Jane Caro is an accidental feminist. In fact, she’s one of a whole generation.
‘Accidental feminists’ is the name Caro has coined to describe women, now aged over 55, who lived vastly different lives from any generation before them. The accidental feminists didn’t grow up expecting to break new ground and only a few wore the feminist label with pride until quite recently. Nonetheless, Caro argues that these women, who once assumed they’d live lives comparable to their own mothers, have fundamentally changed our society, our economy and indeed, the world.
I pick up Jane Caro’s new book knowing I’m not the target audience. Accidental Feminists is about my mother and her contemporaries, written by a woman who could have been one of her friends. However, I truly hope my mum and her friends are not the only ones who will read it.
Accidental Feminists deserves to be widely consumed by women and men, of the baby boomer generation and beyond. It’s a window into the experience of others; the events and trends that shaped their lives and their personalities. Older women are too often absent from the public sphere. The poets and singers do not write about them, they rarely have leading roles in television or film, and are far less likely to be on nightly news bulletins than their male counterparts. Jane Caro’s new work puts these women front and centre.
“No one expected our lives to be very interesting,” explains Caro in her trademark matter-of-fact manner. “It was assumed that we would live identical lives to all the generations of women who had gone before us – we’d finish school, work in a low skilled job for a bit, get married, have kids and (ahem) live happily ever after. If anything interesting did happen to us it would be because we married an interesting man.”
Caro says that despite these humble expectations, her generation’s lives quickly departed from the familiar pattern of women before them. Ground-breaking reforms by the Whitlam Government meant female students flooded into universities, opening up their minds to a world bigger than the one of their own neighbourhood. It was no longer unusual for women to have paid jobs and it was Caro’s generation who normalised women remaining in the workforce after having children.
“[Women] have finally realised that the odds are -and always have been stacked against them – and they are demanding that change.”
“Childcare was very hard to find,” says Jane, reflecting on the lack of structures to support mothers having jobs. “I had my daughter’s names down for all the local childcare centres from birth; they never got a place. I had to hire a nanny and cobble together childcare via friends, other mothers and family. It was extremely stressful.”
“Women, then and now, went back to work part-time and often had to accept entry-level positions regardless of seniority when they left to have children. There was no parental leave (even unpaid) so most women had to resign. I was fired. The workload of mothers increased exponentially on the birth of children while the workload of fathers hardly budged (and may even have decreased). I don’t think that has changed nearly enough, although I see signs of hope.”
Caro is right. Childcare, whilst widely available and in a variety of formats, remains an enormous financial challenge for families with young children. Despite government subsidies, many parents are left out-of-pocket upwards of $70 a day and that cost is usually weighed up against the ‘benefit’ of mum returning to work. That a father returns to work is rarely questioned.
There has been some progress, much of it is thanks to baby boomer women who pushed hard for a system that worked for their changing needs and aspirations. A government-funded paid parental leave scheme was beyond the hopes of Caro’s generation but is a reality now. The next step is encouraging more employers to step up in this regard – and for men to start taking parental leave in greater numbers too.
Work was still considered somewhat of an indulgence for Caro’s generation, certainly after the birth of children. A woman’s first and most significant duty was to care for others. “If we insisted on doing other work it had to be fitted in around that and if we didn’t like it, we could always leave work and go back home where we belonged,” says Caro wryly. “And, indeed, that is precisely what women have done – it’s sometimes called ‘opting out’ – with devastating financial results as we age.”
“Every time I do an event or an interview on the book, women come forward (often teary-eyed) to tell me quietly of their own struggles and fears as they realise they do not have enough money to live on and no realistic chance of employment” Caro reflects. “Almost more disturbing is the number of female journalists who – once the interview is over – have confided their own fears about their tiny super balances and lack of liveable income. In reality, it is terrifying.”
