Lynne Segal on the politics, pains and pleasures of ageing

Time is a harsh mistress but there’s much to look forward to, says the doyenne of the Left

October 31, 2013

Source: Peter Searle

She is sharp on the way that celebrations of ‘positive ageing’ often conceal a neoliberal agenda to cut back on welfare provision

“At the first women’s liberation march,” recalls Lynne Segal, anniversary professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck, University of London, “we sang, ‘Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved’ and thought it was very funny. But although none of us would have affirmed our own beauty, we were young and the world in general did affirm it – so we could treat it with disdain.”

Segal tells this story to illustrate her contention that although ageing obviously has a biological element, it is also deeply affected by cultural factors and “how we see other people seeing us” – and this tends to play out rather differently for men and for women.

Now in “what still feels like early old age” (she recently put “fluctuating, post-65” when asked her age on a form), Segal has decided to look back as well as forward and write a book, Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing, which explores “the process of ageing as a time of preservation and possibility, quite as much as one of devastation and decline”.

This arises fairly directly out of her reflective but exuberant 2007 memoir, Making Trouble: Life and Politics, where Segal describes the many radical causes she has been involved in, starting with a group called the Sydney Push in her native Australia. She offers a striking account of giving birth to her son in 1969 and immediately finding herself, briefly, homeless.

She moved permanently to London the following year, bought a large house in Highbury and ran it as a collective household for the next two decades, acquiring a treasured but, she insists, undeserved reputation as “the woman who lives in a four-storey house with a different lover on each floor”.

Making Trouble goes on to give an amused, affectionate portrait of the socialist-feminist politics of the 1970s, charting the ideological schisms, the politics of penetration and the complex sexual arrangements of a time when feminists “sought both commitment and responsibility from men, while inevitably often competing with other women for just those men (and, increasingly, those women) who excited us with their traditionally alluring qualities of strength, authority, charm and glamour, even though exercised in less traditional arenas”. This sexual magnetism still “sprang from a certain phallic confidence (and the dangers this threatened)” – some of the qualities most subject to feminist critique.

The book includes a chapter on how looking back can inspire political activism in the present, as Segal’s reflections on her Jewish roots recently led her to a deep engagement with the issue of Israel/Palestine. Another chapter considers what happens “when sexual warriors grow old”. Both these themes are examined more deeply in Out of Time.

I met Segal for lunch in a restaurant near the notorious house in Highbury, where she still lives. There is little about her appearance, energy or the range of activities she describes that suggest even “early old age”. Active in many political causes, she also seems to enjoy a flourishing social life amid the several generations of radicals she has come to know during nearly 40 years of juggling activism and scholarship.

She worked in the psychology department at Enfield College of Technology (later Middlesex Polytechnic and then Middlesex University) for more than 25 years before being appointed, in 1999, to her current (now part-time) post at Birkbeck. She still teaches and supervises on the master’s course in gender, sexuality and culture that she used to run, as well as taking a seminar for doctoral students in psychosocial studies. And she is regularly sought out as a supervisor by PhD students, many of them “curious about times when things seemed to be more possible”.

“I started teaching at a time of great expansion in higher education,” Segal reflects. “We were really allowed to be creative and inventive in what we taught.” Although she has always enjoyed teaching and “always managed to smuggle in the issues I’ve wanted to teach”, in her younger days she saw herself as “a full-time politico, working on a local community paper and very much involved in feminist resource centres. I was really the activist and my teaching was like a part-time job.”

Segal began to produce a number of well-researched but accessible and influential “big picture” books on sexual politics. She edited What Is to be Done about the Family?: Crisis in the Eighties (1983), which ended: “To call for the return of the traditional family is like calling for the return of the British Empire. Its time has passed.” This was followed by analyses of the impact of pornography and “changing masculinities”, as well as Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure (1994), in which Segal challenged the radical feminist line of the time that heterosexuality is intrinsically exploitative of women and lesbianism a more authentic option.

Lynne Segal

“I was doing my teaching and involved in community activism,” she notes, “and then at my polytechnic they started promoting people who had written books. So I said: ‘Shouldn’t I get promoted?’ I applied and quickly became a professor, because I’d written books out of my political and cultural interests.”

Although her books undoubtedly had “impact”, Segal suspects that the sheer workload young academics now have to take on means that her “trajectory – engaged with the world and then trying to feed that back into my teaching – would be a much harder one to live today”.

Out of Time focuses on “the psychology and politics of ageing” and “the possibilities for and impediments to staying alive to life itself”.

