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Paula Coston praises writers and artists who give older women their due

Goya, 'Until death', from the 'Witches and old women' album, late 18th to early 19th century.

Francisco Goya, from his ‘Witches and old women’ album, late 18th to early 19th century.

Goya, 'Women jumping', from his 'Witches and old women' album, late 18th to early 19th century.

Fancisco Goya, ‘Women jumping’, from his ‘Witches and old women’ album, late 18th to early 19th century.

OK, so most of us recognise that the demographic is changing: that the older generation is beginning to overtake the younger by a considerable margin. But that’s ‘recognise’ in theory. Certainly in the media, advertising and the arts, the consciousness lag, the large-scale head-burying in the sand is unjust and majorly irritating. Meanwhile in literature and art the caricaturing, stereotyping, pigeonholing and sidelining of older people persists.

An article in the New York Times on 26 January 2014, and the piece it provoked the next day in The Huffington Post by novelist Holly Robinson, bear me out. The original text, Writer of a Certain Age, reported novelist Fay Weldon’s advice to her creative writing students to avoid the ‘mistake’ of writing a book with a main character in her 50s: ‘mistake’ because agents and publishers probably wouldn’t touch it. Holly Robinson’s agent agreed emphatically when Robinson proposed a novel with a main female character approaching her 60s. But this isn’t just about the negative views towards older age of agents and publishers: although more women buy books than men, most purchasers are younger than 45. The audience too, you see. ( The problem doesn’t just stem from the wilful blindness of a few professions but of society at large.

As an older woman I’ve combed modern fiction, poetry, paintings and more for a sensitive and nuanced attention to my stage and state of life. And the good news is that slowly, slowly, the situation is changing. Here, f’rinstance, are a few recent examples of novels with a rounded, authentic, older female protagonist:

– Hilary Boyd: Thursdays in the Park; Tangled Lives; When You Walked Back into My Life;Solstice, co-written with Barbara Roddam (Boyd specialises in the possibility of romantic relationships for older women, but – sadly, in my view – has got labelled with the ugly term ‘grannylit’).
– Sheila Hancock, Miss Carter’s War (inspired by seeing an older woman in a shop being ignored).
– Stewart O’Nan, Emily, Alone.
– Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge.
– There’s also my own attempt of course: On the Far Side, There’s a Boy (

In 2010, just before Mothers’ Day, Carol Ann Duffy commissioned poets to write with sensitivity about age and ageing. The results are wonderful, for instance Gillian Clarke’s poem Blue Hydrangeas, September:

‘You found them, lovely, silky, dangerous,
their lapis lazulis, their indigoes
tide-marked and freckled with the rose
of death, beautiful in decline.
I touch my mother’s skin. Touch mine.’

Other poems are Old Flame by Linda Chase; What I Regret by Nina Cassian; Mrs Baldwin by Fleur Adcock; Ageing by Ruth Fainlight; and many more. You can even hear some being read if you follow this link:

Then there are a burgeoning number of films in a trend towards foregrounding older characters that arguably started with Mama Mia: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel… (though these border on cliché here and there, not to mention the obligatory comedy and happy ending).

So how do we get more of all this? By commenting on and reviewing such literature etc. enthusiastically when it comes out, obvs. And with the internet, there’s the scope for mass evangelising. Some of this can come from older writers and artists, can’t it, since they know whereof they speak? Hence it’s great to see the website Bloom,

‘a literary site devoted to highlighting, profiling, reviewing and interviewing authors whose first major work was published when they were age 40 or older. Bloom is also a community of artists and readers who believe that “late” is a relative term, not an absolute one, and who are interested in bringing to attention a wide variety of artistic paths – challenging any narrow, prevailing ideas about the pacing and timing of creative fruition. If someone is labeled a “late bloomer”, the question Bloom poses is, “Late” according to whom?’ (

Note that Bloom is for readers as well as creators, so even if we’re not arty, we should use it, and support it to the hilt. (Not that older creative types should feel some sense of obligation, or constriction, to focus on their own generation – any more than younger types should stick to a youthful agenda. Think Mary Wesley, who began writing adult fiction at the age of 71, but whose palette was broad and deep.)

Internet articles are more and more celebrating older women artists and their work. Age shall not wither her by Emine Saner in 2008 spotlights Paula Rego, Gillian Ayres, Ana Maria Pacheco Maria Lassnig, then 89 (who, like me, never married or had children) and Natalie d’Arbeloff. d’Arbeloff, guest editor of the piece, argues that

’emotional involvement in itself undeniably soaks up art-making energy for many female artists, and can divert it….I wanted to know how those who are the exception managed to focus their creative elan consistently and continuously throughout a long career’ [my italics]

– which is what the feature examines (

Jackie Wullschlager’s In praise of older women (2010) claims that

‘now old age among female artists and writers is the new chic….In the 21st century, creative women in their eighties and nineties such as Louise Bourgeois…, Leonora Carrington… and Diana Athill… emerged from the tunnel of obscure middle-age to become glamorous if not household, at least drawing-room names.’