“One woman I spoke to had been homeless once but was sure she never would be again because she would simply kill herself rather than have to go through the experience again. Women live in real fear of losing the roof over their head especially if the pay rent and rely on Newstart to live. Many must choose – as one woman put it – to eat or heat. That this is a direct consequence of putting other people’s need for care ahead of their own need to earn a decent income is galling in the extreme.”
A Matter Of Age
On average, Australian women retire six years younger than men at age 52. Caro doubts very much this is voluntary. Discrimination against older workers in the workplace is a serious issue and women are more likely to feel the devastating effects. The aged pension doesn’t kick in until age 67 and most women retire with less than $150,000 to see them through until they die. That’s not a lot of money to support you through 30 or more years of life.
It’s not just workplaces where women seem to become disposable as they age – women over 55 report experiencing social ostracism. “Any woman with grey hair can tell you stories of people ordering food over her head when she gets to the front of the queue, being talked over or even bumped into as they walk down the street,” explains Caro.
“Ageism is hard for everyone and may be the first time white, middle-class, straight men actually get an inkling of what it is like to be discriminated against, but ageism and sexism (or racism, ableism, and homophobia) are a double whammy. Even worse, ageism hits women earlier than it hits men and it hits them just when their children have grown, menopause has freed them from biological shackles and they are at last freer to pursue their own lives. There they are, with lots to give and no one wants to take it from them.”
While Accidental Feminists is full of humour and entertaining stories, the picture Jane Caro paints of the fate awaiting women is not a pretty one. I feel scared while reading it and frustrated on behalf of my mother and her contemporaries. They did and do deserve better. Caro isn’t so much annoyed by all of this as she is furious. And she’s not alone.
“If the women I have been talking to all over Australia are any guide, they are furious, incandescent with rage,” says Caro. “In the past, women tended to turn their anger in on themselves and it became depression. They tended to feel their failure to achieve much was their own fault. Now women have – at last – turned their anger outward. They have finally realised that the odds are -and always have been stacked against them – and they are demanding that change.”
“To be young is to be insecure because you don’t know – yet – how tough you are. To be old is to be tempered in steel.”
“I think the power of women’s righteous and constructive anger to change things is already bearing fruit… Despite the dire financial straits of many older women there are also many who have benefited from being the first whole cohort who not only worked for most of their lives for their own money but for whom it was an aspiration. They have money and now their caring responsibilities are largely over, they also have time. They are becoming very active politically.”
As a woman who raised two daughters and is now a grandmother, I ask Caro whether her parenting impacted her feminism. Her pleasure in talking about her family is obvious. “My daughters are both independent, interesting, university-educated, contributing members of society who have chosen wonderful, feminist men as life partners,” she says. “One is also a loving, thoughtful and engaged parent who is raising two delightful children to be themselves.”
“My feminism made me a full partner in my marriage and a mother who also wanted a life. Neither of my daughters ever resented that and both have independently thanked me for being a role-model for how a woman can have an interesting life, successful career, a mostly happy marriage (43 years and counting) and children. Feminist parents are the best parents, I believe, and I say that because my parents were (and are) feminist too, and that’s the legacy I appreciated and wanted to pass on to my children.”
I can’t help but wonder though, what Caro wishes she’d understood earlier and what knowledge might change the way future generations of women age? Unlike her earlier responses, bathed in anger and sadness for the reality of older women today, Caro’s view of the future is optimistic. Her advice is candid and warm, going someway to reverse my previously established view of ageing. “Your life will change as you get older – you will lose some things, for sure, your youthful beauty and the breezy assumption of continuing good health, for example – but you will gain much more,” Caro assures me. “To be young is to be insecure because you don’t know – yet – how tough you are, unless you have been particularly unfortunate in some way and survived it. To be old is to be tempered in steel. You have weathered much and survived, there is a confidence that comes with that and you care much, much less about what others think.”
Older women are secure in their power and their place in the world. Theirs is a confidence and sense of self that I covet. If we could only free them from the economic shackles that hold them back, they could truly be an unstoppable force. And if Jane Caro’s changemaking generation has anything to do with it, that’s exactly what will happen.
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