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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 19-Jun-14 14:10:56

Sexist ageism - a new, noxious mix?

There's ageism, and then there's sexism - put them both together and you get a particularly noxious mix, says Helen Walmsley-Johnson, aka The Guardian's Invisible Woman.

Suffering sexist abuse, or discrimination that a younger woman wouldn't be subjected to can only be described as sexist ageism, and looking the other way isn't doing anyone any favours.

Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Sexist ageism - a new, noxious mix?

Posted on: Thu 19-Jun-14 14:10:56


Lead photo

The Guardian's Invisible Woman, Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Most days in summer, my walk around Greenwich Park is one of the great treats of my freelance life. The views! The river! There's the Observatory, the Naval College, other people's dogs and of course, the park itself. Today was different.

As I swung out of the park gates and into Greenwich itself two young men tucked in behind me, one of them riding a bike. They were loud in the way that young lads are. This was irritating but not the end of the world. Although the street was crowded with tourists they insisted on riding the bike on the pavement. They were riding just a little too close in a way that made me feel uncomfortable - I haven't liked people behind me since I was mugged in a car park in 1976 (these things stay with you). It slowly dawned on me that what they were saying was meant for me to hear - they were talking about me, ripping the piss out of my brisk walk, calling me a "juggernaut" and howling with fake laughter. Unpleasant, but again not worth raising my blood pressure over.

Then I spent 10 minutes listening to them assessing the group of uniformed school girls we'd just passed on the basis of "yeah, I'd screw her" or not. By the time we reached the Cutty Sark I'd had enough and so I stepped aside and insisted they pass, suggesting as they did that they might keep their sexist remarks to themselves in future. Now it's one thing to be called "a rancid old c**t" on twitter but quite another to have someone yelling it in your face in a spittle-flecked rant which included the opinion that they didn't mind being accused of sexism by a real woman (doubtful) but not by "some dried up old geezer". Nice.

There is ageism, which inclines towards a benign "oh, are you still here?" amnesia about older generations and then there is sexism, which is not benign.

Maybe I asked for it. Perhaps I should have ignored them altogether and perhaps I would have if I hadn't been so angry on behalf of the schoolgirls (and indirectly my own daughters and granddaughters). But then, why should I? Why is it alright for two lads to offend dozens of men, women and children on a sunny June morning? Why is it okay for them to stand in a crowded square and hurl vile abuse at me for politely asking them to stop? And why did everyone who turned to look then look away and pretend nothing was wrong?

There is ageism, which inclines toward a benign "oh, are you still here?" amnesia about older generations and then there is sexism, which is not benign. You put the two together and you get a particularly noxious mix - sexist ageism. This is what is experienced by mouthy middle aged feminists who have the nerve to express an opinion in public, or the 50-something woman who applies for a front of house job and is ruled out for no reason other than her age. It's what I'd call an advertisement requesting a PA "with previous model experience". I'm often told it doesn't exist, but usually by people who have been thus far untroubled by competing in the open job market or have never had to convince anyone that their opinions still matter and their experience still has worth.

There is a dangerous inclination amongst my generation to take the view that because they aren't personally experiencing it then, ergo, there's no such thing, that it's been made up to frighten us. By saying nothing and doing nothing we are condoning it and colluding in its progression, just as by turning their backs the people by the Cutty Sark this morning were condoning two strapping great lads publicly abusing a tiny 58-year-old woman. Yes, it upset me but no, I won't be bullied into shutting up about something that is so wrong, and nor should any of us.

By Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Twitter: @TheVintageYear

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 19-Jun-14 14:21:44

Crikey! I've never had anything like that happen to me. Perhaps it's a London thing.

I don't think I would have turned away. I hope not.

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 19-Jun-14 14:25:18

I think you have to be very careful not to start getting afraid of something like this happening. It could stop you going out on your own. The majority of "yoofs" are fine.

Aka Thu 19-Jun-14 14:35:01

I'd like to think I'd say something too, but I know most people would 'walk by on the other side'.

Elegran Thu 19-Jun-14 14:58:38

Because the majority "walk by on the other side" their behaviour goes unchallenged and gets worse. It has a snowball effect. If the majority made it known that such aggression is unacceptable, the snowball effect would work the other way and there would be less of it. What would happen if they phsically attacked and gang-banged one of these young girls? Would passersby do nothing then? How far do they have to go?