She also cites Bridget Riley (now 84); recently deceased Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell and Alice Neel; and Yayoi Kisama, in her eighties and living in a Tokyo mental hospital. This is an insightful piece, highlighting how the fact that the ‘male-dominated highways’ of the art world are still catching up with feminist thought at all is one reason for the marginalisation of younger, as well as older, female artists – hence the older ones’ ‘late blooming’. I love Wullschlager’s description of one of Lassnig’s artworks, a naked and frank self-portrait aged 86

‘holding two guns, one pointing at her head, the other at the viewer – the uncompromising stare challenging us to underestimate the emotional life of old age’.

Wullschlager asks:

Will these be the grandes dames of mid-21st century art? The belated triumphs of Bourgeois, Rego and Kusama show that the tortoise is as likely to win as the hare.’

It would be great if she were right.

Lest we become sexist about this, male creatives can be enlightened and nuanced about older women, too. One of the best on the subject of Us (IMHO) dates back a while. The fantastic exhibition of Francisco Goya’s album, these days titled The Witches and Old Women, is on at the Courtauld Gallery, London until 25 May this year. Goya doesn’t just move beyond the stereotypes (witch, hag, harridan, sex-starved madwoman, old maid, harpie, repulsive crone, spiteful bitch, obscene lustress, overdue corpse): he treats and overturns them. A classic example of this is Until death.

At first glance, a decaying, over-prettified woman seems to be preening herself in her finery before a looking glass, rightly whispered about by the sneering dandies in the background. But look again and there’s something kinder and more generous than this about it: Goya seems to understand her need to enhance her looks, empathises with her desire to maintain appearances. And the onlookers – apart from the sympathetic or thoughtful maid – seem, well, a bit nasty themselves. The sketch is multi-layered: it’s also about the indomitable spirit of old age.

In this album and others, there are cartoons (in the original sense of the word) of two old women pulling each other by the hair and tumbling together as if into an abyss (They descend quarrelling); but equally, of a merrymaking older couple, man and woman, laughing and rising up in blank space, as if on an updraught of happiness (They ascend joyfully). Old age brings rages, Goya seems to tell us – and, perhaps more unexpectedly, energy and strength; but joy and pleasure too.

There are also sweet, touching, dare I say almost inspirational, images: the devotion and stoicism of an old woman totally absorbed and hunched in prayer in She won’t get up till she’s finished her prayers; Content with her lot, a toothless old woman dancing playfully on her own shadow to the accompaniment of castanets – yes, old age can bring fun, even ecstacy; and an almost algebraic equation of equalised power with Expressive of double strength, a sketch of an old woman struggling forcefully with a man on the ground. Then there are the ones at the top of this piece, of course: the first, a tender portrait of an old lady examining herself in the mirror, quite untroubled by her ancient looks – a neat, more reassuring companion to Until death.

Goya excels at titles. I’m tempted to see him almost as the earliest blogger in the way that he combines his words with images. There’s Old women fight too. I especially like his Just can’t go on at the age of 98, a depiction of an ancient (man or woman, it’s hard to say), bowed over and hobbling along painfully on two sticks. The point is that s/he IS going on, and will. Funniest title-image coupling is perhaps Showing off? Remember your age, in which an old man is careering helplessly and headfirst down the stairs. Goya reminds us here, figuratively as well as metaphorically, that we’ll all, both women and men, be levelled to a new plane by old age.

If Goya could do it in the 1790s, there must be more bloggers, writers, artists of all kinds who can dissect oncoming age in witty, wonderful and sensitive, nuanced ways – and people who will encourage them and champion them when they do.


Jocasta? Complex? You’re telling me, says Paula Coston – and lends her voice to trying to redeem her

'Lemminkainen's mother on the banks of the River Tuonela reviving her son'. by Akeseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897. So is the doting mother unconsciously incestuous, anguished and dangerous...

‘Lemminkainen’s mother on the banks of the River Tuonela reviving her son’ by Akeseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897. So is the doting mother unconsciously incestuous, potentially anguished, or anguishing, and dangerous…

... or supportive, inspirational and life-enhancing? (Mother and son Jackie Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr)

… or supportive, inspirational and life-enhancing? (Mother and son Jackie Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr)

I give in. Among you my faithful readers (or even the casual ones), it’s my blog piece on the Jocasta complex that so many of you turn to – maybe, even, return to – on a daily basis ( (Please, if you have a moment, do comment here. Is it because your name’s Jocasta? You’re considering the name for a child? You’re a psychoanalyst, psychotherapist or counsellor? You’ve been told you have the complex? You think you have it? You think your mother has it? You think your mother-in-law-to-be has it? Pray, do tell.)

