#190 A Revindication of Middle-Aged Women with Victoria Smith, author of ‘HAGS’

May 17, 2023 FiLiA Episode 190
#190 A Revindication of Middle-Aged Women with Victoria Smith, author of ‘HAGS’
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#190 A Revindication of Middle-Aged Women with Victoria Smith, author of ‘HAGS’
May 17, 2023 Episode 190

Feminist author Victoria Smith discusses her first book, ‘Hags’, about the demonisation of middle-aged women with FiLiA Spokeswoman Raquel Rosario Sánchez. Smith discusses the experiences which raised her awareness to the way middle-aged women are invisibilised and dismissed under patriarchy around the world, as well her understanding of the tropes designed to further vilify this cohort of women. A thoughtful thinker and compassionate writer, this book represents an enraging call to action for everyone, to revindicate our past and create a better future for all women, throughout middle-age and beyond.

Victoria Smith is a writer and creator of the Glosswitch newsletter. She has been a regular contributor to the New Statesman and the Independent, focussing on women’s issues, parenting and mental health. She has also written for Mumsnet, featured on panels at their Blogfest, and has made appearances on Woman’s Hour to discuss female body image. Her newsletter The OK Karen, focused on midlife women’s experiences of feminism, was launched in 2020, and she is particularly interested in how experiences of power and misogyny change as we age.

Originally from Cumbria, she now lives in Cheltenham with her family. She is working towards achieving full venerable crone status before she hits fifty.

You can follow Victoria Smith's commentary on Twitter and read her regular insights on women’s rights at The Critic. You can purchase Hags from most bookstores, and you can easily find it at our FiLiA Feminist Library.

Show Notes Transcript

Feminist author Victoria Smith discusses her first book, ‘Hags’, about the demonisation of middle-aged women with FiLiA Spokeswoman Raquel Rosario Sánchez. Smith discusses the experiences which raised her awareness to the way middle-aged women are invisibilised and dismissed under patriarchy around the world, as well her understanding of the tropes designed to further vilify this cohort of women. A thoughtful thinker and compassionate writer, this book represents an enraging call to action for everyone, to revindicate our past and create a better future for all women, throughout middle-age and beyond.

Victoria Smith is a writer and creator of the Glosswitch newsletter. She has been a regular contributor to the New Statesman and the Independent, focussing on women’s issues, parenting and mental health. She has also written for Mumsnet, featured on panels at their Blogfest, and has made appearances on Woman’s Hour to discuss female body image. Her newsletter The OK Karen, focused on midlife women’s experiences of feminism, was launched in 2020, and she is particularly interested in how experiences of power and misogyny change as we age.

Originally from Cumbria, she now lives in Cheltenham with her family. She is working towards achieving full venerable crone status before she hits fifty.

You can follow Victoria Smith's commentary on Twitter and read her regular insights on women’s rights at The Critic. You can purchase Hags from most bookstores, and you can easily find it at our FiLiA Feminist Library.

Raquel: Hello everyone. Welcome to the FiLiA podcast. My name is Raquel Rosario Sánchez and I am the spokeswoman for FiLiA. Today we are absolutely delighted to speak with Victoria Smith. We'll be speaking with Victoria about her new book called Hags. Victoria is a regular writer for The Critic and many other publications.

She focuses on women's issues, parenting and mental health, her newsletter ‘The OK Karen’ is about midlife women's experiences of feminism. It was launched last year and she tweets @glosswitch on social media. She lives in Cheltenham with her family. 

Victoria. First of all, how are you? 

Victoria: I'm fine, thank you. And you? 

Raquel: I'm doing okay. I'm okay. Let's start, there's a number of questions I want to ask you about your book, but you know, first of all, you wrote an insightful and searing book about the way that middle-aged women and beyond are demonised under patriarchy. And I want to start by a very simple question to ask a writer, you know, what does it feel like to publish a book that truly seems to have touched a nerve?

You know, your book has been getting glowing reviews after glowing reviews. And as a writer, you know, like, tell us what that's like. 

Victoria:  I suppose, I mean, it's kind of like it's two different feelings. Like I'm, you know, I'm glad in a way that it's not just me. I had this fear that people might go, actually, you know, it's just you who feels this way, you're oversensitive. We're all right. But at the same time, it's sad that a lot of women do feel this way as well because it shows it is a problem and that there is this feeling of being marginalised, being demonised, and being told to be quiet that a lot of women have been feeling. And so, yeah, it's kind of mixed.

You know, I'm kind of, I'm glad that I've been able to articulate it, but it's kind of sad that it needs articulating. 

Raquel: And it really has been, I mean, you do wonder as a writer, I wonder if you thought, is this going to really resonate with women or am I going to be kind of alone but you got excellent reviews from The Guardian, from the Times, from everyone, I think from The Observer too. It did really touch people. So I want to go right to the beginning.

Your book is, is described as this righteous polemic that is questioning why are older women treated with disdain? And I want to start from the very beginning of when did you notice growing up as a girl, when did you notice that things are not going to get better for women, or were not going to get better as we age, but tht rather they were going to be become much worse the more that the clock ticks, because if you're a young woman, and this is something that you explain in the book. If you're a young woman, you sort of don't identify or you are socialised to reject all of these narratives that are created around older women precisely because you want to escape that.

But then at one point you decided, oh actually this is kind of the future for me as I age. Was that something that you realized in your teenage years or early twenties, thirties? Tell us about that. 

Victoria: I mean, I think it's something I definitely realized quite late on because in many ways for me, the kind of way in which younger and older women are taught to mistrust one another and we're separated from one another, and we're kind of conditioned to build different alliances, which keep us apart.

For me, it became very intermeshed with the way I understood feminism when I was younger.  In the book I kind of write about, so my generation's feminism was the kind of generation X, I mean, just after the second wave and a lot of ideas about feminism were being transmitted through popular culture and the news, you were getting a lot of things second-hand and not actually going back to the actual second wave texts and listening to what older women were saying. But just having this second-hand narrative about feminism and assuming, certainly I assume that I kind of knew what it was all about. 

