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From sexism to ageism, older women say Us Too



The #MeToo movement, exposing harassment and abuse through personal stories, was no surprise to me. I couldn't be less surprised at the scale and depth of subjugation women still experience. But we must also recognise that women's disadvantage is a continuum where sexism meets ageism.

Older womanWomen move through time in society experiencing unwanted, threatening attention because they're deemed sexually attractive, and then towards oblivion because they aren't. Our presence, like our bones, becomes more porous every year over 40. It's beyond time for sexual harassment to end, but it's also time to address the fact that women's disadvantage endures through all our life stages.

It was the early 1980s. 'Nice having you,' said the surgeon, dripping with double-entendre. It was more to his grinning anaesthetist than to me. I'd spent the morning, as a first year nursing student, nervously observing a surgery. At 18, and as green as the scrubs everyone wore, I would have been less shocked if someone had yelled abuse at me for bumping a sterile field.

But the shock fades. We all know the feeling. The walking into a bar feeling. The walking past a group of men feeling. The being the only woman on public transport feeling. And the internet feels hostile if you bump into organised anti-woman sentiment like Men Going Their Own Way who think feminism is insidious and want to combat 'false rape' claims. If you search 'neckbeards' you'll find men railing against women for turning them down.

Even if nothing violent or especially humiliating has ever happened to us, we get the feeling through social osmosis that it might. And this feeling really doesn't leave us, even as we establish ourselves with credentials or experience.

My first boss in education was a gently spoken, popular man. I felt uncomfortable when I returned to work after hurting my back and he offered to give me a massage. I don't know if he'd trained in shiatsu. I don't know if he was just empathetic about my pain. It really doesn't matter. No boss, regardless of relationship status, can offer a massage in any way that makes it a neutral thing. It's okay to give someone the number of your favourite masseuse, but it's wrong to suggest getting hands on.

In the 90s I became a mother. Some mothers are described as 'yummy mummies'. This means that, in spite of being a mother, you're still worth sexual consideration. This is expressed more directly by MILF and S[ingle]MILF, the latter the title of a confronting 2017 television series which examines some of life's realities for mothers in a darkly accurate way.


"Moving from sexual object towards sexual oblivion is compounded by financial concerns, particularly if you're newly single."


Fast forward, to me teaching my son to drive and venturing into a car accessories shop. All we needed was to replace the L plate that had come unstuck. A simple purchase, you'd think.

There was an older man behind the counter and one sitting on a chair in front; a routine 'shooting the breeze' arrangement. My son took the plates we'd found out of the packet and went outside to install them while I paid. The shop was otherwise empty. 'She looks like a nurse,' said the man on the chair. I mentally checked myself, wondering what it was about me that still suggested sponge bath after all this time.

'She might give you mouth-to-mouth,' said the man behind the counter. He had my $20 note but was stalling about getting my change. Afterwards, making the ordeal my fault, I rebuked myself for being stupid enough to wait for $15 change.

Thankfully, that shop, with its Buy One, Get Entrapment Free policy, is gone now. I'm just glad my son didn't have to witness how paying went unexpectedly awry, because he's more than smart enough to have understood it. 

Now, in my 50s, my sexuality is irrelevant to society, but this doesn't mean I'm safe, because the risk of poverty for my age group is increasing. Boomer divorces have doubled between 1990 and 2010. This 'grey divorce' trend means more women will work longer or be looking for work in a youth-focused economy with a shorter, disjointed CV, belatedly trying to boost their lower superannuation balance. Some will even find themselves homeless and couch surfing.

Discrimination against women doesn't stop when wrinkles start; it just changes. The gender gap in opportunities and respect doesn't narrow as women get older. There's no safety in ageing, although the threats may appear less explicit and receive less publicity. Moving from sexual object towards sexual oblivion is compounded by financial concerns, particularly if you're newly single. It's more challenging to age gracefully when you're poor.

So we need to widen the lens and look at women's experience over their lifetime to really see a fuller picture of women's cultural and structural disadvantage that isn't just a younger woman's tale. It's time older women say 'Us Too'.



Jennifer PontJennifer Pont is a part-time carer, part-time student and part-time education worker from Ballarat, Vic.

Topic tags: Jennifer Pont, sexual harassment, ageism, #MeToo



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Existing comments

I understand only too well what you are saying Jennifer. I am an older woman and hope to reach an age where I'm even older. And wiser. One thing does give me some hope for younger women: my son's girlfriend is feisty and intelligent, and outspoken. He's very lucky.

Pam | 18 April 2018  

A great article Jennifer. I am a man but I have had a mother and have a sister, wife, two daughters and 5 grand-daughters, so I care greatly about the abuse of women by men with power. When Jesus talked about divorce He seemed mainly concerned about wives being "dumped" by their husbands and the terrible damage that caused, then as now. The Church by focusing on divorce in a mainly generalised and legalistic way has, I believe, lost the bigger message here. And secular society prefers not to dwell on divorce as abuse of women, which it so frequently is.

Eugene | 18 April 2018  

Your words, alas, ring all too true. Thank you for elucidating this predicament of older women, which is so often ignored or overlooked.

Jena Woodhouse | 19 April 2018  

I was stalked as a 20 year old. Fell awkwardly, still have knee problems. I thought the inappropriate touching would stop at age 55, but between 60-65 two different men on three different occasions decided I was fair game. So it doesn't stop when you're older, it keeps on happening.

Helen | 19 April 2018  

Thank you for describing your experiences, Jennifer. Same pathetic men using their position or group to prey on the unsuspecting. They are the ones that need to be made less comfortable. I will keep raising this issue.

Andrew | 20 April 2018  

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