Anyhoo, bowing to my public, here’s a second post on the same theme.

Most of you will know of the mythical Greek hero Oedipus; Jocasta was his ma, the woman who fell in love with him not knowing (according to many accounts) that he was her long-lost son. We can thank (?) Sigmund Freud for the concept of the Oedipus complex: a son’s wariness or fear of, even hatred of, certainly sense of competition with, his father (in the myth of course, Oedipus kills him).

It’s the lesser-known American psychology Professor and psychoanalyst Matthew Besdine who gave the Jocasta complex its name:

‘The Jocasta complex is as significant as the Oedipus complex. One constant factor in the lives of geniuses is Jocasta mothering. The salient features of the personality of the genius are an unresolved Oedipus, fear of love, an underlying sense of guilt, strong masochistic trends, a significant homosexual component, paranoid trends, extraordinary egocentricity, exorbitant striving for recognition, and overall narcissism.’ (The Jocasta Complex, Mothering, and Genius, 1968)

This from Besdine’s abstract for the book, though he does go on to qualify – thank goodness: ‘These impressions are presented tentatively and need further study and confirmation.’ Another of his works, The Unknown Michaelangelo, 1986, contains a series of biographies of famously creative men whom he considered victims of the complex.

Before we react too violently against MB, let’s remember that he originally coined the term in the context of his studies of male genius, however misguided you may feel he is in his conclusions even about that. He was no feminist, or at least, not primarily interested in the female side of his invented equation. Andrew Brink summarises MB’s outlook in Obsession and Culture – A Study of Sexual Obsession in Modern Fiction, 1996:

‘[For him, male] genius is a function of the kind and intensity of mothering: the social benefits of creative art are bought at a high price in feelings of ambiguity about sexual orientation. The exclusive favor of sons by their mothers that leads to a sense of special creative powers Besdine likens to the gardener’s technique of “debudding” to promote exceptionally vigorous growth.’

The word ’emasculation’ immediately springs to mind.

Over time, variant tropes of this notion have seeped into cultures around the world. A letter by E. Wellisch of the Child Guidance Clinic, Bexleyheath, UK in the British Medical Journal, 12 April 1952 warned of an increased danger of ‘a break-through of unconscious incestuous tendencies’ towards their adopted sons in adoptive mothers, especially if the marital relationship of the woman and her partner was unsteady. How pervasive is this fear of irreparable damage by the mother figure, bang right up to now. It’s there in the phrase ‘mummy’s boy’ or ‘mama’s boy’, often laughingly and thoughtlessly tossed off; and it’s there in the stereotype of the Jewish mother (‘You never call! You never write!’) and her ambitions in particular for her sons (doctor, lawyer). It’s there in the reluctance of men to own up to a close connection with their mothers, as William Sutcliffe wrote in The Sunday Times:

‘Men are more likely to confess to a predilection for pornography than admit to a close relationship with their mother…. Confessing to your friends that you sometimes call your mum for a chat is something few do. Even though a man’s mother is likely to be the second most important woman in his life, even though he may have deep feelings of love for her, this is a relationship about which men are sheepish, secretive and often outright embarrassed.’

It’s also lurking in commentary such as this by Paul MacInnes:

‘To stand outside the realm of maternal comfort, to stand foursquare with the woman [he means, girlfriend or wife] who quite often calls him a “certifiable prat” to his face, that’s the true sign of a successful man.’ (7 March 2013 in the Guardian ‘Are you a mummy’s boy? It’s time to cut the apron strings’:

Of course he’s right that men need to form other healthy, loving relationships than with their mothers; but it’s the ease with which his commentary falls into the mummy’s boy shorthand that bothers me: ‘apron strings’, ‘unconditional love’, ‘dear old mum’ – and the one who ‘cooks their food for them’. Are all deeply loving, even doting, mothers like that?

Besdine took things too far, in his homophobic tendencies etc., on male genius and its downsides. Look deeper, and the Jocasta so-called ‘complex’ gets, er, complex and really interesting: close son mothering does have important functions and positives that need to be more widely known.

Take killer whales, f’rinstance (I’ve talked about them elsewhere). In a Daily Mail article, Dr Dan Franks of the Department of Biology, University of York was quoted as saying:

‘The need for mothers to care for their sons into adulthood explains why killer whales have evolved the longest post-reproductive lifespan of any non-human animal.’