And I think I had this idea in my head certainly, as a teenager in the nineties and in my early twenties, that what feminism would do would be that it, it would enable me not to end up in the same position as women of my mother's generation, so that it would offer me this path. it wasn't a way of, feeling solidarity with women across generations, but it was actually this kind of method of regeneration so that we would be freer better women and that we wouldn't fall into the same traps they did.

And you know, I think certainly, feminism does achieve progress and there are lots of things I've been able to do in my life that I wouldn't have been able to do if it hadn't been for the gains made for the women who came before me. 

I think this narrative that because of the feminists who went before we’ll be better women who do different things and we will kind of almost achieve more self-realisation than they did, can actually become quite toxic in a way if it leads you to kind of be dismissive of their experiences.

And also not to foresee that while the feminist gains of the past have given us a lot of opportunities that we didn't have before, we know that opportunities can be rolled back. We're seeing it across the globe that abortion rights, rights to education, you know, these things can be given, they can be taken away again and, or rather not given, but they can be won and then they can be stolen.

But also that there are things that you will still happen to you that you think maybe, oh, equality's done and this isn't going to happen to me, but actually inequality is not just one event in your life. It's kind of all these cumulative events building up as well. And actually you can end up in the same position that you saw other women in when you were younger.

And it's only then that you think, oh, that's why it happened. You know, it's not, that these women chose to end up there because they're more conservative than me, or because they didn't have the same feminism as me, or, you know, they're not as enlightened as me. The same things can happen to you because actually inequality and the exploitation of women is really complicated and it's so embedded in so many different structures and relationships that we experience in our lives. 

Raquel: You talk in the book about the waves and particularly you talk about the sex wars. The sex wars of the 1980s. 

Do you think that the concept of feminist waves is useful and relevant, or do you think that this was something that happened in time in a particular time and that it was important to have that differentiation?

Because, for example, I'm from the Dominican Republic and what I have noticed in Spanish speaking feminism is that we didn't live through the waves the same way that the United States and the United Kingdom went through the waves, but because they were so influential in those countries, other countries in the periphery, like for example, a country in the Caribbean, we find ourselves having to sort of adopt these definitions. Even though the events and incidents and things that make the wave, like the waves are made of publications that really revolutionise the way that the movement is going or incidents. For example, the burning of the factory in New York, that led to the call of action, that started the International Day of the Woman, March 8th.

You know, these incidents really marked the movement in specific countries and times. But then in other countries you find yourself sort of trying to catch up with the way that the US or the UK are understanding feminism. And in this point in time, are they even relevant? Are the waves even relevant?

And then how do we describe this moment in time in which we have the women's movement that has been, in several ways infiltrated by patriarchy itself? 

Victoria: Certainly I use the waves as a kind of way of defining feminism of the seventies and eighties as different from the kind of feminism that my generation, if you can call it, feminism, sort of started to build on in the nineties kind of becoming the third wave narrative.

And I agree with you that it's a very Anglo and Eurocentric way of seeing the world and understanding feminism. And also it becomes a shorthand that's kind of used in a double edged way. Like second, second wave is often used dismissively by people who like, have this idea that it's kind of a very one-sided way of man hating, you know, sex phobic, a lot of stereotypes about the man hating, evil, bigoted, feminist is kind of tied to second wave as well. And it's become kind of a caricature in some circles. And as well, there's been a lot of talk about the way in which having this wave narrative also feeds into this idea, that whereas men just have history, you know, and it's kind of adding stones to and adding knowledge which qualifies or changes prior knowledge. And it's this constant changing thing. 

Whereas women have things that are transient and kind of happen and then they fall back. And it's this sense our knowledge doesn't last. You have your wave and then it goes away again and you have to start from scratch. And you know that we don't really have a legacy in quite the same way, that we have kind of fashions rather than lasting historical legacies and lasting bodies of knowledge that actually interact with one another and build on one another. 

And I think that that's the thing that plays into patriarchy as well, because it's a way of treating women as not really as serious in that way. 

You have the second wave kind of understood it in these snapshots, like the bra burning, but it's kind of the fact that actually, if you look at a lot of second wave texts, they don't all agree with each other and they're looking at all sorts of different issues, and there was a lot of fracturing and lots of fractionalisation between the different groups.

Astrid Henry writes about it in terms of the sex wars, you kind of have this being between women who thought different things at the same time. And it's somehow ended up being seen as kind of like there were the women of the past with their aggressive ideas who lost because sex work won and porn won.

So it becomes this kind of ideological and intergenerational rather than intra-generational battle that misrepresents what was happening. 

What's interesting now is that you had, kind of in the early nineties, Rebecca Walker writing about becoming the third wave and this idea that, you know, my generation were kind of this new wave of feminism and we would almost take the things we wanted from the second wave, but add our own and we would build on it and kind of, and it was almost from its inception, even the fact that it was Rebecca Walker as Alice Walker's daughter, you know, is this kind of slightly kicking back at the mother from the very start and this kind of wheel reinvent everything.

But it's ended up in quite a strange place. I remember about 10 years ago, when online feminism was becoming very popular, people were talking more and more about, is it the fourth wave now? But actually that's kind of died down and it's kind of, people aren't, is this a third wave? People aren't really sure now how to define it, but it's kind of, once you've reached a certain stage, it's you're written off a second wave or considered second wave if you don't have the right views, because that's kind of become synonymous with criticising pornography and the sex trade.

And, you know, it's become synonymous with radical feminist views, which challenge male sexual entitlement and surrogacy and things like that. Whereas sort of liberal feminism or third wave feminism, whatever you want to call it, has become so enmeshed with patriarchy at the moment.

