The cloak of invisibility and the sexualisation of older women
On Monday evening, I said “goodnight” to a sister lesbian radfem on the train after a time full of radical talk with other radfems.
It was about 11pm. She asked me if I was walking and I said I make a principle of doing so. I will not remain imprisoned, unable to go out, because men are predatory.
On my route home, I was sexually objectified by two different men. I had my music on loud, as always, so that I can block men out as much as possible. The first was a comment I heard, in-between songs. The second time was more invasive and potentially dangerous. He scooted his bike right in front of me. He was a young man. I couldn’t hear what he said but I could tell by his gestures, his facial expressions and the way his mouth moved, that he thought I was sexually available because I am a woman, walking the streets at night, alone. And it’s not the first time young men have considered me sexually available to them, day or night, over many months of gestures, touches, words, actions which indicate they think I am prey when I go about my business.
I wanted to kill him but of course I couldn’t so I pretended it was he who was invisible and walked quickly passed him.
The incident was all the more poignant because I’d just been with my sisters, talking about the way in which there is a systematic war on women and there was I, away from my sisters, under threat and attack. I was scared but I was angry. I was fucking furious that my life is routinely invaded in this way and that I feared for it just because a man thought I was prey on the streets.
In the meeting I’d just been at, an older woman talked about being “invisible”. There it was again. That word. I’d heard other older women talk about being “invisible”. Mostly, it was said in a negative way reflecting the ageism older women face when they’re no longer seen as sexually desirable to men. Women are, of course, always assessed according to their sexual usefulness and availability to men. But I remember there was one older woman at the radfem12 conference who said that her invisibility gave her freedom to subvert. She goes on actions, alone, small acts of defiance and anger against patriarchy and no one notices her doing it. She has on the cloak of feminist older women’s invisibility and she uses it.
I want that cloak. I want to roam the streets at night free from harassment, I want to challenge men for what they do to women and not be seen or heard – just the footprint of my words permanently etched on patriarchy.
I don’t understand why I don’t feel the cloak of invisibility. I am an older woman. I should be engulfed in it by now but I am not. I am sexualised, and seen as sexually available by men, more now, than I have been since I was a young woman. This has been puzzling me for a while so I did my own investigations and discovered that older women are yet another fetishised group, like lesbians, like nuns. “MILF” = “mothers I’d like to fuck”. Another group of women who are not readily sexually available to men and who they want to own and consume. Older women are usually presented, in a typical patriarchal reversal, as being the predators, named “cougars” and portrayed as desperately seeking out younger men for sexual pleasure. It’s an extension of the “Oh come on, we know she’s really gagging for it” line applied to all women while they harass us. It’s almost always been younger men who have accosted me in the streets and elsewhere. Slightly different from when i was younger, a bit less patronising, but with the same unmistakeable agenda of sexually objectifying me.
I suspect the difference between those older women who feel invisible and those who don’t is purely about how far we are perceived to conform, or don’t, to patriarchal ideas of “femininity”. As a fat woman, I encountered fat abuse during the day and was less likely to be accosted at night time. At night time, as a fat woman, walking around, I got a glimpse of what it would feel like to have on a cloak of invisibility. In the day time, it would slip, when men felt they had a right to make abusive and aggressive comments about my body, for taking up too much space. And I was visible again.
I hope all older women, when/if we get it, embrace that cloak of invisibility. It gives us power to fight back, unseen, against a system of oppression which says women are only visible when we are sexually objectified and/or assessed according to our (lack of) fuckability. Let’s permanently freeze, on the spot, with our magic wand, every man who stops women in the streets and makes them feel unsafe , and liberate all women from oppressive male relationships by inviting them under the cover of our cloak and march on until we’ve dismantled patriarchy. Older women, in and through, our invisibility are, and can be, powerful.