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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

Marmight Fri 20-Jun-14 14:14:30

My DD travelled home to Sydney this week with a toddler who screamed most of the way, the journey from hell for all concerned. No one complained, in fact most passengers were sympathetic. A woman in the row behind had 2 young children who slept for most of the way, then woke up and as children do, wanted to chat and play for the remainder of the journey. A man behind them stood up and ranted and raged at the mother, telling her he wanted down time and to shut them up and had to be asked by the crew to desist. The difference between these two Mums? One was white European, the other Lebanese. I like to think he acted like this as he had just about had enough after hours of crying, but I don't think that was the case. sad
I used to ask people to pick up litter they had dropped or to temper their language in the street, but no longer. Too many drink fuelled, knife wielding people about these days... Although I did recently ask someone to control their dog which was prancing all over our picnic and cocking its leg on the pushchair and was greeted with a torrent of abuse and told the 'dog had rights' shock

petallus Fri 20-Jun-14 15:03:03

Aka she says 'young lads'.

Hollydaze I agree we could sharpen up the fangs of authority (love that phrase) but should this only be applied to rowdy young lads?

What about men on building sites, M.Ps in the Houses of Parliament, a gang of drunk 30 year olds on a night out and probably a percentage of just about any other kind of male group you can think of (I said percentage because I am fully aware there are some very decent men about).

Young woman are routinely subjected to this kind of male harassment which older ones are usually blessedly free from except, of course, if we challenge such behaviour when they are likely to hit us where they think it hurts most.

They think pointing out that we are old and they don't fancy us is the best way to upset us.

The very idea makes me smile.

HollyDaze Fri 20-Jun-14 15:07:30

The very idea makes me smile.

If it was ever said to me I'd think 'thank god for that' grin

Ana Fri 20-Jun-14 15:37:18

From the OP

"two young men tucked in behind me, one of them riding a bike. They were loud in the way that young lads are."

This is slightly confusing. Does she mean that they were being loud in that way because they were young lads, or does she mean that although they were young men, they were behaving like young lads...? confused

GillT57 Fri 20-Jun-14 18:40:38

I have only been a victim of street crime once, fortunately. This was when I was in my late teens, and I was set upon by a group of girls, something to do with one of them wanting a cigarette which I didnt have because I didnt smoke. It was all for effect and to show off, but was extremely unpleasant. I was taken all the way home on the train right to my door by a group of lads. A group who other people would have looked askance at.

Leah11 Sat 28-Jun-14 11:40:40

Good for you Helen! I did this when I was very young. I was with my young Son, in his pushchair, and there was a boy with two girls, using disgusting language. We were all walking along an underpass, near where I once lived. Took some courage to say something, as I was young too, but couldn't let it go. When I said something, the boy apologised, but I had a torrent of abuse from the girls.

Coolgran65 Sat 28-Jun-14 21:17:48

Many years ago I took my 4 year old son to a local garden fete. Having bought a helium £3 balloon we were making our way out of the fete and passed by 4 lads of around 18 yrs, they were well dressed, well spoken and very presentable. One of them thought it was very funny to pop the balloon with a pin.
Oh boy... was I angry.
A man I knew was standing with his wife and quick as a flash I reached my child to him and said Hold him for a moment. I turned after the 4 boys who were only about 5 yards distant. I touched the culprit on the shoulder and asked if he was proud to have destroyed the child's balloon. And could I have £3 to pay for another balloon. He was taken aback and a bit embarrassed. He got out his wallet and said he had no coins, but he did have a £5 note in his hand, so I took the £5 from his hand and said.... In that case, we will have the £5 and consider it an expensive lesson. If you have any objection we will go over to that policeman (who was just across the way).
One new balloon - I was one proud mamma.

Elegran Sat 28-Jun-14 21:21:26

Well done! In those circumstances you have to act instantly, while you are still white-hot with anger.