It's very hard to define it at all. I find it's got this rhetoric of radicalism that doesn't bear any real relationship to the actual beliefs that are being promoted. That seem to me a lot of them just directed at justifying the same entitlements that feminism wanted to challenge.

Raquel: That's precisely what I wanted to touch upon in my next question. Your book is not precisely about wave history and the feminist movement itself, but you do touch a lot on all these different changes and I wonder if what you just described, this sort of tearing down of the previous generation, do you see a connection between the demonisation of middle-aged women and the way that the wave's narrative in the feminist movement is sort of designed so that the next wave sort of deconstructs the previous wave?

You write, for example, about The New Feminist, which was published in 1999. And the question the book was asking, questions such as, can a woman dress like a mannequin and be a feminist? Can she have rape fantasies and be a feminist? Can she buy pornography and be a feminist? Can she be a prostitute and a feminist? Can she be a conservative voter and a feminist? Can she be a millionaire and a feminist? And the answer to all of that was yes. So that feminist theories and thinking of that sort of decade as at least a far, as far as I can understand them, it seems like the, the ethos was yes to everything and everything can be feminist.

You know, those famous t-shirts that said ‘this is what a feminist look like’. And literally anyone could wear it. 

Are the waves bound to just deconstruct the work that came before it? Because before that book, there was Sheila Jeffries, who is completely different ideologically.

Victoria:  I think the waves narrative really does feed into that and it kind of separating different strands of feminism from each other.

One thing I keep seeing quite a lot of on social media is this idea that that's old-fashioned feminism. That feminism belonged in the past. That's old lady feminism. It was one way in which I saw it used. And it's this idea that, that some feminist ideas just go out of style. And it's very weird because the idea that women are human, that we deserve our own bodily integrity, that we deserve our own rights and our own spaces and our own boundaries. It's not a fashion. It's not something that people thought once, and there's now been scientifically disproven, but it's, it's almost treated as though, that in the past people thought that, but now we've, now we've realised that wasn't the case. 

I was talking about recently with my partner, we both met when we were doing PhDs, and one thing he was saying that he didn't like about academia was this constant pressure to produce something new. That sometimes you might think something was right in your research, but if it wasn't new, if it wasn't different from what people had said before, no one would be interested. So you'd sometimes be almost obliged to sort of invent things or disagree with someone for the sake of it. And sometimes I feel that in feminism that there's this constant like, oh, the second wave, we've got to improve on it because obviously it must have been something wrong with the second wave if like, we haven't got equality yet, we need to kind of revise those ideas.

But actually a lot of the ideas about women's boundaries and what women are and what our bodies mean, they're not incorrect ideas. The reason we don't have the freedom that we wanted is because men don't want to give it to us. It's not because we conceived of our arguments wrongly. And I think there is this kind of sense that, oh, if we revise it, if we change it, if we rethink feminism, then we'll win.

And I think the problem isn't how we framed things or how we've understood ourselves and our needs. The problem is that we're saying no to men and they don't like it fundamentally. And, that does make it in many ways a more difficult problem. If the problem was that first wavers were conceptually a bit wrong and second wavers, if they were all just middle class bigots who didn't really understand what women needed and actually they were secretly all conservative anyways, if that was the problem it would be a lot easier to solve than actually facing up to the fact that we have made these arguments again and again. And men might say they're amenable to them, but they're not necessarily. 

Raquel: It’s a little bit like patriarchy itself is refusing to change, but instead of modifying its own behaviour, it is the women who have to keep running in this like a rat wheel, you know, keep running and trying to invent new things and come up with new concepts. And it's like, actually it is not the women who need to be changing. It is the patriarchal structures that need to be accepting women's humanity. Right? 

Victoria: Yes. And it, and it's much easier to put it all on us. One of the points I make in the book, it's kind of easier to kind of tell women that maybe like the reason that like for older women we don't have equal pensions. We have massive pay gap. We do a lot of the unpaid work, you know, and, and it's easy to kind of keep portraying that as a kind of hangover from old style patriarchy and pretend that with this new generation, it's going to be all different as long as just wait your turn. And as long as you don't say anything offensive and as long as you follow all these strange rules about what language you're allowed to use, you know, you'll get what you deserve. But it's not happening because the men are very dependent still on treating us as just resources to be exploited.

Raquel: A very convenient way of sort of blaming the women for kind of like campaigning wrong. Oh, well you don't have equal pay because the campaigning strategies of the past were just not good enough. But if you tried this new strategy or if you tried these new campaigning things, then maybe you could get it this time instead of just like addressing the problem.

Victoria: Yes, I used to believe that quite strongly I think it was kind of wishful thinking on my part, certainly when I was younger, I felt that maybe the reason sexism was still existed when it was so obviously wrong, was because earlier women just hadn't argued for it in the right way. And maybe the reason they hadn't argued for it in the right way was because they were so enmeshed in patriarchy and so like still trapped by it in a way that I wasn't. You couldn't expect them to do that. But now that my generation was going to be more educated and more aware of just exactly how it functions, we would be able to make the case properly.

And I think that can be really attractive. And I think that's one of the reasons people like Judith Butler can be very attractive, that it's kind like, oh, this is a much more sophisticated way of seeing things that we didn't have before. Which on which I don't really think it is, but it's this kind, this attraction of something that seems very new and different and is making arguments in a different way can be something that you could really cling to rather than deal with the fact that it's just really, really slow and arduous to, to make changes and that whatever changes are made, you have to be constantly vigilant that they're not going to be undermined again.

As we're seeing now, so many of the things that we fought for are earlier women fought for and achieved, are being taken away or chipped away at and undermined well, but well basically by the argument that you can't define what woman is anyways, so these resources are available to everyone anyway.

That's something a lot of us weren't expecting to ever happen, but you have to constantly be watching for that. And one of the ways that's come about is through some areas of feminism being attracted to this, like lure of what's new and different. But actually it can end up being so different it isn't actually feminism anymore. 

