Remembering Chaucer

Coming up this week at the Tate Modern:

a major performance-art event conceived and curated by US artist Suzanne Lacy. Silver Action will see 400 women aged 60 and over – who have taken part in some of the last century’s major political protests, from the 1968 Ford sewing machinists’ strike to Greenham Common – converge on the gallery’s subterranean performance space, the Tanks, for a live, unscripted performance about ageing and activism.

Why? Well one reason is…

One evening a couple of years ago, 82-year-old Barbara Robson was crammed in a rush-hour London tube train. Politely, she asked a young man near her, smart in his suit and tie, if he might move along a little. “He turned to me,” she says, “and told me that, as an old woman, I was a total waste of space. I felt so wounded I could hardly speak.”

I suspect that young man was raised chiefly by the internet. There are a lot of things I like about the internet, but dapper young men who feel cheerfully free to tell old women they should be dead – they are not one of those things.

Lacy’s central aim is to challenge preconceptions about older women. “There’s a very large public conversation now about resources,” she says, “and what to do with an ageing population. Because women live longer, that will impact them more than men. I’m trying to shift the discourse away from one of isolation and increasing frailty: we should see older women as an amazing resource – not just talk about them taking resources.”

Robson, a mental health activist, is certainly excited about Silver Action’s potential to change the way she feels about growing older. Along with 13 other women who will be taking part, I meet her at a workshop at Tate Modern, arranged to stimulate the conversations volunteers will have on the day, and compile a timeline of significant events they’ve been involved in. “This feels like such an important thing to be a part of,” she tells me. “Every day I feel invisible – this is a way to feel less so.”

And you know, there are actually some good things about being ancient. Having a bigger personal frame of historical reference is one. Overall accumulation – mental accumulation, I mean – is another.

H/t Maureen Brian.


  1. says

    I certainly appreciate the expertise and the wisdom the older women in my feminist organizing group bring to bear. It’s really enlightening to listen to them point out exactly how the patterns repeat themselves over time. I’m glad they are doing this; by the time I’m 60, I hope to have a lot to offer the world.

  2. Gordon Willis says

    “as an old woman”
    I note the “old” and the “woman”, and strongly suspect that both are relevant. As to the internet, you may be right, Ophelia; perhaps it allows people to vent their prejudices in a certain security, and thus reveals the existence of those prejudices in a form less disguised than during ordinary social intercourse.
    It seems to me that it is almost a commonplace that elderly women are to be found working very hard within local communities, giving support and nurture to people in need, or involving themselves in running charities of one sort or another, and taking a steering role in social enterprises (such as the choir I ran for fourteen years). The number of elderly men involved in such enterprises seems far less (in my choir, it was difficult to involve men at all, though there was one noteworthy exception). Yet the view most commonly met with in society is that “old women” are useless, and “old woman” is a commonly used criticism for anyone who worries unnecessarily or shows confusion. My first piano teacher was an elderly woman who was gifted, clever, patient and kind. I owe her a lot.

  3. Gordon Willis says

    The other problem (as I see it) is the Reap-Paden one: here is someone who believes that he has the right to question the utility of another person (on the supposition that utility equals value) without worrying his head about whether the question of utility applies to himself. It’s quite extraordinary, when you think about it. Who do these people imagine they are? Well, my guess is that they don’t think about it at all. The question doesn’t occur to them.

  4. Gordon Willis says

    Well, in The Clerk’s Tale, you have the situation of a young woman who is notable for her general goodness and caring. She marries a lunatic called Walter who decides that he just has to test her to prove to himself that she really is good, as he understands good. Chaucer comments once or twice that his treatment of her is pretty poor, but the main thing is that whatever Walter does, young Griselda submits to his decisions. This is all fine from the mediaeval point-of-view that obedience can be considered an aspect of justice (granting what is due), but I worry that nobody thinks of the kiddies, whom Walter sends away. Griselda accepts this in obedience to husbandly dictates, and this is all fine if one accepts that kids are mere possessions and it is how parents feel that counts. Can’t agree. Children are not owned by their parents, and should not be used as counters in some game between parents. So Griselda is wrong, and should have resisted. But then, I’m only middle aged, not a product of the middle ages.

    Or there’s the Wife of Bath, who’s really tough, but I’m not quite sure what Chaucer thinks of her.

  5. says

    Because women live longer, that will impact them more than men.

    That’s actually not entirely true. Most of the statistical difference in life expectancy between men and women is die to more young men dying in risky behaviour than young women (like ending up against a tree because a manly man doesn’t need no fucking speed limits). The other reason is that men engage in more unhealthy behaviour like smoking and drinking but sadly women are catching up there.
    Sorry for the slight tangent but people don’t understanding how age exectancy is calculated isa pet peeve of mine. It’s like people thinking that 30 was ancient in the stone age.

    But yeah, women are only of worth if they’re young and pretty. And young women are still seen as a status symbol for older men, so older women get totally discarded.

  6. sheila says

    I feel sorry for that young man’s mother. Not just for how the young man doubtless treats her, but also because I’ve a sinking feeling that I know how his father treats his mother too.

    He’s as stupid as he is rude. I’ve learned a huge amount in my 5th decade, and I expect to learn a huge amount more in my 6th. Of course Ophelia’s knows more than I do – she’s got a head start. But then, if you haven’t learned anything much in the last 5 years, you probably wouldn’t expect other people to have learned much in the last 50.

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