Our guest blogger is Lovejit K. Dhaliwal, a London-based journalist, documentary-maker and academic.
I’ve got to say I was excited about attending this event at the Tate Modern in London, but wasn’t quite sure what I would find. Directed towards The Tank area of the gallery, I was ushered in, behind big black doors. Inside was a hub-bub of conversations. The cavernous area was dimly lit and in front of me I could see four or five rows of yellow tables – some occupied, others not. It’s quite busy and there are lots of visitors – women and men.
Walking around these collections of tables I was struck by the earnest faces of the women speaking to each other. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to hear what they were talking about and only caught a few words here and there. Some mentioned the environment, others housing and education. I almost felt as if I had my nose pressed up against the glass window but couldn’t quite hear what was going on. In one way this was frustrating but on another it just roused my curiosity even more.
I saw some of the women’s stories being written up and projected on to the screens behind them and my curiosity was sated. Glancing around me everyone had their heads turned towards these walls, staring intently at what was being written and reading along. Some of the stories were incredible – for instance, one I read was about the fight for decent housing and approaching landlords. (Some things don’t change!) Others talked about campaigning against apartheid or nuclear arms. It was thrilling. And then I thought, but why don’t I hear these stories more often? These women must have so much to tell.
A former social worker in the 1970s, Joyce Robert Shaw was fighting for abortion laws and cuts in social services. As an older woman she feels very passionately about the NHS “being smashed” and public services being cut. “It’s not just the jobs that are lost but also services… everyone thinks social services are for other people but we will all need them”. She also feels its a disgrace that students now have to pay £9,000 for education and the rights fought for in the 20th century are being snatched away. For Joyce, though, the one thing that makes her really angry is the expectation of having to work longer as we all live longer. “I worked as a social worker for 30 years. [She's now 67]. When I was 60 it was hard work, listening to people’s problems and responding effectively. I didn’t feel I could give a decent service.”
Another activist I spoke to was Liz Rothschild, who’s taken part in several campaigns ranging from nuclear arms to death and dying. She believes it’s vital for women to continue to be actively involved in causes, “We have different perspectives so we need to be heard. And as older women … well, I believe a healthy society has an active dialogue between the generations. Youth brings impetuosity, bravery and freshness. Age brings a considered sense of perspective and other gifts. When we were young, the elders were given too much power, now we’ve overvalued youth and we actually need a dialogue.”
This event is certainly thought-provoking and Liz’s words chime with my thoughts – as I’ve often felt that older people are often air-brushed out of society. As biologist Alison Jolly gets ready to leave, she gives me her reasons of why she’s here – her concern for the environment, “which is bigger than anything” as an issue. Working mainly in Madagascar, she’s keen to grab everyone’s attention on climate change – “it’s bigger than wars”. Alison is also realistic, she knows it’s not at the forefront of peoples’ minds – although she believes it should be. “We need a few more droughts and cyclones here in Britain”, says Alison. That would certainly get the government’s attention.
I also manage to speak to Robin Bailey West, who fought for decent housing in the 1970s. She’s keen to point out to me how different society was then and now, “People are very interested in themselves… they are all self-absorbed and not looking at the bigger picture”.
It feels as if I’ve been in a whirlwind with so many ideas and stories floating in the air. I feel privileged to have eavesdropped on a bit of their lives. For a moment, just for a moment, I feel a twinge of envy. They lived in exciting times! Protesting and taking action against unequal pay, beauty contests, rights for legal abortions, equal education, race discrimination, violence against women and nuclear arms. But then I look at the list again. Many of those issues are still with us, in the 21st century. And Robin’s words come back to me, are we all self-absorbed now? Do any of us care about the bigger picture? Time to think and take action, I think to myself!