Diary

Mary-Kay Wilmers

I have complained a lot about men in my time. In fact, I do it more and more. But I have never been part of what used to be called the women’s movement and those who have or who are, or who have never wanted to be, would probably consider me a retard of some kind. I didn’t do consciousness-raising with my sisters in the late Sixties. I was married at the time and it seemed to me that if my consciousness were raised another millimetre I would go out of my mind. I used to think then that had I had the chance to marry Charles Darwin (or Einstein or Metternich) I might have been able to accept the arrangements that marriage entails a little more gracefully. In the Eighties, long since divorced, I decided that marriage to Nelson Mandela (or Terry Waite) would have suited me fine.

When The Female Eunuch came out in 1970 the man I was married to bought me a copy (clearly he can’t have been the cause of all my troubles). But it was the same with the book as it had been with the sisters – I couldn’t get on with it. In the first place, I knew it all. Secondly, I couldn’t bear to think about my condition any more than I already did – which was, roughly speaking, all the time that was left from thinking about what to wear, what to cook, and what colour to paint the downstairs lavatory. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not nearly as much of one as I would like it to be.

I am the same age as Germaine Greer and therefore in much the same relation to the subject of her new book, The Change: Women, Ageing and the Menopause,[*] as I was to The Female Eunuch. It’s my story. At least that’s how I see it. (‘Oh God,’ my ex-husband said when I told him what I was writing about.) There are those – i.e. men – who say that a ‘male menopause’ deserves consideration, and it’s true that even men get old and fat and die. But the admirable Greer has no time for their menopauses. ‘This book will not devote any of its limited space to the “male menopause”.’ Later, and more bluntly, it’s ‘a phenomenon that doesn’t exist’.

Would a more fair-minded woman have given the men a hearing? I don’t see why, but then I wouldn’t. ‘Me, me, me,’ the men shout and I hear them very clearly. ‘Me, me, me,’ I growl under my breath. Here I am, four paragraphs into my musings, or ravings, and beginning to doubt whether I will find anything to say about the menopause that isn’t a way of saying something about men. I look out of the window and see a roly-poly middle-aged man about the same age as me walking along arm in arm with his eight-year-old daughter. His first wife, assuming he had one and she was the same sort of age, may now be a millionaire, she may own a chain of shops or be a top civil servant or the wife of a duke: but her womb, according to Greer, will be the size of an almond and one thing she won’t have is an eight-year-old daughter. The menopause isn’t some sort of metaphor and it doesn’t make you believe in the even-handedness of God, or of human biology.

On the other hand, even I don’t think it’s the invention of a mean-minded Creator wanting to give women a bad time. Or do I? Other female animals, we learn from zoology, don’t have a menopause; for better or worse, they carry on reproducing all their adult lives. Human animals take such a long time to get going, however, that they can’t afford to have mothers who are reaching the end of the line. I remember wailing in the days of my marriage that if anyone could suggest one good reason why I should do it I wouldn’t mind being the person who always washed up. Unfortunately I can’t see myself zenning out on thoughts of the species when I next catch sight of that roly-poly man and his daughter. There we are, however. At some point between the ages of forty-five and fifty-five women dip out of the race while men carry on booming and fathering until the very brink of the grave.

An old man I used to know, a painter well into his eighties, was so confident and so predatory that at night you couldn’t walk down the street with him unchaperoned. If it is part of the great scheme of things that men should go on contributing to the world’s population (and the planet’s decline) till they drop, then it follows that they will go on strutting and preening and considering themselves eligible for what Clive James used to call ‘the grade A crumpet’ until at last senility takes hold. (In James’s phrase, Ford Madox Ford, himself neither young nor pretty, had the grade A crumpet ‘coming at him like kamikazes’.) Germaine Greer may say, uncontroversially, that ‘many a man who was attractive and amusing at 20 is a pompous old bore at 50,’ and Melvyn Bragg got a lot of stick for the novel he wrote about an icky romance between a nice enough man in his fifties and an even nicer 18-year-old whose looks were out of this world, but women (for whatever reason) never seem to tire of telling stories about young ladies and older men and living happily ever after. It doesn’t happen very much or very plausibly the other way round, not in life or in books. Even Colette, who pioneered the notion of the young man and the older woman, makes Léa give Chéri up for a biologically-appropriate wife.

‘Men,’ man-in-the-news Iron John Bly reports, ‘are more lonesome in every generation.’ In the last few days, as I’ve been getting more and more inflamed in my thoughts about the human (i.e. female, i.e. menopausal) condition, I’ve been hearing a lot about how hard it is being a man and having to stake your claim and prove your wonderfulness at every turn. Robert Bly says men need a male mother, and that’s fine by me. But I won’t believe it isn’t harder to be a woman until the day, should it ever come, when the balance of power is so drastically reversed that women can get into serious trouble, lose their jobs or be despatched to the gulag, for making jokes about men. However strongly I feel about the things I’ve been saying, I doubt whether anyone – i.e. any man – will find them upsetting. In fact, I wonder whether all my ironies aren’t simply one more way of sucking up to the ruling class. Is it just me, or do men care what women say provided they don’t look like Andrea Dworkin?

