Young and Old Unite!

Sexism and ageism place women of all ages on the frontlines for freedom

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Here we are, in the 21st century, and young women are still portrayed as sex objects. From billboards, TV and glossy magazines the image of slim, sexy women sells products, from breakfast cereals to men’s toiletries and anti-wrinkle creams. They grace the catwalks, showing off the latest expensive fashions. These are bodies that all women are supposed to aspire toward and men are supposed to want. Their slinky, youthful shapes are the sum total of their importance.  

Bus driver Tammy Sum protests the policies of Laidlaw Transit in Los Angeles. Photo by Damian Dovarganes.

Ageism subjects the older woman to different indignities. According to the image makers, she’s past it: frail, passive, mentally vacant and asexual. She can be irritable, meddling and conniving. Popular culture pumps out these myths in many ways. Try to find a birthday card that doesn’t belittle advancing age or anything on the screen that positively represents older women. Take television, for example. Only two ads feature older women: one flogs insurance to the older market; the other, an exasperated shopkeeper, sells a brand of milk. The news media are only interested in older women when they’re victims of bashings or killings.

In a society where beauty is associated with youth, the older woman is advised to spend money on cosmetic surgery or anti-ageing creams to ward off or hide telltale signs of ageing. Otherwise, she’ll risk being described as a crone, fossil, goat, hag, witch, withered, wrinkled. If she acts independent or voices an opinion, she gets the abuse, no matter what she does to her face.

Flip sides of the same profitable coin. Ageism also affects men, but sexism makes it more brutal for women. Capitalism requires the exploitation of human labour for its survival. This wouldn’t be possible without the oppression of women as a sex. Sexism feeds and sustains the capitalist body. The stereotypes of both young and older women serve to perpetuate the cruel economic and social conditions that most women endure.

A few thousand years ago, which is a relatively short time in history, male supremacy and private property replaced society’s matriarchal communal base. Under the rule of patriarchy, the degradation of women was intensified. The role of women in the nuclear family has been to fulfil the traditional functions of raising children and packing hubby off to work. The wife’s domestic labour is free, and any work she does outside the home is paid much less than men’s. The capitalist system cannot function without the institution of the patriarchal nuclear family.

And yet, the nuclear family is collapsing. In Australia, female-headed single-parent families are increasing: 549,100 in 2001 compared to 383,500 in June 1991. The proportion relying on government support as their main source of income is also growing, from 63.6% in 1990 to 65.5% in 1997-98. Such women are living at the economic margin of our society, in extreme poverty.

Growing up female in capitalism. Whether at home or at school, young women are subjected to intense socialisation which undermines their self-worth. According to Barwon Adolescent Mental Health Unit, one in five young women suffers from an eating disorder, either anorexia nervosa or bulimia. A study by Deakin University found that girls as young as six and seven are concerned about their body image. At least 200 women are sexually assaulted every day, most between the ages of 12 and 18. As many as 50% of teenagers with unplanned pregnancies have experienced sexual abuse.

For young women, sexuality is a minefield, filled with contradictory messages. While told to be chaste, they’re treated as objects for sex. Without the right to say yes or no, young women have neither sexual autonomy nor a defence against sexual harassment or unwanted sex. In a system that hates homosexuality as much as women, lesbians are dealt a triple whammy.

Battling discrimination in the labour market is another obstacle for young women. Seventy-two percent are in the low-paid part-time or casual jobs of the hospitality and retail industries. Women’s total average earnings are just 66% of men’s — less than ten years ago. Unemployment for young women is as high as 20% in some regional and rural areas. The Howard Government’s welfare regime of “mutual obligation” traps so many young recipients in an inescapable cycle.  

Working class students who make it to university will spend practically the rest of their lives paying for it — thanks to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme levy, which the Howard government has increased by 25%. Sixty-nine percent of women are not expected to pay off their HECS debt by the time they reach 60.

More than 160,000 women are prevented from working because they can’t get childcare. If women do work outside the home, their careers are interrupted by childrearing and domestic responsibilities. They will move from one low-paid temporary job to another, something most superannuation schemes don’t cater for. Once they retire, they will end up impoverished, because the pension doesn’t match the cost of living.  

Old age turned into a burden. Without affordable childcare, working mothers often turn to their mothers to help out. Grandmothers are picking up the social slack, and so the duty of raising children has no end. Older women also do the majority of voluntary work in the community: the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2001 that 35% of women over 65 do between five and ten hours per week, saving the government millions of dollars. Yet the Howard Government slashes funding for health, childcare, aged care and housing.

Because women are valued only for their domestic and reproductive roles, once past childbearing age they are treated as a burden. Their vast knowledge, experience and wisdom counts for nothing. Elder abuse is now recognised as a social problem, with older women particularly targeted for theft, scams, psychological abuse and physical violence. Only in a society where a person’s worth is measured by the profit they produce could this wretched situation be possible.

There is profit in the growing population of older people. Retirement villages, insurance schemes, and investment plans abound for the seniors with money. But most older women are poor and don’t fit into these calculations. Many come in contact with another kind of entrepreneur: the nursing home proprietor. Although only five percent of those over 65 are in nursing homes, the aged care industry is a goldmine. Facilities can charge what they want for people to enter, and this often means selling the family home and handing over a lifetime of savings. Then there’s the human cost of lost independence, isolation and the denial of any right to be treated as a human being: cutbacks in staff, inadequate food and poor care are common complaints in the industry.

This economic system runs on exploitation and social alienation. It brutalises our young and old, and women in particular. Our youth is used up to produce wealth which we’re not allowed to share in. Our adult lives are spent on wage slavery and unpaid domestic servitude. When we’re no longer able to produce or reproduce, we’re discarded and vilified as a drain on society.

Reclaiming equality. There was a time when this cruelty could not exist. Before the institution of private property and then profit, everyone — of whatever sex, age, sexuality, ability or colour — was equally valued. Women were respected as leaders. There was a social division of labour which recognised people’s varying contributions to the common good. There was no economic basis for any group to exploit or lord it over others.

History shows us the possibility of a society we can recover and improve upon with the benefit of new knowledge and technology. We can put all forms of oppression in the past when women and men, young and old unite to uproot the profit system and plant our own: socialism.

A practical start is to put our collective rage into action and target the profiteers: the advertising and pornography industries that exploit young women and children, the media that stereotypes older people, particularly older women, as childlike, useless and dependent, and the nursing homes that use people in need of care as cash cows. Let’s demand: an independent, livable income for all; equal wages and union protection for workers of all ages; the right to a useful and productive life with the capacity to retire, at any age, on a comfortable income; free, well-staffed, multicultural, multilingual medical and home care to provide quality support for older people; sexual autonomy for women of all ages. The current system can’t give these to us, so we have to take it. United, we’ll have the power to do it.

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