To my surprise it was a woman making coffee – an older woman, a granny barista. Of course, that shouldn’t be surprising, except that it doesn’t happen – like, ever.
Occasionally in DJs or Maccas you’ll get a granny retail assistant, trailing clouds of resentment. But when a job gets smart or edgy or cool – when cooking becomes cheffing, coffeemaking becomes barista-ship or barmaiding becomes cocktail creation – men, especially young men, take over. Outta my way lady. I got da balls for this.
My Balmain barista, though – warm wrinkled, kind-seeming – dignified her job. Neither brash nor pompous, she did not call you love, ogle your cleavage or twiddle her handlebar moustache. The coffee was pure class and the efficiency of her hands said they’d been feeding and watering humans forever. Easy as. I walked away thinking perhaps this is the upside of inadequate pensions. Perhaps the grannies will reappear in our streets, our professions, our civic lives. Maybe we’ll tap their warmth and strength and humour – qualities that less frivolous cultures still call wisdom. I like this possibility. Granny, Nana and Ma should be terms of private love, yes, but also of public reverence. Old women should lead the world.
Yet the opposite is true. “Old woman” is still an insult, wielding a derogatory heft that has never attached to “old man” and would sit more fairly – if it’s emotional unreliability we’re talking about – on the shoulders of “young man.”
Everything is stacked against older women. The prejudice is immense. Pensions are inadequate all round but jobs are especially elusive for the grannies. Last month’s employment figures show that while unemployment and underemployment fell for most groups, for 55-plus women they rose.
It’s a mindset thing. When Hillary Clinton was running against Donald Trump the idea of “ovaries in the Oval office” was ridiculed across social media and Clinton herself lampooned as a “post-menopausal nut job”. I mean, nut job? Could anyone be nut jobbier than Trump? Is that even conceivable?
Arguably, indeed, while men get less interesting after retirement (whatever that means now), women get energised, as a rash of self-built older-women’s housing schemes in London, Japan, and elsewhere seem to attest. This may be because women have more personal connectivity to sustain and inspire them after retirement. Or it may be biological. Freed from tidal oestrogen, post=menopausal women are the least hormonally driven demographic, and therefore the most level-headed.
Clinton at 69, argues the American psychiatrist Julie Holland, would be the perfect age to take on the presidency. Younger than Reagan and with greater life expectancy, she’d also have increasing instead of diminishing energies. Says Holland, “The most interesting thing about menopause is what happens after. A woman emerging from the transition of perimenopause blossoms. It is a time for redefining and refining what it is she wants to accomplish in her third act.”
As a four-year-old I loved our next-door neighbour Mrs Francis, who’d occupied the original farmhouse since it was in fact a farm. With her iron-grey pudding -basin hair and men’s pom-pom slippers, she still made her own soap from lard and boiled her clothes in a copper. We’d perch on her gingham lap while she told stories about hunting dogs and sailing ships, and occasionally let us sample the pink-striped mints meant for her sick husband, whom I never saw and considered already dead (so not in need of sweets, striped or otherwise.)
But grandmothers are not just domestic figures. To relegate them that way – gaoled behind burqa, or pumpkin shell – is to diminish them and to undernourish the entire human race. This is a colossal waste; as much a sin against nature as 20th century masculinist specials like mandatory supine birthing (there’s a good girl, feet in stirrups), or banning breast-feeding because formula was superior.
It’s almost like we’re still afeared of the witch. But women’s wisdom is there for us to use.
Gogo is sub-Saharan for grand-mother. In Pretoria, when I was there, the gogos were the government’s go-to point for techniques of smokeless cooking, to end endemic lung disease, and for housing briefs, so township houses would be built as the gogos insisted – to withstand automatic weapons. Organisations like Gogo Grandmothers are critical in Africa’s Aids fight, caring for orphans and demanding education. In food production many organisations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recognise the importance of empowering women as landholders and decision-makers to play critical roles in seed -saving and farming revolutions.
In North America, the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers advocates globally for planetary healing, ancient seeds, clean water, wisdom, creativity, connection, justice and peace, seven generations hence.
Here too, although the corporate and political chieftains are still overwhelmingly made, the moral running – the fight for the future- is becoming female. Writers, teachers, artists and activists – agents and harbingers of change – are predominantly female. Yet still this running is being made from the sidelines.
Wendy Bacon, a journalist and academic, was arrested on her 70th birthday, protesting peacefully against West Connex. Wendy Bowman, 83, a farmer and lifelong anti-coal activist whose water supply was twice destroyed by mining, returned triumphant to NSW last month with the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for conservation.
Then there is the Knitting Nannas, campaigning tirelessly against invasive mining. Even the notoriously conservative Country Women’s Association, without abandoning the scones and lamingtons for a second, oppose CSG. In any environmental protest – preserving food and water against motorways and mines – older women are the muscle. But still, they’re seen as fringe-dwellers.
The dolts are in charge. Trump rejects Paris. Malcom Turnbull destroys the CSIRO’s climate-modelling capacity then offers billion-dollar rail lines free with every coal mine. It’s like we’re all squished in this ancient Morris Minor, registration PLNT3RTH, being road-raged of a cliff by a Ferrar-load of bullies and fools. There’s a one-word proof should you need it. The word is Merkel. But be not deceived. This is urgent. From coffee to climate change, we must mainstream the wisdom of the go-gos and exploit the bejesus out of it so there’s even a future to save.
Printed with kind permission of Elizabeth Farrelly. First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.