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28 February 2023

The uncomfortable truths of Hag feminism

Assertive older women are treated like they shouldn’t exist.

By Ellen Pasternack

Ageing is not the same for women as it is for men. Men might fear death, and the frailty and weakness that comes before it. But for women, long before the onset of old age comes something just as fearful: a precipitous and irreversible loss of status.

Women in middle age are far from elderly; most of their adult lives are still ahead of them. But, says Victoria Smith in Hags: The Demonisation of Middle-aged Women, once women are no longer young they are inevitably seen not only as past their expiry dates but also annoying, useless, entitled and embarrassing. Oh, and ugly of course.

Patriarchal narratives state that what Smith terms the “three Fs” (“femininity, fertility, fuckability”) are what women are for. A woman who loses these while remaining not only alive but perhaps even thriving and assertive is an affront, a glitch in the matrix – like a car that stops driving and “has started talking instead”. When confronted by this, we face a choice. We can update what we think a car is (it turns out cars don’t just drive – they can talk as well!), or we can attack or ignore the talking car, perhaps denying that it is a car at all, because Cars Don’t Talk.

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It is the latter option that is often favoured when it comes to older women. A friend of mine was recently told in all seriousness by a male acquaintance that she would be “less of a woman” after menopause, and this attitude is widely replicated by those who think on some level that “woman” doesn’t mean “human of the female sex” but rather “human that a heterosexual man might like to have sex with”.

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The current biological consensus to explain the menopause is the “grandmother hypothesis”: at a certain point in a woman’s life cycle, the expected evolutionary benefit to her is greater if she focuses on supporting whatever offspring she already has, rather than attempting to produce any more. In other words, it is because of the significance of women’s contributions in later life that the menopause exists. Nevertheless, says Smith, much research and discussion about menopause has carried an implied question of “why haven’t these bitches died yet?”.

When women first approach adulthood, a certain social currency based upon sexual appeal is bestowed upon them. This is not something they ask for, and it is a tool that can be frightening and dangerous to have possession of, like a loaded gun thrust into your hands – and not just any gun, but a temperamental one that carries a risk of exploding in your face. But attractive young women are a hot commodity, and can expect in general to be treated favourably and to occupy positions of higher social status. For those women, it is much more comfortable to believe that the positive attention that flows towards you is due to your own attributes as a person – like the teenager who thinks an older man is interested in her because she is so mature – than to believe that you will sooner or later be discarded and replaced.

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The prospect of losing this powerful sexual currency is a lonely one when we are considered to be worth little without it. This leads to a visceral horror in many women at the thought of physically ageing. In Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” a woman’s older self is a malevolent bogeyman: something that “rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish” from the depths of the looking-glass. To ward off the spectre of the old women we will one day become, women spend hundreds and thousands of pounds on serums and ointments, on having our bodies injected and cut and sliced and stitched. If only we research carefully, identify the right cosmetological regime and stick to it religiously enough, then perhaps the terrible fish won’t come for us.

Smith cites the figure that over 90 per cent of cosmetic surgery patients are women, “as though somehow, quite reasonably, we are the ones most in need of repair”. For women, but not for men, the healthy, normal body of a person in midlife is considered shamefully wrong, so that while it’s not possible to look twenty years old forever, at least “handing over the cash” shows willingness to try. This social nicety of apologising for the ageing female face is much like covering one’s mouth to yawn.

Hag-hate, Smith argues, is driven by the female fear of ageing, and young women’s consequent desire to disidentify with the generations that went before them. We want to reassure ourselves that, though we might age, we will never truly be like the older women we see around ourselves today. I am like this; she is like that. When she was young, she surely couldn’t have been as smart and enlightened, as vibrant and alive, as I am today. I will not allow the currency of youth to slip through my fingers, as she so foolishly has done.