Raquel: Something that's really refreshing about your book is that you admit to when your thinking changes throughout the years. And I think that that's really uncommon to have an author be completely honest about the fact that, you know what? I used to believe this thing and I was really in this sort of theory, but then I realised the flaws and then you walk the reader through your thought process from one position to another.

For example, you talk about how during the sex wars which is basically about prostitution and pornography and whether feminism should be for or against, or a little bit more complex than that. But, but the, the outcome of that, according to popular narrative is that the pornography and prostitution won, and then you sort of had to like deconstruct the arguments that you had made for thinking that that narrative was correct.

And I think that authors like women are taught, and you write this in the book, that women are taught to be really apologetic for ourselves. But I thought that when I read Hags, it was really refreshing to have an author who said, you know what? I used to believe that other thing, I myself was a part of that problem.

And then here's, I'm going to tell you, I'm going to walk you through how I came to this other way of thinking. Was that a conscious decision that you made? Sort of be humble and honest and let the reader into your thought process from one position to another? 

Victoria: Um, yeah. I find it slightly unsettling in that I think, oh gosh, you know, I'm so aware that I used to think this in the past and now I think this now, but how do I know what I think now is correct? And it might change again, 

but I think one of the things that drove me to want to write the book was this sense that, oh God, you know, all these things I used to think about older women or older feminism. I suddenly understand it now. And a lot of things that I thought about older women, I can see younger women think about me.

And it's this kind of realisation that Yeah, that I used to be part of the problem and it's also wanting to think about the difference, you know, I talk in the book about what is generational difference or cohort difference and what's actually lifecycle difference in terms of the opinions you might have and the belief you might have.

And I think a lot of the time when older women, you know, this idea that older middle-aged women today are these like bigoted and entitled Karens who have all these particular ideas, but the next generation of older women will, you know, they'll be fine. They'll just be like liberal young feminists in older bodies.

And I think that that struck me as very sort of implausible, given that all these kind of stereotypes about the kind of judgmental boundary setting older women, they're quite longstanding. They've been these kind of ideas that of like these judgmental prude figure has been applied to older women for so many generations and it, it seems unlikely to me that it's going to change.

And I think actually this idea, for instance, of the older woman as somebody who is more critical of male sexual entitlement, might be more willing to argue for safeguarding and the setting of boundaries, and then be denounced as some frigid prude because of it. I don't think that's because there's some flaw with my particular generation because we didn't grow up with enough sex positivity because we really did, you know, we had that thrown in our faces in the nineties.

I think what the difference is, to do with lifecycle and the fact that you go through certain experiences and your relationships with people change. A lot of it can be doing with caring relationships and having children and understanding things that you experienced when you were younger and maybe being critical of things you experienced when you were younger in a way that you simply couldn't afford to be critical of it when you were in the middle of it.

I think all those factors mean that you can believe quite different things as part of the process of getting older and building on different experiences and being in a different position in life. And I think we should actually value that knowledge. And it's quite hard in some ways to talk about it, I don't want to sound like patronising, ‘when you get to my age, you'll know this or that’.

But I do feel that there were certain things I couldn't afford to think when I was younger almost. It was just, it didn't feel safe to think them, and it is safer for me to think them now, so I don't want to sort of not express them.

Raquel: There were things that we just simply, we couldn't afford to think at a certain point in time, you know, but you are writing the book that you are in your late forties and then, a reader might think that this book would be written by a woman in her seventies or in her eighties, you know, like after I have lived this very long life, let me tell you, some people might argue, but she's still young and you have small children. You are at the pinnacle of your career. You have many, many years ahead of you. Like, why write Hags now? 

Victoria: I did have discussions sort of midway through writing it, you know, should it be like the demonisation of middle-aged women or should it be older women? I wanted to be quite specific that it should be middle-aged women because the experiences of someone in her seventies or eighties is very different to someone in their forties and fifties right now. And you know, someone in their seventies and eighties, you have books like Not Dead Yet by Renata Klein and Susan Hawthorne edited it.

Lots of feminists in their seventies are writing and their perspectives and their knowledge is very different to mine. I wanted that distinction to be clear because like in advertising, in kind of marketing segments. Like everyone under 40 gets divided. It's subdivided into all these little different little groups, but everyone over 40, you know, they're just kind of the old, and it's undifferentiated. Well, actually it is quite different depending on where you are. there's a lot of difference between someone in their forties and someone in their seventies.

And the other thing I wanted it to be particularly on middle-aged, because I wanted to kind of look at the similarities between how middle-aged women have been treated in the past and over time, but also look at these specific differences to do with Generation X and our very specific experiences of feminism coming just after all the activism that went on in the seventies and eighties, and then being this generation that kind of had all the raunchy feminism, all this kind of what was characterised as the third wave being presented to us as our feminism.

And this particularly strange experience of kind of suddenly finding ourselves in middle age. A lot of us having views that have changed because of our different position in life and suddenly being told we're the new prudish second wave tags when actually I just think a lot of the kind of liberal feminism that is colluding an awful lot with a lot of patriarchal ideas about male entitlement, it's had its seeds in a lot of the kind of what was being sold as feminists in the nineties. And I think that's particularly interesting as a generational thing. So it's that kind of comparison of what is a lifecycle difference and what is actually specific to a generation.

And yeah, I think Generation X’s relationship to feminism is quite interesting. 

Raquel: It, it really is a fascinating cohort of women because as you mentioned, the nineties and the early 2000s would've been the height of raunchy culture as Ariel Levy wrote and that was sold as this is the feminist utopia that we always wanted.

And then as you age you realise actually there were a lot of traps in that version of women's liberation. And, and you live through it. So it, it feels a little bit like a bubble, like encapsulating what middle age looks like for the women who live through that period and then face the structural reality of basically a patriarchy that was sold as liberation.