I hope that boy learnt something from the episode.

Coolgran65 Sun 29-Jun-14 03:36:34

I hope he did learn a lesson, when I said he should replace the balloon he did not object, though of course he was surrounded by many people, including his 3 friends. My feelings at the time were that he had acted on impulse and regretted the action...... although he did have to have something to hand that would pierce the balloon.
He certainly had not expected mamma bear to pounce as she did. And yes, acting instantly was the way to go. And if I had not done anything about it I would have been angry all day, as it was , the matter was dealt with.

papaoscar Sun 29-Jun-14 06:38:57

I found Helen's article and your responses very interesting, very sad but very indicative of the poor state of public conduct in the UK today. Rowdy, loutish behaviour is liable to break out just about anywhere anytime and can lead to very unpleasant confrontations arising out of nothing. I travel around quite a bit and often see people of all ages and types exhibiting behaviour in publc which I find quite unacceptable.

This seems to be much worse in the UK and amongst UK people, and I have often been ashamed at the conduct of UK people abroad, and just walk away from them. What is needed is some self-discipline and sense of national self-control but I don't think we're going to get it. From top to bottom many aspects of the poor old UK have changed for the worse and the deteriorating standard of public behaviour is at the top of the list.

Aka Sun 29-Jun-14 07:13:17


'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'

Cut and pasted from blog

Aka Sun 29-Jun-14 07:21:53

I think papaoscar that there has always been an element of this sort of loutish behaviour in our society, mainly young males with too much testosterone and too few social skills. Sadly, nowadays, it's just as likely to be female 'ladettes', often foul-mouthed and loud.

Is this equality perhaps?

Agus Sun 29-Jun-14 07:49:59

The first ladette I was aware of was Zoe Ball whose idea of equality seemed to be, I can drink and swear as much as the boys! What a sad role model for young girls.

At one time, TV and radio appeared only to employ ladette types and these were the celebs young girls copied. I don't know if this is,still the case but sadly I think that is when that culture started.

papaoscar Sun 29-Jun-14 09:49:52

Yes, you're right, Aka, but I think these days that bad behaviour has become the norm and as you say it is not just confined to lads. In the old days pubs were often rough, tough places, football terraces were not for the faint-hearted, but usually the yobs confronted each other not the general public. I used to enjoy the hurly-burly myself but I don't ever recall us abusing the wider public.

I remember Saturday nights in Portsmouth when the fleet was in were chaotic with the Navy Police, Army Redcaps and civil Police all trying to keep order, and Aldershot was even worse between individual Army units. Even Reading on Saturdays night could be quite a fearsome place but apart from the Teddy Boys the public were not involved. Perhaps things changed with the Mods and Rockers but nowadays bad conduct seems to break out anywhere.

Sadly I think that gentle policing no longer works, so I would now adopt the continental practice of using properly trained, equipped and controlled riot police to patrol public places and maintain order. I would also toughen up the law to deal with offenders. I don't like restricting people's activities but think its the only way to deal with this increasing problem.

papaoscar Sun 29-Jun-14 09:58:19

Perhaps Boris is on the right track for once with his clapped-out old water canons. Looking at the pictures of muddied Glastonbury recently perhaps many of the participants there would have appreciated a good hoseing-down to cool their fevered brows!

Aka Sun 29-Jun-14 10:52:43


WilliamDunn102 Mon 23-Mar-15 14:49:08

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absent Mon 23-Mar-15 19:04:17

Some years ago my seventy something aunt was having a little difficulty removing coins from her purse with her arthritic fingers to pay for her supermarket shopping. A young woman started making loud comments about the silly old trout who shouldn't be allowed out on her own. My aunt addressed her politely saying something along the lines of "I hope that you do not experience the painful misery of arthritis in forty or fifty years time, but if you do, I hope no one feels that is necessary to make rude comments about you in a loud voice". The rest of the supermarket queue broke into applause.