She is in the hardware store. A well known Australian warehouse chain. She is looking for something in the plumbing department. What she needs is not a regular item, so she approaches a young male retail assistant and asks him for just that, some assistance. He can’t help, so he wanders off to find someone who can.
All good so far.
While she waits, another customer starts searching around in the same area for a piece of plumbing equipment and can’t find what he is looking for either. By the time the shop assistant returns with the answer to her query, the other customer is standing idly next to her.
The shop assistant sees this and makes an instantaneous leap in cognition, leaving behind many decades of feminist toil, the evolution of humankind and whatever training in customer service he was subject to. In answer to her original query, the shop assistant now addresses the man standing beside her. Telling the hapless fellow that they don’t have the item she wanted and will have to order it in.
A couple of things happen.
The man gives the shop assistant a blank stare. The shop assistant returns it. Seconds pass. Then the man begins to tell the shop assistant about his own plumbing equipment problem.
She stands. Looking at both of them.
Angry. Disappointed. Humiliated.
Then she turns to the shop assistant and in a voice that could refreeze the glacial melt says, ‘Young man, don’t you realise that in this country, women have been allowed out in public with their own money for at least 100 years.’.
My mother is a feminist Trojan horse. To the unwary she looks like a little, not- so- young lady. She probably blends in with a certain shopping demographic that large retail chains think they understand, appearing as if she chanced upon the plumbing section of the store on the way to the nursery. Seeming like a lot of other mothers.
That’s the kind of thinking that spelt the fall of Troy.
Describing this encounter to me, weeks later, she was still incensed. I asked her what it was about the experience that still bought angry tears to her eyes. And it was not that she didn’t count as much as the man standing next to her, or that the shop assistant assumed he was her husband and therefore would be doing all the talking, or that they thought she wasn’t that smart, or that she couldn’t possibly be buying plumbing supplies. It was that her presence didn’t even register. It didn’t count AT ALL. She was invisible.
Recently my daughter told me about meeting an amazing woman who has been a high profile activist for many years. She spoke of how galling it now was to walk into a room to begin negotiations and not even be noticed or greeted. Barely listened to. Once she hit a certain age, she became wallpaper.
And so I’m tossing this around. Thinking it through. Some say it is pheromones. That once there is a whiff of those hormones on the turn some primal light goes out inside the brains of men. Maybe. Really?
And it’s not that I give serious thought to the monastic life to come, to no longer being considered attractive to others, to roaming the streets as a homeless cougar. No. Not really. What I really fear is no longer having a voice. Not being able to stand up for the things I believe in. Not counting.
In the western caste system, ageing women are the most repellent. First an object of fear, then the subject of satire and then the victims of cultural amnesia. With a whole society forgetting that we are each unique, unrepeatable. And that wild law demands we do the work of caring for the planet, and each other, together.
I don’t feel afraid for my Mum, or my daughter for that matter. They have shifted their shapes when the wildness called them. Bending so as not to break and becoming winged when they needed to soar. No. Beyond hardware stores, they have a secret life.
It is the world I feel afraid for. That the threads that create a reality are too thin to carry the weight of this dignity, this love, this story in the making.
And we will all be left. Staring at the wallpaper.