So you told us your idea of when did you realize that there was a future as a woman that meant you would become a hag, but then from the moment that you have this thought inside of your head to the moment that you make a decision, I want to write a book about it, can you tell us about the moment in which you decided, I feel so passionate about this topic and I want to really sink my teeth into it enough that I want to spend however long writing a book about it. 

Tell us about the moment when she decided I want to seriously write a book about this.

Victoria:  I think for me, it had quite a lot to do with sort of in 2020 the Guardian declared it, the Karen was like the word of the year. And it was a lot to do with the way in which Karen was being used as an insult to particularly white middle-aged women a lot. And there was kind of two things happening. it was being used to denounce racist, white middle-aged women, but it had kind of extended in meaning to just portray any woman who was middle-aged white and seemed a bit entitled or was complaining and it was kind of being used to kind of just stigmatise complaining while being in a middle-aged female body. And it, it kind of started to really,… I felt nervous about criticising it because it was one of these things that if you criticise Karen, you get called to Karen because the nature of being a Karen is criticising anything while middle-aged.

That really annoyed me because I was thinking, you know, it's this stage of life where a lot of women feel they're becoming more invisible sometimes in a good way and. In terms of not experiencing as much of objectification, but also in a negative way in that their voices aren't heard, that they're not represented as much in the media in stories on screen.

And then there's this whole kind of like ‘stop complaining’, you know, this whole mockery and way of making women feel uncomfortable about complaining and, and making them feel they need to be more quiet at a time when they're already feeling they're not listened to as much. And I was also getting this sense, as someone who'd written about feminism, that more and more of the way in which criticism of things that I believed was kind of couched in this kind of, ‘it's because of your age’ ‘it's because you are on the wrong side of history’ and I was actually thinking, but I actually I've worked, the things I believe now they're things I've worked through.

I didn't just like suddenly arrive in my mid-forties and get handed this handbook of like bigoted ideas that you think now you're old. It's this, what I think about feminism and the body and being a woman in the world on the rights that we need and the protections we need has changed over time because of things I've been through and things I've thought and the women I've spoken to and all these different things and all this is getting dismissed.

This idea of just idiot older women who just need to like shut up and if they go and chat anywhere, it should be on mum's net, but only talking about domestic stuff. I started to get more and more annoyed about it. 

Raquel: But then if the women speak on Mumsnet, that's a problem too, because I think you'd call it the plotting hag.

Women together and try to bond and find solidarity with women, it is used as a negative narrative, that women are up to something, you know, their thinking must still be controlled. And that's what's happening with Mumsnet. 

Victoria: It's like they're either mocked for talking about trivial things, but if they talk about politics, it's really sinister and they're not meant to be intelligent enough to have developed their own ideas as well.

They must be duped of the far right if they're going on Mumsnet and talking about gender identity or worrying about binders, you know, it's, it's, they need to be silenced and it just seems so obviously sexist to me, but it's this kind of, oh, I'm not a sexist cause I just mean the women on mumsnet now. I don't mean the next generation of feminist women, so it's all right. But it's, it's so clearly not. 

But then I can remember a time kind of, certainly when I was younger, being quite, as I mentioned in the book, being quite dismissive of like, W I and kind of other places where women of my mother's generation would gather and it'd be like, oh, well I won't need that sort of thing when I'm older.

This kind of distaste for women's gatherings is kind of domestic and conservative and low status. Yeah. I think can be filtered down when you're younger, quite convincingly.  

Raquel: It’s a twofold issue because on the one hand, the gathering of women amongst each other, for example, you mentioned in the Women's Institutes like that get dismissed as what are those women up to? You know, either they're talking about shoes and makeup, or they're trying to talk about politics, which they really shouldn't be doing so that's dismissed and demonised, but then you also talk about how just the mere presence of women in society gets reduced and invisibilised and ignored.

 You write in the book:

I have felt the shift over the past five or six years as I've progressed from early to late forties. Men my age or older speak to women younger than us both as so they are peers. While I am barely there at all, I struggle to edge into the conversation. I feel small and merely tolerated as if I have walked in on a discussion, not meant for me. Attempting to make myself heard feels ridiculous as why I am kidding myself that I've still got it. Only now realising that ‘it’ incorporates my right to interact with others in public space.

 So it's not just about the spaces that women construct for themselves, but the demonisation of Middle East women means that, just in the public sphere, when women try to interact and act as independent human people, that in itself gets reduced. 

Victoria: Yeah. And I think when you hear these narratives about middle-aged women being entitled, they can have a real effect on you and make you feel that it could be quite humiliating if you raise your voice or if you talk too much and that people are going to look down on you. And it is a way of kind of inhibiting women. 

I felt sort of in the past few years, almost like, I feel physically smaller than I did before in some in certain environments. I mean, I'm physically quite small anyways, but it's kind of this feeling that I don't have as much of a presence sometimes because there's a certain way in which value is coded for women in a way that harms women of all ages. But my value is edged more towards the kind of obsolete way, you know, it's kind of like, ‘what are you still here for’ reading of women?

I'm only like in my late forties and it's quite a long time to be read that way. and It's not all the time, but it is just this feeling of, the sense that I had almost faded somewhat in terms of how people respond to you. 

Raquel: Which is absolutely ridiculous in every sense of the word, because anyone who reads Hags is going to realise this person, this woman is a powerhouse. I mean, I bet that you get commended a lot. It really is a joy to behold, like how insightful your writing is. And I'm sure you know, but like, it's been really inspirational for countless women, including myself. But, but yeah, I mean, I do wonder if like male writers who are men who are half as smart or younger, you know, they get to take up space and they get invited to take up even more space.

Whereas women who are a real asset to the movement, like yourself and all the writers sort of find themselves feeling smaller when it should be the complete opposite. 

Victoria: I feel it's been a huge privilege to be able to write the book. There are, there are loads of sort of really strong feminist voices out there and we should have loads more book written by them.