Segal has a good deal to say about the “generational warfare” stoked up by commentators who blame the baby boomers rather than the bankers for the economic crisis, not to mention the “rather dim-witted” case that David Willetts puts forward in his 2010 book The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back, that “the ‘politics’ of an entire population of the new elderly could be declared ‘selfish’”.

She is equally sharp on the way that celebrations of “positive ageing” often conceal a neoliberal agenda to cut back on welfare provision. She notes how even “attempts to combat ageism” often incorporate an “unthinking disparagement of old age”, with one researcher realising “she had constantly emphasised sameness rather than differences between the old and the young, reminiscent of the once familiar way of ‘praising’ a woman for being ‘just like a man’. It seemed as if the only way to overcome ageism was to suggest that old people were not ‘really old’, but could be seen in some sense as ‘still young’.”

Although hardly of a melancholic temperament – at 40, she had “hardly ever, knowingly, let thoughts of my own ageing or mortality cross my mind” – Segal now believes that “dwelling upon mortality can make us more responsive to our bonds with others”. She urges us to “query the cultural obsession with notions of ‘independence’ in favour of acknowledging the value of our life-long mutual dependence”, even though this is something many models of masculinity attempt to deny. And she also has many interesting things to say about everything from grandparenting to bereavement memoirs.

Yet it wasn’t merely prurience that led me to bring the conversation back to questions of desire, sex and ageing bodies, which are among the big challenging issues the book keeps circling round.

In an earlier version, Segal recalls, there was a chapter she was tempted to call “the Jewish penis”, since it focused on ageing male writers such as Philip Roth and “their anxieties about keeping things up”.

But it turned out that her publisher was “more interested in what the women had to say”. So she cites a number of accounts by feminist writers, starting with Simone de Beauvoir, who had spent their lives exploding stereotypes about women but still couldn’t bear the ageing face that looked back at them in the mirror. Some have railed against lost looks, but there have also been several polemics by writers such as Germaine Greer and agony aunt Virginia Ironside declaring themselves “post-sex” and “happily celibate”.

Segal is not wholly convinced by this.

“This is not what the men are saying. What is leading the women to say this? When we were younger, feminists didn’t feel there was this big discrepancy between our ability to find erotic pleasure. I think it is unlikely that there is this significant gender difference. Promoting the idea that women are perfectly happy on their own is one way of evading the difficulties of how straight women form new relationships. I think it’s an evasion, but I don’t think there’s any easy solution…

Lynne Segal

“Publishers want books like Greer’s, about the feisty old woman for whom everything is fine – of course everything isn’t fine! We are beset by frustrations and difficulties.”

In her own case, Segal writes in her book, she finds herself “at the close of my sixties… still in need of attention, affection and praise, fearing that one day I will lose them all”.

Younger men, she tells me, “find it more difficult to find sexual partners. Between 25 and 44, twice as many men as women are living alone, but after 65 it goes into dramatic reverse…What can we do about the fact that it is so much easier for an older man to still find he is an object of attraction than a woman? What can we do about the discrepancies in remarriage after divorce as [the sexes] age?”

Technology only increases some of the discrepancies, she adds.

“While it is possible and exceedingly profitable to promote technologies to ‘banish’ what are seen as physical impediments to sex in old age, primarily those restricting penile performance,” we read in Out of Time, “it is not so easy to change a situation in which older women, if single, find that they are no longer viewed as potential sexual partners by men.”

Faced with this sad situation, Segal has only a few rather half-hearted suggestions. We need to “attack the idea that to be single is to be sort of derelict or sad”. We should “try and detach ourselves from the idea that superficial appearance and wrinkles are the only things we see”. She also notes that having a partner is partly about “being significant to them”, which entails that our age appears less important or advanced to them than it does to others.

More interesting is Segal’s observation about how many women of her age and circle, including herself, who had been heterosexual for most of their lives, found female partners in their sixties. Her book even mentions a “coming out” meeting for the elderly that was swamped by women in their eighties.

So how far has all her research into ageing, I ask, made her more optimistic about the prospects that lie ahead for us all?

It has made her “less pessimistic”, she replies carefully, at least for those with money and in reasonable health. She also picks up on the theme of how returning to the past can be rewarding in itself while also underpinning current commitments.

“For a woman like me coming of age in the Sixties,” she explains, “it was the New Left and feminism that marked who I am and are part of my identity. As you age, one issue is how to remain the person you have always been – one is easily marginalised…

“To be old is very interesting in all sorts of ways. One way is what I call ‘time-travelling’ or ‘temporal vertigo’. You are also all the ages you have been. You fall asleep and you can dream you are still 17 – even if everybody treats you as 110!”

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Reader's comments (1)

Catherine Mayer was there first with her similarly-titled book "Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly" (2011, Random House)