I would like to think that I would join in any condemnation if I came across this, but it does take courage.

Aka Thu 19-Jun-14 15:07:36

I had a situation in a supermarket car park with my late MiL where some lout nearly knocked us over and then stopped, rolled down his window yelled foul abuse at us. She set up such a caterwauling that it drew the attention of several nearby shoppers who were about to step in when he drove off. In panic I think.

I wonder what effect a sustained and loud scream would have had in this situation? hmm

constance Thu 19-Jun-14 16:36:11

Good for you Helen. Shame on them for being hateful and hate-filled. Thank you on behalf of me and my daughters

janeainsworth Thu 19-Jun-14 16:51:04

I know it's a cliche, but I think this sort of anti-social behaviour might happen less if the police had a more visible presence on the streets.
Well done Helen for standing up to them.
I agree Elegran, it's time for zero tolerance so that more people might have the courage to say something.

Ana Thu 19-Jun-14 17:02:09

I can't help but think that the louts in question would simply have jeered at any police and made off. Or claimed harrassment and/or assault...sad

annodomini Thu 19-Jun-14 17:44:17

I was walking up a narrow footpath on my way from the station to my DS's house when three teenage girls came up behind me, one of them singing raucously - I can't remember the words now, but I knew they were aimed at me. I moved aside to let them pass. The rowdiest one ran past, but one of the others apologised for her friend's behaviour. I would be very shocked if any of my GC were to behave in that disrespectful way.

Babyboomer Thu 19-Jun-14 19:01:21

I think you were very courageous to take those louts to task - I'm sure I wouldn't have been brave enough. I'm afraid that sexist ageism, noxious though it certainly is, is nothing new - just look at Dickens for a start (though without the swearing, obviously). Schools today try to combat the evil of racism, which comes from much the same kind of mindset, so perhaps they could include lessons for boys about treating women of all ages decently.

Cunisap Thu 19-Jun-14 20:44:10

Obviously I wasn't ever overtly rude, but now I am sixty something I wish I had had more respect for older people when I was younger!

rosesarered Thu 19-Jun-14 20:54:54

You are right Elegran if more people spoke up it wouldn't happen so often.I have spoken up in the past, when faced with loutish behaviour [ but you do have to be careful.]There isn't much of this kind of behaviour where I live, but I think if you live in a big town or city there probably is.It's hateful hearing boys/young men talking about women in this way, what's wrong with them?Far from looking 'big' it makes them look very 'small'.

janerowena Thu 19-Jun-14 21:03:48

They don't only do it to older women, they do it to younger ones as well. A friend is currently very upset and worried that she may have to send her daughters to school by taxi because they were followed home by two loutish yobs criticising them and swearing. The devil getting into them is how it would have been put years ago. It's nothing new, I had something similar happen in a largish market town about 20 years ago, in my 30s. They looked yobs, they were yobs, they were bored and were probably only about sixteen but had left school and had nothing to do, no jobs. they were making themselves feel better. It was sport.

Eloethan Fri 20-Jun-14 00:51:15

After going on the big Stop the War march with my friend, who was wearing a CND badge, we were called "stupid old cows" and "traitors" by a bunch of louts on the tube. We stood up to them but it was quite frightening.

It must be even more frightening confronting people like that if you're on your own, and I do admire her courage. I'm surprised nobody stepped in but it often happens when there are a lot of people around that everybody thinks somebody else will say/do something. I think it's called the "bystander effect".

thatbags Fri 20-Jun-14 06:45:35

Not saying anything to or turning one's back on people who are behaving badly in public is not "condoning".

I'm wondering why you didn't step aside for them to pass you as soon as you felt uncomfortable, at the start of your second paragraph.

I'm sorry you had such an unpleasant experience. Well done for attempting to reprimand them, but please don't blame people who are less daring. Not being brave enough to confront trouble-makers and rowdies is self-preservation, not "condoning". One disapproves but one does not want to be personally abused so one ducks out of range. This is normal behaviour and you should not be criticising it.