 I get quite annoyed that there are quite a lot of male people, explaining what women are, books out there as if it's a new thing when actually we've had like millennial of male people explaining what women are, and this is just a new way of doing it.

And I think there are so many women who have so much more to say than that. 

Raquel: You write in the book about the way that lesbians relate to the aging middle-ish and aging process, you know, and you talk about how many of the writers who had a great impact in your mind were lesbians but then you got to write it as a heterosexual woman and you basically argue that what heterosexual women experience as they hit middle-age, lesbian women have been experiencing for far longer because they are demonised in a multitude of other ways by patriarchy. 

And you write: 

To me, this is significant because most of what I feel heterosexual women experience when we hit middle age, despite that, arises when men deem us to have serve our purpose and wonder why we're still here. Lesbians experience it much earlier and much, much harsher due to their uncompromising withdrawal from men. 

And you write:

 I regret that this is not something I noticed earlier and that from a lesbian perspective, some of what I described may prompt the question. It took you that long to catch up and you have the insight to write. I'm afraid it did. And for that, I am sorry.

How did you had meetings and conversations with lesbian authors and friends to sort of discuss this point? 

Victoria: It was more the lesbian writers I was reading like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde and also just generally at the moment the antipathy towards lesbians right now, I just think is horrific and it is this really obvious kind of, you should be there for us. This idea that women can't say no to men in any way, shape or form, and that their existence has to be in some way accommodating or shaped around male needs. And I think through trans-activism, there is a particular degree of anger to women who do not want male people in their sex lives at all.

This anger is very openly expressed right now in this idea that, you know, genital fetishists or this comparison to racists. But it, I think it must always have been there under the surface and I'd not really been aware of it.

I was aware in the nineties that lesbians were really othered. There was this whole idea of the lipstick lesbian and this idea that lesbians were acceptable if they did it while men watched. And that kind of idea that lesbian was just a porn type, but the kind of real anger and aggression that we're seeing now I find, I just feel that as a heterosexual woman, I really underestimated just how angry men are at the existence of women who want to have lives, emotional lives, sex lives that don't include them. I was very naive about that. 

Raquel: In a sense you could argue that lesbians are a particular threat to patriarchy because they reject the trope of being either a frigid or a hypersexualised woman, which are the two choices that are given to heterosexual women.

You write in your book about how when you are younger that for example, 40, the pressure is to try to hyper sexualise women, the younger the better, and to try to appeal the male gaze in all their forms. But then, the stereotype of being a frigid woman hangs over every woman who does not perform that role of hypersexualised sort of vixen. It works as a coercive jacket, you know, if you don't perform, then therefore you're frigid. But lesbian women are just like opting out of that duality. I mean, it's not an option, but like they're just completely removing themselves from that equation. And I think that patriarchy hyperventilates when it realises, oh, these are women that we cannot control in this very stereotypical duality.

Victoria: And, and it is very kind of obvious that lesbians in the context of trans activism right now are being put under a very particular pressures that no other group is being put under. You know, it's so obvious that there is so much antipathy towards lesbians and there's so much silence about it from people who claim to care about sexual minorities and LGBT rights. It's really striking and there is such a lot of anger about it.

 As you said, it is a reflection of what certain men think all women are for that we only exist to be in relation to them sexually. 

Raquel: And if you don’t then you are an undesirable woman who is to be discarded because you hold no real value.

Victoria: Yes. And I think it's been very cleverly, well, I don’t know if you call it clever, but it's been attached to morality very, in a very insidious way that, somehow, if you are not sexually open or open to the idea that you would sleep with male people, as a female person, you're a bigot and that you've got regressive ideas and that you are a biological essentialist.

It's kind of been made into like some real personal flaw and it's really horrible. I think again, it's one of those things that I really worry that some younger women, they're so in the middle of it, it's very hard to articulate it and sort of state their rights. And I know that from my own experience and a lot of experiences of other heterosexual women, sort of in the context of nineties raunchy culture, when you're in the middle of something, you kind of say yes to things that you wouldn't actually have wanted to say yes to.

And I worry that there is such a kind of much higher pressure being put on young lesbians right now. And it's this kind of moral pressure and this, you are a bigot if you don't do it that is a form of coercion, but you can't kind of articulate it if you're right at the centre of it. 

And then if you're kind of outside it or older or in a safer position, it's very hard to articulate it because you'll get told that you are just denying the agency of women who were there facing it.

Raquel: And it's hard to have both sets of women speaking with each other if the younger generation of women are told that, oh, you don't want to listen to those old hags because you have to become her, and meanwhile, the women who hold, yes, the wisdom, to know what it's like to go through that process and to walk out of that process. There's a disconnect between both cohorts and it is a deliberate disconnect that benefits patriarchy. 

Victoria: And if you're in the middle of all these pressures and you have some kind of older woman saying, you know, I think you don't want to say yes to that, or I think maybe you're being coerced, or I think maybe you need to realise what's happening around you, it can be much easier to kind of feel that the older woman is the one hurting you, not the actual environment that you're in because you have to create whatever stories you need to, to survive it. 

Raquel: It's a really interesting analysis how the pressures of like facing younger lesbians when it comes to sex like the gender identity issues. It not just that if you don't want to sleep with male people, that is your orientation being framed as a moral failure if you do not want to have sex with people who are male. And I think that that's one of the really horrifying aspects of this gender identity position. because it's hard to comprehend how the awareness facing and all the political campaigning, all the work that has been done to advance lesbian rights. And today we're facing a generation of younger women, and it affects older women too, but like younger women who have been taught that if you do not want to be in relationship with men, therefore you are morally corrupt, like a bad, morally corrupt person. And it's like they hit that threshold of like being undesirable, unwanted, horrible hags at what, like 19, 20 years old? It must be a ghastly experience to go through. 

