Old women’s bodies: On Germaine Greer, ageism and misogyny

Sometime during the late 1990s, we stopped having bodies. After thousands of years of sickness, pain and death, we’d finally found a way to think ourselves beyond all that. It is, we told ourselves, a construct. None of it is really “real.” And from then on we no longer had to wait for any Afterlife to become pure spirit. Paradise, in which the individual mind defines and redefines itself on its own terms, is with us now. Thank you, Judith Butler, and all who preach the gospel of the postmodern, transcendent self.

Of course, there were some people who carried on believing in bodies that leaked and bled and bred. Bodies that produced other bodies, then had to care for them, feeding them with their breasts, mopping up their waste. Bodies that creased and sagged and weakened. Bodies that took their place in a hierarchy of bodies that gave and bodies that took.

Some people still believe in all that crap. Idiots. Essentialists. TERFs.

Once upon a time, people thought that there were bodies that gestated new life and bodies that did not. That there was a way in which you could tell – not always accurately, but generally so – which did which. This led to people being given different names on account of which of the two categories their bodies appeared to fall into, categories not based on any complex chemical or neurological detail, but just on the question “does your body look like the kind of body that can get pregnant or doesn’t it?” Because reproduction – the mechanics, the ownership, the ideology – matters, or at least it used to, back when bodies were a thing. Back when we understood gender as power – patriarchy/matriarchy, paternity/maternity – and not as each individual’s private domain.

Today we know that to be old-fashioned nonsense. Who thinks it still? Old people. Old women, to be precise. Creaky, decaying second-wavers like Germaine Greer, who, the righteous legions of Twitter inform me, will in any case be dead soon enough. Old women who refuse to think themselves beyond the body. Watch out, younger women. Stay vigilant, don’t mention those vile secretions, don’t mention the work, or this could one day be you.

“Biological life,” note Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, “impinges directly on the group activities of production and play.” To lay claim to having a female body is to be behind the times. Didn’t you get the memo? Don’t you know that they don’t have to make women like that anymore? Mother Nature is, as the Tampax advertisements remind us, a creature to be outsmarted. Don’t be the girl who leaks rust-coloured blood on her new white skirt. Don’t be the employee who gets pregnant, the carer who falls outside the markets that matter, the woman who dares to have pubic hair and odours and wrinkles, all those things that might make you more than an idea.

“When legitimating the patriarchy,” writes Katrine Marçal, “one is almost always referred back to the body”:

To be human is to subordinate the body to the intellect, and woman was not thought capable of doing this, and therefore she shouldn’t have human rights either, society reasoned. Woman became ‘body’ so man could be ‘soul’. She was bound more and more tightly to a corporeal reality so he could be freed from it.

You want to be free? Just don’t let anyone know that you exist as more than an image in men’s heads. You can clean up the mess when no one’s looking.

Yet sometimes these impermissible feelings creep up on you. In Misconceptions, Naomi Wolf describes herself, pregnant for the first time, in an aqua aerobics class with a group of older women:

I felt as if I had slipped; I had fallen into a primordial soup of femaleness, of undifferentiated post-fecundity. In my heightened state of anxiety I felt myself standing on the slippery slope into ageing and mortality, the universal slope I’d been able to ignore for so long. My very individuality seemed to loosen and melt away in the slow warm water. Don’t you know, the little waves seemed to lap at me, that no woman is unique? Don’t you know that that is your delusion? We are all liquid, all deliquescence; the unbounded, unidentified matrix out of which new life comes endlessly creeping. I was drowning in the Lake of Fecundity. I, a woman, was also experiencing for the first time the feeling of misogyny, and understanding why the fear of women is grounded in the fear of death.

I’m writing this with a seven-week-old baby on my knee. Occasionally he turns his head, roots, gnawing at my jumper, and I reposition him, put my hand beneath the fabric, unclip my bra and direct a thick, aching breast towards his mouth. I feel the pull as he feeds – that curious reflex that is taken as proof of love – and I find it hard not to think “I am flesh.”