Dolly, Jane Fonda and why we all rise when women support women
The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (December 18th 2022)
Happy nearly Christmas – I hope you are on the downward slope to the holidays. My phone is pinging with joyous relatives boasting about finishing work and sending pictures of themselves walking dogs in the snowy sunshine. Personally I’ve got a bit more to do before I switch off – but I am planning a very serious Betwixtmas (love that phrase) where I intend to sit on the sofa in my pyjamas, watch tv, read books (tips on what at the end of this newsletter), cuddle up with my nearest and dearest, and eat as many Baci chocolates as possible. Usually we spend Betwixtmas scuttling around the country seeing various relatives; this year we’ve already done all that and my plan is to stay firmly put for the first time in years. We all need a rest. I’ve learnt from experience that Christmas can be stressful and exhausting so this time I’ve taken steps to make it the opposite!
I did go on a very festive Queenager jolly last week to watch Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas at the Southbank. It was a bit Christian and lacking in rhinestones for my taste; I could have done with an Abba-style hologram of Dolly herself to liven it up! Instead we got a reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with a (boo hiss) Ebenezer Scrooge mine and bank owner. The show wasn’t sure if it was high camp or deadly serious. I went with twenty, rather tipsy, ladies so we thigh slapped and Yahoo-ed our way through it. I am writing about it not to encourage you to go, but because I want to thank Katie Vanneck Smith who organised it for everything she does to bring women together and support them. Entirely unilaterally she’d bought the tickets, organised bowl food and drinks before hand, got together a Jolly Dolly Festive whatsapp and ensured that those of us who should meet, did so. It’s not the first time, either. Last month she organised an amazing dinner for a group of Queenagers, just because she thought we should all know each other. Madeleine Albright says there is a special circle of hell reserved for women who don’t help other women. If that’s true, then there is a special tier in heaven reserved for those who do – and Katie is in it.
It still astounds me that this isn’t the norm. Too often in our world the women who get to the top still do so by adopting a Margaret-Thatcher-style ‘Queen Bee’ ethos, pulling up the drawbridge behind them rather than using their patronage to ensconce other women in their wake. There was a brilliant study done of the Dutch Police Servicewhich showed that when there are very few women in an organisation, those who are there define themselves as NOT being like other women, but exceptional and special, so they denigrate others. Hearteningly, the research showed that as women enter the ranks in more plentiful numbers (the tipping point was 30% female) then more collaborative behaviours serve the women better; by helping and supporting each other, they all advance. Collaboration and support, not exceptionalism, then gets women further. (And of course is the right thing to do!!!)
Unfortunately some female leaders haven’t got the memo; you know the kind of female bosses I am talking about, the ones who behave like the worst kind of men. But in a (tight) dress, who only talk about sport and shut down all women-friendly initiatives. I call it Cressida Dick Syndrome, after the female head of the Metropolitan Police who was chief during the Sarah Everard murder and all the other racism and misogyny. Often leaders are given jobs because they are seen as someone who won’t rock the boat or challenge the status quo…. hmmm we all know women who have got to the top like that.
It can be something of a taboo to mention it, but I often hear women saying the worst boss they ever had was a woman. This came up very strongly in a LinkedIn Live I did last week with Joy Burnford (author of Don’t Fix Women). Often the female offenders have struggled up through appallingly hostile cultures to make it and have become desensitised in the process; they don’t see why younger women should have it easier (whether that’s flexible working or extended maternity leave or time off for other caring responsibilities). We need to acknowledge and process this phenomenon and unpick it. It’s not all women’s fault. Two thousand years of patriarchy have programmed women to police each other, to critique and judge other women. Divide and rule is the first law of oppression. If women judge and put down each other, that makes the status quo much easier to uphold. In its most extreme form as outlined by Hibo Wardere in her brilliant book Cut this results in FGM or forced marriage, or those so-called Honour Killings where women, often female relatives, enforce the patriarchal status quo on younger females, ‘for their own good’ or often to safeguard their marriageability and family status.
It is hard to de-program. As women we’ve all been taught to judge each other, just think of how aware you are of other womens’ bodies and outfits, how a whole industry of magazines and media encourages us to measure ourselves up against each other. So many of you tell me about the legacy of your toxic mothers, their judgements – particularly around weight, or sexual mores – ringing in our ears and our minds long after they should. On the silent retreat that I went on (at the end when we were allowed to speak) so many of the women talked about how what they most wanted to do was to silence their inner critic, to turn off the harsh way they judged themselves and other women. This internalised misogyny is writ large in our culture – just think of the way women lap up articles about ‘cankles’ or ‘wrinkly knees’ or judge other women for their weight. Or think of all the brilliant examples in Mary Ann Sieghart’s book The Authority Gap about how women also cede authority to men; it’s not our fault, it’s embedded in the culture. But we can try and unpick it in ourselves by becoming aware of it.
I campaign a lot in the wider world now about gendered ageism – where ageism meets sexism – and changing the hostile narrative around women and ageing. But we also have to change the stories and value judgements in our own heads. We all need to learn not to look at our wrinkles with disgust but with compassion and kindness as evidence of life well lived, years under the bridge, laughter passed, experience won. Not to judge ourselves through the male lens of the media and the patriarchy for no longer being the fecund, young ideal of femalehood our culture pushes on us as the only acceptable variety.