Victoria: Yes. And I think you're right, there's been so many narratives about I think particularly since like kind of same sex marriage, there is this broader cultural narrative that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have it easier than trans people and we have better attitudes towards them. And sometimes I think, you know, even now people that I know who aren't that involved in feminist debate or feminist environments, if I said, oh, this is happening to lesbians, they're being put under this pressure. I kind of suspect, some people wouldn't believe me. They'd think, oh, that's just some moral panic that's being used to demonise trans people. They wouldn't realize the level of coercion that is actually being exerted on young lesbians. 

Raquel: So on that topic, you write a lot about women's embodied experience of our physicality, our bodies. You talk about eating disorders a lot. You write a lot about motherhood. You know, you write about all of these different topics, and recently, in recent years, your writing has focused a lot on sex and gender identity issues. Out of all of those topics was it a conscious decision that you decided, I want to talk about the Karen thing, and then that sort of became a path into the demonisation of older women?

Or was it like a decision to not write about eating disorders right now? To not write about motherhood right now? 

Victoria: When I sort of came up with the idea for writing Hags, I was also thinking about writing about eating disorders as well, but, I mean, I have written quite a bit about eating disorders in terms of individual pieces, but I'm not sure it's so personal, I'm not sure whether I could write something like a really long piece about that without kind of exposing too much about myself. I'm kind of messing with my own head in a way. Do you know what I mean? there are some things where I feel like my, my relationship with the kind of understanding eating disorders, and I think partly it's because of a, kind of all the narratives about female bodies and biological essentialism and gender identity, all these narratives that have been going around over the past few years, I think my understanding of eating disorders, it still feels like it's changing all the time and it's also that this kind of understanding of a thing that's happened to you that maybe cause so much trauma that in some ways I know I write about it a lot, but in some ways I think I'm also kind of working through it still. Kind of. 

Raquel: Sorry, I didn't mean at all to be intrusive of it

Victoria: No, not at all. I am actually working on a thing about anorexia at the moment, but just an article. I do think more and more that it's okay not to have to think. I write about in the book about changing my mind about things to do with feminism as I've got older, I think it's kind of quite okay not to have things completely pinned down.

I think maybe things to do with eating disorders in the body, for instance, I can imagine in my twenties writing something about having had an eating disorder and then like learning to love my body and it's all, all right and wanting to have these really neat narratives about it when actually, stuff to do with the body is so related to change that it's actually quite hard to pin these things down.

But I am still very interested in writing on that question.

Raquel: I mean it's interesting how women's writing become this sort of transformational tools that has a ripple effect. The reason why I ask is because I discovered your writing when I was doing my master's degree and I was doing a master's degree in prostitution issues and sex buyers, and then you were one of those first published authors, obviously they were like a ton before, but like that I considered to be contemporary.

You were one of the first contemporary feminist author who was unapologetically against the sex industry and your writing just seems so fresh, And then I thought, oh, well, Victoria writes about sometimes the body, but also about motherhood, but also about this, but also about this.

And then to see you come out with a book about, actually, let's talk about middle-aged women, and the way that they're demonised opens a window into, I know that because it did for me. I know that it will open a window of what is acceptable to theorise about and to write about for a lot of up and coming authors who will see, oh, well this woman is actually theorizing a body of work. It has been done before by a lot of other women, but a contemporary woman talking about these issues. And then that will inspire them to write a lot more about middle-aged women and the way that they're invisibilised and it's almost like the book, you grab it and it is a physical thing, but it's actually, it becomes a ripple effect.

And I wonder if you've thought about the way that this book, the way that Adrienne Rich maybe inspired you, you inspired a lot of other women. 

Victoria: I think Of Woman Born is just such an amazing book because it articulates stuff that is just so relevant now, particularly the things about flight from the Body and this idea of how dis-identification is related to, or can be related to how we see other women and older women being trapped by the pressures on them. And this idea that it, that we can somehow shed it and become these disembodied creatures. I think it's just so interesting and so relevant now. 

There's so many attempts to kind of stop women's writing and women's ideas getting passed down. I’ve seen suggestion that Of Woman Born is a bigoted book and people shouldn't read it now. I think it's so important to find ways, not just to get your own writing read, I hope I've done with Hags is kind of pointed to other things that people might want to read from older feminists, because there are so many.  

We're just really taught not to listen to or trust older thinking of women who went before us, it has had its day and that's old feminism. But that's such a patriarchal way of kind of not taking women seriously and not taking our legacy seriously and not valuing the complexity of feminist thoughts.

I just hope that I have inspired women to kind of read more contemporary feminists, but also to go back and read the feminism that was around when we were younger, but maybe a lot of us didn't read or didn't have access to. Because also, for many of us, we have access to getting books in a way that we didn't before.

 I used a kind of online open library for some texts that I hadn't encountered before. So when I was younger, I think the only book that was in Smiths in Penrith where I lived was The Beauty Myth. And now there are all these feminist texts that actually we can get access to.

And I think that they're really inspiring. 

Raquel: And now your book becomes one of those books and one of those theories that women can look up to, which is not the reason why you wrote the book, but this is now what's happened. 

You write about the distrust that patriarchy inflicts on women and the way that it's not just about men putting women down, but also about women sort of being taught to put each other down.

You write in your book:

Women's Mistrust of other women is a vital tool for the maintenance of male power over women at all life stages. It happened so subtly, so sneakily that we are led to believe it is all our own fault. If only we were better. If only those other women were better. If only we weren't so useless at getting along. It is one of those areas where coercion has become invisible and would sound slightly absurd were anyone to point it out.

 And then you write: 

After all it is not as though a bunch of men would be infused with violence narcissistic rage the moment women start working together on issues that centre their bodies, experiences and priorities, it is not as though there'd be any negative response to the sight of female collaboration.

Right. But that is exactly what we're witnessing. 

Victoria: Yeah, and there are all these kind of narratives you get about mean girls and women who are their own worst enemies and like, oh, why can't women get along and collaborate the way men do? And then they'd be fine. But it's actually, if you look at what happens to women when they are collaborating and working in their own interests, just in the interests of women, not men, it's horrendous that the rage there is just tremendous.

