Women’s Work

Re­sis­tance isn’t fu­tile, says jour­nal­ist and au­thor El­iz­a­beth Ren­zetti and why turn­ing 50 proved it

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Re­sis­tance isn’t fu­tile and why turn­ing 50 proves it

SO MUCH HAP­PENS when you turn 50. If you’re lucky, as I was, your friends will hire a Rolling Stones cover band to play at your birth­day party, and the band will blow its amp dur­ing the first song – “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – and you will try not to take this as a metaphor for your life.

You will be­gin to no­tice body parts that had never once crossed your mind, let alone been the sub­ject of concern. “I don’t have el­bows any­more,” said a friend, equally mid­dle-aged. “I have hell­bows.” Your blad­der will shrink in com­pen­sa­tion for your bank ac­count grow­ing. You may look at Frances McDor­mand and won­der, “Would I also be a sil­ver fox if I stopped colouring my hair?”

Best of all, in my ex­pe­ri­ence at least, the self-doubt­ing voice in your head grows fainter, as if it’s a ra­dio sta­tion and you’ve driven out of its range. I have writ­ten an es­say about this evil in­ner critic, “The Voice in Your Head Is an Ass­hole,” and it ap­pears in my new es­say collection, Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Ob­served Look at the Lives of Women and Girls. I could not have writ­ten this book be­fore I turned 50 and the voice started to sput­ter and fade.

Un­less you’re ex­cep­tion­ally lucky or sturdy or per­haps are tak­ing very good med­i­ca­tion, you will rec­og­nize the voice I’m talk­ing about. It tells you, in a se­duc­tive purr, not to bother try­ing for that pro­mo­tion or that au­di­tion or that re­la­tion­ship be­cause you’re not wor­thy. It’s all been done be­fore and bet­ter. The voice is a scream in your teens, a roar in your 20s, a con­stant drone in your 30s, but by the time you hit 50, it be­comes a wee an­noy­ing buzz you can ig­nore. It’s a Mean Girl with dy­ing bat­ter­ies.

Fifty is when you re­al­ize that you are not ac­tu­ally in the mid­dle of life, un­less you have the longevity of a Gala­pa­gos tor­toise. The clock is tick­ing. It’s time to get things done, to ig­nore the in­ner critic and paint that pic­ture, change that job, run that marathon, pub­lish that book. An­nie Proulx re­leased her first novel, Post­cards, when she was 57; Frank McCourt pub­lished An­gela’s Ashes when he was 66. There is a great free­dom that comes with feel­ing that you have noth­ing left to lose, right around the time when the obituary page is start­ing to fill with the names of friends.

In my case, I wanted to write a collection of es­says about women’s lives be­cause I am a fem­i­nist who has been writ­ing about gen­der is­sues for all of my pro­fes­sional life and, at the end of 2016, I was in a state of shock. In Oc­to­ber of that year, I found my­self at a Don­ald Trump rally in Tampa, Fla., where I came across a lit­tle girl dressed as an im­pris­oned Hil­lary Clin­ton, com­plete with a rub­ber Hil­lary mask and a tiny striped in­mate’s cos­tume.

The girl l ooked to be around 11 – the same age as my daugh­ter. When I saw her at that rally – where thou­sands of the men and women in the crowd were bay­ing “Lock her up” at Trump’s prompt- ing – I knew I had to write about a this mo­ment. Even hear­ing this vit­riol, I still be­lieved that Clin­ton would win the elec­tion; I was deaf to the hos­til­ity around me. Lit­tle did I know that the es­say I went on to write would be a sor­row­ful one, about the rise of a poi­sonous, sex­ist dem­a­gogue to the high­est po­lit­i­cal of­fice in the world.

I needed to be 50, to have spent decades in­ter­view­ing other women about their lives, to write about all of this. I needed to be able to look at the lives of my mother, who had lived fem­i­nism in her daily life as a nurse and a sin­gle par­ent, and my daugh­ter, whose gen­er­a­tion was sup­posed to have in­her­ited a bet­ter world. On the day af­ter the American pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, still reel­ing – ev­ery­one I knew was reel­ing, if they weren’t cry­ing.

I set out to write a book that would, in many ways, an­swer that ques­tion. About how we needed to lis­ten to younger women’s con­cerns and draw in and raise up the voices of fem­i­nists who had tra­di­tion­ally been marginal­ized in the move­ment, in­clud­ing women of colour and LGBTQ women. But, at the same time, how we could also hon­our the wis­dom of women who had strug­gled and fought and marched for decades be­fore. We could look to the fu­ture while also re­spect­ing the vet­eran war­riors I saw at the Women’s March on Wash­ing­ton, who car­ried signs that said, “I can’t be­lieve

I still have to protest this shit.”

Above all, I wanted to hon­our women who were un­afraid to stand up and shout, or sit down and write their com­pli­cated truths – women who had told the voices in their heads to be quiet for a damn minute be­cause there was work to be done. I ended up writ­ing about ac­tivists and politi­cians and nov­el­ists and ev­ery­day Janes who were mak­ing waves, big and small.

Along the way, in the decades I’ve been writ­ing, I’ve en­coun­tered women whose em­brace of their power is ter­ri­fy­ing to oth­ers. In one of the es­says in my book, I write about an in­ter­view I con­ducted with Ger­maine Greer, fem­i­nist and fire­cracker, at her lovely farm­house in the English coun­try­side, with dogs and a pea­cock play­ing at our feet. I wanted to know how she felt about her fear­some rep­u­ta­tion for stir­ring the pot and some­times giv­ing of­fence: Greer fixed me with her bright blue eyes and said, “When some­one says to me ‘Do you know how much you frighten peo­ple?’ the only thing I can say is ‘Not enough. Nowhere near enough.’”

I wanted to have those words em­broi­dered on a pil­low, tat­tooed on my saggy el­bows. Imag­ine in­spir­ing dread in­stead of suc­cumb­ing to it? It seemed an in­sur­mount­able goal. In the last few months, though, just as I fin­ished writ­ing Shrewed, the great #MeToo wave broke across the world, a joy­ful, re­bel­lious noise: no longer were women obey­ing the si­lenc­ing, pun­ish­ing voice in their heads. Now they were lis­ten­ing to each other’s voices raised in de­fi­ance. It was worth wait­ing 50 years to hear it.

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