This is especially possible in an age where, as Smith points out, we tend to see our bodies as customisable meat suits that are meant to reflect our true selves, and “few people think their true self looks like a middle-aged woman”. Around twenty years ago, I remember observing with horror my mother’s elbows; they were dry and wrinkly, like those of most adults, and in contrast to my own perfectly smooth child-limbs. My elbows will never be like that, I thought. My logic, I think, went something like this: I would hate for my elbows to look like that, so how could they, when I would hate it so much? Similarly, we can tell ourselves that we couldn’t bear to be seen as ugly, stupid and irrelevant, and so we surely won’t be. By extension, then, if older women are seen that way, then it must be that they can bear it, perhaps because it is an accurate assessment.

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Psychologists call this pattern of thought “splitting”: situating exaggerated good or bad traits in one individual or group to avoid confronting them elsewhere, a form of compartmentalisation that allows us to maintain a comfortably familiar view of the world and our place in it. This splitting by young women is mirrored by splitting on the level of the whole of society. Smith argues that the middle-aged woman “becomes a repository of sorts”, representing and thus containing many of our fears about the inevitability of dependency, infirmity and death.

This is where some readers may find that Hags becomes a little more far-fetched, but I think there’s truth in it. For those of us in younger generations, middle-aged women remind us of our own mothers, and of mothers in general – the women to whom every person on earth owes their existence. To the extent that this is a debt, it is one that can never be repaid and, all too often, people’s response to the vulnerability of being indebted is to denigrate the giver in an attempt to regain the upper hand.

The idea that the person who gave birth to you, breastfed you, dealt with your tantrums and taught you how to use a toilet is a human being with an inner life just as rich as your own is an indignity too much for some people – some men, especially – to bear, the ultimate case of being beaten by a girl. Therefore, women’s link to physical dependency must mean they are purely physical creatures, incapable of interpreting their own experiences – “too stupid to understand their own jokes”, as Smith puts it. The life of the mind belongs to men. Women may be given guest access, as long as they are not yet subsumed into that “bovine” mass of middle-aged mothers.

As we grow older, there’s often an accumulation of experiences that show us, in many different ways, that it’s a man’s world. Physical and economic infrastructure is built for male bodies and male life cycles; male perspectives and experiences are favoured and treated as the default at every turn.

Then, at a certain age, not only have you learned that the game is rigged, but you can’t play any more in any case. You’re “cast out from the patriarchal meat market”. It makes sense that women in this position have different insights than their younger counterparts. And they are also less hesitant to share them: people care less what others think of them when whatever approval they once stood to lose has dwindled. Differences in the feminist politics typical of older and younger women (such as views on pornography, or transgender issues) should be understood in these terms, says Smith, not the convenient assumption that older generations are just incorrigibly narrow-minded.

When we’re young, we might subscribe to the naive exceptionalism that says our generation is different: if the women of the past were treated unfairly, it’s because they didn’t think to request anything different, or “maybe they had asked, but they hadn’t asked nicely”. Every cohort of young people likes to believe they were the first to invent sex, and their parents Just Don’t Get It. But women who have been adults for longer have seen it all before. If you recall that women have already “resorted to ‘asking nicely with sufficient evidence while on slutwalks with our tits out’”, then you’re less likely to believe that what we need to finally stop sexual victimisation is even fewer boundaries.

Any time older women are critical of the impact of unrestrained male sexuality on women and children (as Smith illustrates, this is a pattern that recurs again and again over the centuries), they are cast as dried-up old prudes, jealous of younger women’s sexiness and popularity – the witch who hexes an innocent baby because she is so bitter not to have been invited to a party. In the original Sleeping Beauty the princess is woken not by love’s true kiss but by giving birth after having been impregnated in her sleep. This story is one that spells it out: what the young woman needed to counteract the malign influence of her older peer was a good seeing to.

Is there any hope for hags, and by extension for all of us? Yes, says Smith. The best-kept secret among women is not, as Germaine Greer would have it, “how much men hate them”, but “how much other women don’t hate them”. All women, unless they die young, will live to see themselves become hags. If we can overcome the divide-and-conquer messaging that alienates hags from the rest of us, we will find new allies among other women and in our own selves.

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