And, if you look at the responses to a Woman's Place and Mumsnet there's this belief that when women seem to be focusing just on other women or women and children, just focusing on anything that isn't men. But actually it's a bit bogus that they're just pretending to be interested in that, but they're just doing it to make men feel bad, it's not like women have inner lives and needs of their own, they're either servicing men or they're meanly, excluding men, but whatever they're doing, it has to be positioned in relation to men. And it's really remarkable at the moment when you see just men protesting on the streets because women are meeting like the Lesbian Project. There was a protest outside that. And it is just kind of so visible and so clear now. All these things this resentment that was maybe there all along, but it's really out there now. 

Raquel: So, so Victoria, I have two final questions. And the first is: you wrote this book and you go through different strands and tropes about the different forms that this Hag persona gets embodied by different women.

Is your book part of a reclaiming of women or of women's thinking? You know, because you put together the experiences of lesbians in the aging process and you try to put together the things that this has in common with middle-aged women, and you try to sort of reassess, revalue, reclaim the second wave feminists and the work that they did and women before them.

It feels like your book is a little bit about using a thread to weave these narratives together, to sort of reclaim all those women that had been invisibilised, not only through the process of aging, but also through history. 

Victoria: I do feel that. Sorry, that sounds really grandiose. But I mean, I think one of the things I was thinking about when I started writing the book, I was thinking, I want to think about why middle-aged women are seen in a particular way today, but also how does that compare to how middle-aged women were seen in the past?

As working through it, I started to feel more and more that actually this is very much related to this whole idea of legacy and what gets passed down. And actually this kind of resentment that is experienced towards older women who are alive today is very much connected to the dismissal of the work and thought and the emotional and intellectual labour of women who aren't around anymore. It is that thread and it's this fear of letting women have a history and a legacy I think is very much connected to this kind of separating of the generations of women who are alive right now. 

In the book where I mentioned, the kind of the Mary Wollstonecraft statue, the way in which it was, oh, we're not going to like just have a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft we will just portray every woman in the state emerging from this formless mass. This kind of idea that the perfect woman isn't here yet. The perfect, woman to represent feminist progress isn't here yet. It's always this state of becoming. And I think that's kind of, it relates to not letting women have a legacy that is solid and meaningful and passed down seriously.

But it's also related to being dismissive of the women who are older than you as well. 

Raquel: Not letting Mary Wollstonecraft like even have a face. She's a nothingness and we are to subscribe our own views into her, even though like, no, we're actually trying to recognise a woman who did things, who had a name, a birthday, all that kind of stuff.

. I have one final question. You know, we're sitting here after you publish your book, which I hope will be the first of many. Can I cheekily ask what if you have any ideas of an upcoming book? 

Victoria: One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the whole kind of pressure on women of all ages to just be kind and just be compassionate and just be nice and the way in which that has become associated with feminism when actually, there are a real relationship between that and kind of traditional female socialisation. This idea that women just need to be nicer and then equality will come. And that actually a lot of male entitlement is being excused by telling women if they were just kinder, if they were just more generous, you know, they wouldn't have a problem with it. And that's something I'm quite interested in thinking about. 

Raquel: Oh, well, you just haven't done it the right way, it's just where it is because feminists have not done it the right way yet!

But once they get like the perfect strategy, don't worry. Like, we'll you get there if you get the perfect and then it never works. 

Victoria: No, because the only way you can end up getting the perfect strategy is when you've ended up arguing yourself into the opposite of what you originally wanted. And that's the only way you ultimately get approval from the people who tell you that. 

Raquel: which is how we ended up at the place that we are when it comes to the sex and gender identity debate. 

Okay, so, my final question, and I'm sorry, I'm going to divide it into two.

 If you had any advice for younger women who are looking ahead, what they know is that, oh, I feel like I'm doing great because I'm 23 and I am in my fuckable years and patriarchy seems to be really encouraging of my voice. But then the second that I hit whatever mark, you know, my value is going to decrease. Do you have any advice for younger women who are concerned that I'm going to become a Hag What can I do to change the narrative or not prevent this from happening to me, but to, to try to reframe the stereotype? And I wonder if you had any advice for other middle-aged women who may feel overwhelmed finding themselves invisibilised or dismissed or people ignoring them when they're in a group of people having conversation, or your voice is not in, not welcome in this conversation, but I'm still here. I'm still here. Do you have any advice for those two sets of women? 

Victoria: I think for both, kind of valuing your relationships with other women is really important, just really valuable because as we've discussed, there are pressures put on women to not to trust one another, not just across generations, but within generations, this idea that relationships between women are kind of lower status or not worth as much as like relationships that you have with men, but actually they can be so powerful and they can enrich your life so much.

It's why there's so much rage and antipathy when groupings of women seem too strong or too close or too exclusionary of men. I think valuing the relationships you have with women is such a great thing to have in your life. And, and I feel that that has been one of the really, the really good things about getting older has been sort of building these relationships and, not to dismiss my, my male partner who is amazing, but it's kind of like just to kind of get those networks and to see how important they are and to see just how powerful they are because you're not dependent on male approval. It's not important.

Often you find by the time you've got any male approval, you just don't care anymore. So that's kind of what I would kind of say, because there are so many brilliant feminists and so many women, I think, who were really helpful as well when I was writing the book and so supportive and I wouldn't have done it without them.

I think female friendships and female support networks are just really the best thing.

Raquel: That's wonderful. Victoria, thank you so, so much for speaking with us. 

Victoria: Thank you for, for speaking with me. 

Raquel: Victoria Smith is the author of Hags: the Demonisation of Middle Aged Women. You can buy the book at all the awesome bookstores out there, and you can also buy the book from our feminist library at FiLiA.

Victoria: Thank you.