the problem of having successful conversations across the generations. The author is surprisingly pragmatic on the subject.
‘I don’t think it’s easy,’ Lynne Segal smiles. ‘It’s easy to say we should be inclusive of everybody but one has to recognise that it’s not easy and not everybody is easily loveable, or even likeable, particularly if they’re feeling bitter or resentful. But it’s easier to think first of all, and then simply do what de Beauvoir said in her book on ageing – that we must stop cheating.’
For example, she jokes that young women might miss their sexy younger selves when they age: ‘Say to yourself, “When I’m old, I’m not going to be an object of desire in the same way I always objected to when I was young. I won’t be leered at or have my bottom pinched.” Some women realise they miss it – but I don’t know if young feminists will like that! It’s all very well to say now, “Don’t treat me as a sex object” but one day you might.’
She challenged readers to learn to accept the ageing process by looking at old people they admired: ‘At the very least, we must think about it – you know, “I’m going to get old” – and think about who one admires who’s old. Often one does admire a person precisely because they’ve stayed true to themselves in old age, for example – obviously [Nelson] Mandela is someone of importance for many people. For women, it’s often another woman that they will think about.’
‘This can be done superficially – you can declare it as a principle and say, “I see nothing wrong with growing old, I have no problems with it”, but on the whole we are terribly worried about growing old, about mortality, becoming more dependent and less vigorous.’
Finally, she called for supporters of equal rights to recognise and protest the problem of ageism in our society: ‘There are all sorts of things to fear about ageing, but our fears have been hugely amplified by the age prejudices of our culture from the beginning of time.
‘Just as people are told you won’t ever really escape racism, it is in a sense implanted into us. But we can pull out, look at it and say how hateful it is. So let’s begin by trying to expose ageism, and turn it around insofar as we can.’
Out of Time is out now from Foyles, Verso, or your local bookshop.