I’m just back from a very invigorating couple of weeks in the US. We found ourselves visiting a number of new museums, in Washington, Atlanta, Montgomery and New Orleans, all of them dealing more or less directly with the history or legacy of slavery. American museums seem to me very well designed, and make good use of interactive technologies. I’ve listed them at the end in case you’re interested.
But this post is prompted by the final event in our holiday – a theatre visit in New York to a play dealing with Gloria Steinem‘s life. I say a play, but in fact it was to our minds a rather unimaginative chronological run through her life, with a Q&A to finish. One item certainly caught my attention: Gloria’s observation that women become more not less politically and personally radical as they get older. By coincidence this very same point was made by the FT’s Sarah Gordon in her farewell piece this weekend.
I find this fascinating, potentially really important – and surely open to empirical verification. It could be yet another example of how the male model is the default one, in a way that distorts our ideas of what is possible. We largely accept that people become more conservative as they grow older. This makes sense (to me) in the sense that experience teaches us, often quite painfully, about the complexities of life and the limitations on the speed of reforms. There is a constant dynamic between not giving in and accepting too readily to much of the status quo, and not crashing and burning because of hopeless overambitious. And yet the possibility that people can become more radical as they age is certainly not one to exclude.
My own mother is an example – not of a simple linear movement to greater radicalism, but one of a shift in later life. As a young woman in the 1930s she was on the communist-sympathising left. Then she married, became a teacher, divorced and rose to be a headteacher of a rather unconventional private school. Her political inclinations remained latent. I don’t think she was particularly frustrated about that – it was the way things were, and she had plenty of other things to worry about, building a professional life after 40. But once she had retired she was free to find a political voice again and became an active member of the Labour Party – joining what must be a rather small club of socialist ex-private school heads.
There should be evidence on this somewhere, certainly on the voting patterns of women as they age and how these differ from men’s. But more interesting is the question of general outlook on life: do women gain or at least maintain a greater sense than men of the possibility of change in later life, at different levels? This would be a major crossover, and well worth tracing out. I’d be very happy to hear of any studies or even personal stories.
[Here are the museums. They taught us a huge amount about the shameful history of slavery – and its continually shaming legacy. Visit, if you can – you will leave wiser as well as sadder.
Smithsonian Museum of African-American History, in Washington DC
The Legacy Museum: from enslavement to mass incarceration, Montgomery, Alabama
National Centre for Human and Civil Rights, Atlanta, Georgia.