I am spending International Women’s day with the oldest woman I know. Mrs F (that’s not a code name, it’s what I’ve always called her) is 92 (she’s pretty comfortable with you knowing that). I have known her and loved her all my life. She lives in Eastbourne and her daughter is my (very wonderful) godmother. She is an amazing gardener and cook, and whenever we visit we eat whatever has been growing in the garden. She enjoys the Telegraph crossword, plays a daily game of Scrabble, and she likes to argue about politics with my husband, Andy.
When I saw her today I told her it was International Women’s Day and I asked her if she thought the world had got better or worse for women in her lifetime. She thought about her own life in the south of England and said she thought women in the UK were much better off financially today and had more freedom but she didn’t think they were happier. “We had so much fun when we were younger. We had nothing, but we worried much less.” In her mind, British women today are stressed, anxious and time-poor, for all their progress. “And those models in the magazines. They never look happy.” She is also concerned that today’s women don’t know how to cook proper nutritious meals.
I asked her how hopeful she feels about the world her three great-grand-daughters are inheriting, and she’s optimistic. Their education is opening doors that she never dreamed of going through. She prays for them.
Once a week I have a Scrabble-playing, tea-drinking date with another friend called Maire. Maire is a year younger than the queen (I like to remind her of this when she feels especially old). She thinks the world has totally changed in her lifetime and mostly, for the worse (although she’s generally in favour of the improvements in human rights, and indoor toilets). To quote her, she’s pretty sure that “the world is going to hell in a handcart” (figuratively, because she’s adamant that there’s no afterlife).
Maire has very little hope for the world – and she can cite some compelling evidence: the raping of the environment and unsustainability of our lifestyles; the breakdown of family in her city and neighbourhood which she connects with the aggression and lawlessness of local young people; chronic and incessant conflict around the globe. Her life has been interesting and cultured, but today she feels she has no reason to live. She has no close family; she is housebound and disabled; everyone she loved most in life has died.
It might seem strange that on International Women’s Day my thoughts go to these two women before the millions of other women experiencing the painful consequences of inequality around the world today – be it through abuse, exploitation, lack of education or access to food, water or medicine. But they bring home very personally to me how hope and change and progress aren’t just about what happens on the outside of us. There’s a constant and dynamic interplay between our circumstances and our beliefs about ourselves and the world. It’s possible to have hope in the bleakest of circumstances (as some Holocaust survivors have demonstrated); it’s equally possible to feel oppressed and despairing in the context of seeming freedom and plenty.
I think one of the reasons Mrs F feels ok about the world and the future is that she has invested (and is investing) something in it. Through her family, through her relationships, through her prayers. That’s not meant as a judgment of Maire, because she’s had much less opportunity to do that. When the world is increasingly remote, threatening and lonely and you feel powerless to do anything about it, when you don’t believe in an ultimate purpose or direction in life, it’s hard to find much foundation for hope.
So what am I going to invest in this question of women’s place in the future of the world? It’s actually not just a question about women – the world will be better for everyone if there is equality of opportunity and respect afforded to men, women and anyone in between. The staggering statistics for domestic abuse and gender violence around the world alone overwhelm and horrify me. But that’s not the whole story. My view of the world is never composed solely of the physical realities. It’s always shaped by what I believe to be possible. And I know things have changed for women in this country so I’m gunning for them to change some more, for everyone’s sake.
Here’s whose work I’ll be supporting: Restored.
And coming soon: a little film about an amazing woman I met in Argentina who works with victims of domestic abuse.