JessM Fri 20-Jun-14 07:15:03

I follow @everydaysexism on Twitter. Should be called: every day sexual harassment of young women in public places. When I was growing up men used to cat call or wolf whistle but never more than that in public places. The younger generation of women are suddenly waking up to the idea that feminism is not old hat that is not an issue for them.

janeainsworth Fri 20-Jun-14 07:36:48

Bags To walk on by without saying anything may not be condoning, which implies positive approval, but it does imply that you don't disapprove, which in effect gives permission for the antisocial behaviour to continue.

How brave one should expect people to be is difficult, isn't it? I don't think there can be a 'normal' response to a frightening or difficult situation, and a lot depends on making a judgement as to whether it's safe to intervene in the particular circumstances.

Aka Fri 20-Jun-14 07:50:59

I cannot understand that attitude Bags and I wonder how you would feel if you were to be verbally, or even physically abused, and people just stood and looked on or turned their backs.

Aka Fri 20-Jun-14 07:52:51

Sounds like you're blaming the 'victim' too...did she 'ask for it' perhaps?

mcem Fri 20-Jun-14 07:55:32

As we made our way to the back of the bus recently, Gs stumbled but didn't quite fall over. He was fine and sat next to his sister and me. Two teenage girls laughed and one called out 'He fell, he fell!' I turned and pointed out that he was only 4 and I thought she was being very unkind. A few minutes later as she was leaving the bus, she stopped and offered me a 50p piece to buy a sweet for the children. I told her that wasn't necessary but that I very much appreciated the idea. She smiled, said goodbye to the children and left, leaving us all feeling better.
It wasn't an aggressive situation but it was one where I didn't want the children to think that this was acceptable behaviour.

Experigran Fri 20-Jun-14 08:08:06

When I was in my late fifties I was under a great deal of stress. To cope I used to simply walk, power walk, for miles. One evening after such a walk, I had stones thrown at my legs by several young lads. I was so angry that I turned, shouted, "You've picked the wrong one tonight!" and chased them at full speed along the street. They ran as fast as they could. I shouted that I knew where they all lived and would tell their mothers. I saw them several times after that, but they never bothered me again. I think I frightened them more than they did me. I must admit that less adrenaline might have made a difference.

Gagagran Fri 20-Jun-14 08:11:06

Well I own up to being cowardly and would always avoid confrontation in the kinds of situations mentioned above. It's nothing to do with condoning the behaviours, it's self-preservation.

I always told my son to walk away from confrontation and not get involved in any physical fights even though he was a strong rugby-player. I'd rather he was safe than brave with a knife in his ribs.

Experigran Fri 20-Jun-14 08:28:15

Now, in my late seventies, I live in a flat above an Indian take away on the High Street. The take away is run by a man, his wife and teenage daughter. he and his wife have limited English although the daughter is fluent. One night I heard a great deal of aggressive shouting down below. I am unable to see what is happening this side of the street as my window over hangs the pavement, but I feared that they were abusing this family and, as there is no exit at the back of the shop, I feared for their safety.

I decided to go down and look through his window in order to get help if they were suffering abuse. My door is tucked round the side wall of the shop and I stepped out right into the middle of a gang of teenagers. They were not in the shop as I had thought, but on the pavement outside. One was on the phone and the aggressive abusive language continued at top volume. Time for the little old lady approach!

I said very kindly, "My dear you seem to be in trouble, is there something I could do to help, maybe call the police for you?" "I'm on to the fing police, they won't listen" was the reply. I touched his arm gently and said that he should calm down think clearly what he wanted to say and then they would listen. He thanked me and did just that. I turned round and quickly went back upstairs. A policeman arrived almost immediately, probably because they had heard me in the middle of them.

I think you have to adjust your own behaviour and approach to the situation. My safety was my main concern and I would not have got myself into that situation had others safety not been of concern. Had I started to tell them off for being aggressive, I'm sure their reactions would have been totally different.

Elegran Fri 20-Jun-14 08:33:15

That applies to many of us, and it is sensible, Gagagran but it is just as well that some people are prepared to step in when they see the weak being bullied. Otherwise there would be muggings and rapes in our towns in front of crowds of shoppers. Even in a busy city like Edinburgh, a young woman was dragged into a green space in the city centre recently and attacked in broad daylight. There were many witnesses! If they had all joined together to restrain her attacker, she would have been safe.