You know that any book by social commentator Jane Caro will be chock full of fascinating facts and statistics that she somehow manages to condense into a highly readable, engaging, poignant or frequently funny book. In her latest work Accidental Feminists (Melbourne University Publishing 2019), Caro focuses on the generation of women aged 55 years and over who unintentionally heralded the third wave of feminism (after the push for the vote – the first wave, and the second wave of progress during the 70’s), aided by technological advances and societal changes that revolutionised their personal lives and their expectations both of what they were expected to give as well as what they could hope to achieve.
This group of women – building on the foundations already constructed by their women forebears – in some ways inhabit lives much richer than ever before in history, but paradoxically also simultaneously succumb to frightening social problems such as poverty and homelessness in ever greater numbers.
In chapters titled ‘Hags, Crones, Witches and Mothers-in-Law’, ‘Gold-diggers, Beggars and Thieves’, ‘Slags, Sluts, Gossips and Staceys’ and ‘Invalids, Liars, Hysterics and Madwomen’, Caro explores how women are viewed and treated by men, by society and by other women. She dismantles structures such as superannuation, child-care and tax policy to determine how and why they are so often going wrong for women, and she celebrates the determination and empowerment of women who are struggling to achieve equality (in work, in pay, in domestic duties, in child care, in sex and in perceptions).
Over 50 percent of us are women, and 100 percent of us are aging. But it is how we agitate for change, how we demand equality and what we seek as our fair share that will determine how future generations are treated and cared for. Those women aged 55 and over were raised to care for others, to stay at home and run the house, to mind the children and keep the home fires burning, with the hope – or really, the expectation – that in turn, they would be cared for as they aged. But their years of patchy employment records (interrupted by child-rearing, the necessity for part-time work, the lack of equal opportunities for promotion) have contributed to a rather dire predicament for many, who now find themselves struggling to make ends meet, homeless, invisible to society, unwanted by the workforce or unneeded by family.
Caro argues that it is innovations such as the contraceptive pill and the tampon that have impacted more on women of this age than even the labour-saving devices such as washing machines and dishwashers. She says that ‘many sectors of society have done their damnedest to hold back women every step of the way’ and through meticulous research, carefully documented case histories, and collected anecdotal evidence and stories, she interprets how and why this has happened, and what might be done to rectify the difficulties. ‘Women’, she says, ‘are not a job lot…[but]…what we share is the burden of assumptions that are made about what a woman should be like, what she should do, say, wear, think and express.’ In quoting social researcher Hugh Mackay, Caro repeats his finding that out of the top ten desires that need to be met to live a satisfying life, number one is ‘the desire to be taken seriously’. This was a light bulb moment for Caro, who ‘saw clearly that feminism is the struggle by half the human race to be taken seriously by the other half’.
Depicting women’s struggle to maintain a professional career and raise well-adjusted children – in addition to completing most of the unpaid work around the home – Caro states that while ‘intellectually, we knew we had a right to lives just as rich and varied as those of our brothers…emotionally, we still struggled against our own and others’ unconscious assumptions…guilt [and] disapproval’.
Amidst practical suggestions (make child care tax deductible! – legitimise it the same way we treat sick pay and superannuation; offer fathers monetary incentives to spend at least some time as the primary carer during their child’s infancy; recognise the billions of dollars saved by (mostly) women undertaking the care of the young, the disabled, the elderly and the vulnerable) and lots of personal anecdotes from her own life (she brilliantly describes the unpaid role of ‘producer’ that most women play in family life – managing the shopping and social engagements, the tradespeople and doctor visits – the ‘emotional labour’), Caro discusses the traditional, unpaid female roles that should be counted towards GDP despite not being a market commodity that can be bought and sold, such as volunteer work in a hospice, or the powerful example of breastfeeding (‘GDP unapologetically favours infant formula because it is a commercial product, so the more babies who are not breastfed (against all the recommendations by health experts) the better it is for GDP.’)
Caro also explores the generalised fear around women who are ‘out of control’, angry or that terrible but much used term ‘hysterical’, and examines the tendency to blame and shame women for acts perpetrated by men (which #MeToo is finally addressing), when all feminism really claims to do is to ‘give women the same rights as men to decide the shape of their own lives’. And she concludes by surmising that ‘… perhaps that was always patriarchy’s fatal flaw. No matter how much they held us back, no matter how many obstacles they put in our way, no matter how low our self-esteem or bitter our disappointments, they could not drain our brains out of our ears, or (totally) smash our spirit and our desire to participate in and contribute to the world. Many of us, throughout history, found a way.’