On the other hand, I can’t say I think it’s entirely men’s fault that women live as if under their spell. Looking back at what I’ve written so far, it seems clear that I made a mistake in skipping those consciousness-raising sessions. The menopause isn’t simply something that happens to women that doesn’t happen to men. Nor is the big question the really big question why men, all men whatever they have or haven’t got going for them, can always find a woman to sew on their buttons or proof-read their books. What we need to know is whether women are going to go on for ever dreaming about men: dreaming of finding one if they haven’t got one, of winning him back if he is slipping away, of killing themselves should he finally bolt. Greer, who, unlike almost every other woman in the world, has never seemed to share this obsessive interest in the opposite sex, is pretty clear: time to get out. ‘I never have to think any more, oh a party,’ she said in an interview in the Independent on Sunday, ‘what clothes shall I wear, what men will be there, what am I going to do?’ And even if, as I’ve heard suggested, she doesn’t wholly mean it, it’s good enough for me if she half-does.

‘Unless you have a really decent guy, talking to him about menopause is like taking hemlock,’ a (married) Californian woman remarks in this month’s Vanity Fair. I don’t know about hemlock, but I’ve always kept my cardy on through the most equatorial flushes for fear that some male bystander (or colleague) would understand what was happening and laugh. Greer, you could say, is vigorously alert to the ways in which women let themselves be enslaved by men – or rather the idea of a man:

The very notion of remaining attractive is replete with the contradictions that break women’s hearts. A woman cannot make herself attractive; she can only be found attractive. She can only remain attractive if someone remains attracted to her. Do what she will she cannot influence that outcome. Her desperate attempts to do the impossible, to guide the whim of another, are the basis of a billion-dollar beauty industry. All their lives women have never felt attractive enough. They have struggled through their thirties and forties to remain attractively slim, firm-bodied, glossy-haired and bright-eyed. Now in the fifties ‘remaining attractive’ becomes a full-time job ... Jane Fonda’s body may look terrific, what there is of it, but has anyone looked at the strain taken up by her face and neck muscles? ... Is a middle-aged woman supposed to have the buttocks of a twenty-year-old? Such buttocks are displayed on advertising hoardings all over town. The man who is still making love to the wife of his youth may be thinking of other breasts than his wife’s. There is no lack of spectacular publications to furnish such imagery. The middle-aged woman who tries to compete with her husband’s fantasy sex partners hasn’t a hope.

She’s the Norman Tebbit of feminism, a founder member of the on-yer-bike branch of the women’s movement; and I don’t imagine she’ll be sorry to think that it’s all over for her contemporaries; that for us what she memorably calls ‘the white-slavery of attraction duty’ is a thing of the past. ‘To be unwanted,’ she says in her introduction, ‘is also to be free.’ Which sounds good. But women, as men always say, are so unreliable; and no sooner has Greer got us off the hook than she’s talking in a most un-Tebbit-like way about ‘the older woman’s love’ being a ‘feeling of tenderness so still and deep and warm that it gilds every grassblade and blesses every fly’.

So what do we do now, my ageing sisters and I? If we can’t line up behind the new-order Greer, who do we take as our role model – Joan Collins or Alan Bennett’s lady in the van? Or, to put it differently, do we or don’t we put in a bid for hormone replacement therapy? (I don’t want to get into difficulties here: Joan Collins swears she’s never had it – she only looks as if she has.) There are reasons for taking it, and reasons for not taking it, and reasons for getting angry with your doctor either way, but if you do and it works, you feel better, you look better and you are better. (I speak from envy, not experience.) Then the question arises: what does ‘better’ mean? And is that sort of ‘better’ appropriate? Or, to quote Germaine Greer: ‘We hear that Mrs Thatcher uses hormone replacement but do not know whether to be encouraged or disheartened by the result.’

Years and years ago I remember some poor woman being lambasted in the Guardian for liking a certain sort of maternity dress because in it she didn’t look pregnant (‘misses the point of being pregnant,’ she was told). There are people on whom talk of hormone replacement therapy has a similar effect, as if it were to be blamed for overlooking or deferring the pleasure of being known and knowing yourself to be past it. No doubt in five or ten minutes’ time it will be really chic to be menopausal. Perhaps thanks to Greer and others it’s happened already. The only trouble is I’d rather go back on attraction duty than sit in my garden saying hello to the grass.

[*] Hamish Hamilton, 472 pp., £16.99, 14 October, 0 241 12840 4.