Afterall, if we Queenagers can’t embody this shift in attitude in ourselves, and re-programme our own thinking about this, then how can we expect the wider world to change? It’s getting to grips with our own unconscious bias, catching ourselves at it and doing it differently.
I challenge you to do it over Christmas.. everytime you catch yourself being judgy about another woman just notice it and try and be kind instead. I’ve just had to do it myself, while writing this newsletter. I’d written a sentence about Anthea Turner, who was sitting just in front of us at Dolly, showing a lot of shoulder. Well why shouldn’t she? She looked fantastic and happy! But I don’t think that was the place that I was originally commenting from! And by doing so I broke my own rule, which is to try and never comment on any woman’s body shape or weight – ever; who cares if they are fatter or thinner – does it really matter in the scheme of things? Just saying it is to strengthen the cultural narrative that it matters, even if you mean it as a compliment. Instead, just say you love their smile, or their scarf; stop yourself going there on anything else. The Gen Z generation do this as a matter of course, because they are in the midst of an tsunami of eating disorders and they know any comment on weight or body size can be massively triggering. They are horrified by how often older women do this too each other… And it’s a good starting point for all of us: Just think how much positive brain time we could all free up if we stopped worrying about if we are too fat or thin, or how we look… surely by this time we can do that? In the spirit of Christmas let’s all decide to raise and praise each other….and have seconds and a whole tray of chocolates without guilt…. Just try it.
I was thinking about this because last week I also watched the epic Jane Fonda interview on Sky Arts – her story is a forensic examination of the misogyny that accompanies being in the public eye for the last half a century and the toll that female-hood exacts. She’s had a tough ride. Her mother committed suicide when she was a child, her father told her she was fat and re-married a woman barely a decade older than she was, Fonda was a bulimic from her teens and for most of her life, and like many women of her Baby Boomer generation, defined and valued herself by the men she was with and her appearance (Jane Fonda Workout anyone?). It was only finally in her late Queenagehood that Fonda left Ted Turner to, in her words, “become myself”. She said she realised that she could only become the woman she was supposed to be, and be truly authentic to her real nature and the causes she so passionately believed in, if she was on her own. She also talks movingly about coming to terms with “your own shadow” (Yes we all have to do a bit of that, me included.) And her guilt at her neglect of her older child and her man-focussed ways; and how she still hopes she can put it right. My god, what a journey and what a woman. A masterclass in the pressures we women face and the powerful forces that created them.
In the same brilliant vein is Simon Schama’s series the History of Now on BBC4. If you are intending to do some TV bingeing this Christmas I really recommend switching over from Escape to the Country (my guilty pleasure, am I the only one who LOVES Alistair, particularly in his pink jacket?) and watch some cultural heavyweights explaining how we’ve arrived at this divisive time in history. Simon Schama’s passion at all he has witnessed in his lifetime, the erosion of free speech and the role art has in shining a light in dark times, is truly important for us all. His accompanying long-form interviews with the likes of Ai Wei Wei who is singlehandedly standing up to the Chinese government, or Pussy Riot (doing the same for Putin at huge personal cost) show that the actions of individuals in standing up for freedom do matter. That we are never too small to make a difference (just think of a tiny mosquito in a big bedroom on a hot night). These programmes are not only riveting brain food but a necessary reset and warning about complacency and the role we can all play in changing things.
On that note, I’ll be sending out a detailed email next week about the next Book Club – it is a real delight and will take place on Zoom on January 18th at 7pm. (I’ll send the link closer to the time). The author is a debut novelist, Shelley Read, 58, an amazing Queenager who has written a book called Go As A River which I’ve just finished reading and is going to be one of THE great books of 2023. It is vivid and beautiful, a love story, a coming of age story – but also a book which deals with bigger, darker themes, of the terrible treatment of native Americans and the harshness of women’s lives. particularly when coupled with forbidden love.
We are lucky to be having a world exclusive peek at the book for the Noon Book Club. I met Shelley a couple of weeks ago when she came to London from her native Colorado. She spent thirty years as an academic living in the mountains of Colorado where the book is set, and only started writing full time a couple of years ago. Go As A River has been snapped up in 40 territories globally and she is set to be a star. She is living proof that you are never too old and it is never too late to realise your dreams. Her warmth, wisdom and insight into midlife and becoming are wonderful. So big thanks to our friends at Transworld for sorting this out for us. I can’t wait!
(FYI the first 100 Paid Subscribers to the Queenager newsletter will get sent a proof of Go As a River. The world-exclusive proofs were sent out last week and look like this – I hope you enjoy it! Please do tell us what you think.)
In the meantime, have a great Christmas! And don’t forget there is a Noon Circle for Paid Subscribers on December 20th at 7pm in Soho, with the wonderful Julia Bueno author of Everyone’s a Critic (all about coming to terms with that critical inner voice) who is also a Noon Advisory Board member. And Thelma Mensah is also joining us to talk about soft life (do have a read of her piece, on Noon now or listen to our Insta Live).
Lots of love
By Eleanor Mills