There came a point in Accidental Feminists where I wanted to stop reading. It was like Jane Caro was using me as a case study. I’m a woman in my 50s, divorced, in a tight financial position. I had dedicated, and still do in some ways, my life to my family, working part-time once the children came along. I managed, like most women do, most of the care, the organisation of the home, domestic duties. It was the way I wanted it. I grew up with certain expectations, certain values, raising a family was important to me, a career too, but not so much if I’m honest. But now I’m kind of wondering what the future holds.
What scared me reading Caro’s latest book, which explores the lives of older women, their economic position, their invisibility, their roles in the community, their sexuality, was that she painted a precarious predicament for many women just like me.
“Far too many women who've worked hard, worked hard at home and in the workplace, are being constantly vulnerable to living a very precarious existence financially,” says Caro.
“And we blame them, we say you didn't lean in, you don't have enough merit, frankly go f*** yourself.
“These women did everything they were told, women who did what they were told, the women who tried to follow advice of men, of their mothers, are the ones that have come out the worst.”
I’m a fan of Caro. Have been for a while. She’s like that no-nonsense aunt who calls a spade a spade, doesn’t take shit from anyone, a woman who speaks her mind. As one of Australia’s leading social commentators, the author, columnist, advertising writer and broadcaster has sparked many a conversation that others have been afraid to start, from spearheading Destroy the Joint, to championing the #metoo movement.
In 2017 she wrote a piece called Women Over 50: A tale of two fates for ABC Online. Caro had become increasingly alarmed about the statistics on the fastest growing group among the homeless - women over 55.
“My generation of women, I'm 62, were a revolutionary generation,” she says.
“We were the first generation of women ever in the history of the world who have mostly earned their own money for most of their lives and that was a huge thing.
“But what puzzled me was why were so many of us doing badly? I wanted to find out why. I don't think I've come up with a definitive answer but I think I've really unpacked a lot of the barriers that have been placed in our way, some of them deliberately, some of then unconsciously and accidentally, and just how they have compounded over a lifetime.”
It’s a classic story, Caro says, women brought up with the view that our lives were going to be pretty boring, we’d reproduce, raise a family, hopefully we’d married someone who might enable us to live something of an interesting life, but don’t bet on it. Our lives were going to be like our mothers’ lives, their mothers’ lives. It’s just the way it was.
“And then everything changed,” Caro says.
“The pill, the tampon and the paycheck changed women’s lives.
“We started to have agency and look after ourselves.”
Women went into the workforce in droves, but more often than not they were in low-skilled jobs, doing the majority of the parenting, taking time off to care for children, for aging parents, superannuation often went by the wayside. And when relationships broke down, they got the house and the children. Until 2002 they couldn’t get access to their partner’s superannuation and were faced with an uncertain future.
“Then these women hit their their 50s and they got fired, the average age of ‘retirement’, in inverted commas, for women it's 52, for men it’s 58, and a lot of these retirements are not voluntary. The pension doesn't come in until you're 67, that's a lot of years, and if you don't have super, what are you doing to do? You sell the house and live off the capital, the problem with that is you run through it, and as rents go up you find yourself in a dire situation.”
She paints a bleak picture, not just through this example, but in talking about how government policy, community attitudes, inflexible workplaces, have all compounded the problem.
Still Accidental Feminists is a great read, one full of hope and ideas, it’s warm and funny as Caro catches up with women of her generation, recounting their stories, weaving them into facts and figures.
“The other thing I hope I did was talk about the other group of women, the ones doing really well. You don't have to be rich to be doing really well, you just need to have a secure income, a secure roof over your head, and enough money to manage your costs.
“You reach a point in life where you will have the time and energy and women friends and you've got the education and the nuance and the freedom to go out there and do all the things you wanted to do but didn't have time for before.”
She wants all women to have a conversation with their daughters.
“She always needs to know what her financial situation is, she needs to be very certain she's accumulating superannuation, she needs to constantly be aware and she needs to lobby workplaces and governments.
“I don't think we want to send every mother straight back into the workforce full-time with small children, it’s agonisingly hard, so she needs to be really demanding of her partner, they have to take 50 per cent of the work. Studies show when a woman marries, the amount of work she does goes up exponentially, when a man marries the work he does goes down. Stop that, don't do it, don't do the work.”
Caro knew very early on in life that hers would be a different one. She’s a wife, a mother of two, she took time off to raise her children, eased her way back into work.
“But my mother was very clear, she kept saying to us don’t do what I did, get an education, go to university, get a job, be independent, you are not here to make someone else's life interesting, you are here to make your own life interesting.”
Has Caro led an interesting life?
“Oh, yes, I can’t tell you. My life continues, at the ripe old age of 62, to be endlessly fascinating and I never know what the next opportunity will be.
“I've done that by being angry and non-compliant and by saying what I think.
“That's another thing women worry about, will I upset someone, like it's the worst thing you can do. What that really means is you've challenged the way they see the world and you need to be doing that all the time.”
Accidental Feminists, by Jane Caro, MUP, $32.99.
Jane Caro is in conversation with Alex Sloan, at an ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author event at the ANU at 6pm on February 18. Bookings at anu.edu.au