Killer whale mothers live close to their sons throughout their lifespans; and, the article goes on to explain, theory predicts that to have the best chance of spreading their genes, mothers need to focus their efforts on their sons.(

Women have started reclaiming the Jocasta so-called ‘complex’ for women, from a female, and totally other, viewpoint. In 2012, journalist Kate Stone Lombardi published The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger. Her research suggested that close mother-son bonds led to many emotional and mental benefits, without any of the negatives that concerned Besdine:

‘Women who marry men who are close to their mothers are quite happy with the communication in the relationship and the more romantic aspects…[as long as the mother-son relationship is a] healthy adult closeness…. Guys who have [good] communication skills, which is one of the things they tend to learn from their moms, do very well [at work].’


‘Boys who aren’t firmly attached to their moms go on in later life to have behaviour problems. They’re more destructive, they’re more aggressive…. Guys who are closer to their moms [are] less depressed, … less anxious, right through to the high school years.'(

Men too are helping, trying to rework notions of masculinity around male-female relationships, including relationships with mothers. I especially like the blogs of Martin Robb about the positive maternal influence on the development of young male identities:

Perhaps many feminists’ immediate reaction to discussion of the Jocasta complex is to try to reverse the imbalance, to cast any semblance we have to Jocasta not as destructive but as superwoman, supporting, moulding and nurturing her son in purely beneficial, enlightened ways. But isn’t that to risk becoming Besdine: to risk casting the son as passive and malleable as putty? i.e. an imbalance in another, equally potentially harmful, direction?

Dr Paula Hyman, in her questioning of the pervasive Jewish mother stereotype and her attempts to combat it (, has hit the nail on the head, though. Constructs such as ‘complexes’ easily insinuate themselves into our thinking, becoming deep-rooted stereotypes under the influence of history (e.g. the Jews’ patterns of family life in Europe), religion (e.g. Judaism), and iconic thinkers, who can transform the cultural landscape so dramatically (e.g. Sigmund Freud: an atheist, but, as he explored in his work, by family upbringing a Jew).

Mother-son stereotypes and constructs go far, far back, to the myths that may imbue us without our knowing, tangling and knotting our attitudes and values. J. Bruce Evans (July 2007) argues that our interpretations of and responses to the relationship are steeped in four particular mother-son ‘myths’: those of Chronos, Oedipus, Attis and Jesus. He points out that in the first three, the mother is in the foreground of the tale; in the latter, the Virgin Mary has receded to some degree.

With such strong mother figures – strong in relation to their sons – embedded in our primeval psyches, it’ll be a hard battle for future generations to re-mould our perceptions of mother-son dynamics; to re-shape them – where it’s justified – as more male-female balanced, and at the same time positive for the women in the equation.

Why female religious leaders are so NOW

Wandering female sage, India, c.1906 (Image in public domain, including in the U.S.)

Wandering female sage, India, c.1906 (Image in the public domain, including in the U.S.)

The theme of 2015’s International Women’s Day on 8 March was ‘Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It!’

Now although I’m not religious, I don’t have anything against anyone who is, just so long as they try to do good with it, not harm (which is rather what I thought religion was for, after all). And I’m emphatically pro female empowerment, ergo female leaders; at least, female ‘leaders’ in their own way (see my recent post ‘Women leaders: PC puzzles, if women “lead from behind”, how can we be seen?’:

Recently Libby Lane became the Church of England’s first female bishop ( In the midst of the celebrations there was an outburst from some old fogey in the congregation; and still, only some 20 or so Anglican women bishops do their work around the world. Why the slow progress, the opposition? Some say that women can’t even be priests: that for them, even priesthood seems an ‘authority’ that Scripture doesn’t reflect. As for bishops, the reactionary camp believes that it’s theologically impossible for women bishops to ordain priests, and that in any case Scripture requires male headship in the Church; more, that women’s ordination puts a brake on any hopes of unity with Roman Catholics.

But, surprise surprise (not), the non-canonical Christian texts, apocryphal or gnostic gospels, so-called, i.e. the ones rejected by the male-dominated ancient Church, give women greater prominence. In one narrative, actually titled the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), Christ says,

‘Mary Magdalene and John… will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries in the Ineffable. And they will be on my right and on my left. And I am they, and they are I.’

In another, Christ asks his mother Mary, Martha, Salome and Mary Magdalene to answer his questions about scripture; when Peter objects to the female participation, Jesus corrects him and urges Martha to continue. In the so-called ‘First Apocalypse of James’, James asks,’Who are the seven women who have been your disciples?’; Jesus reveals four to be ‘Salome and Mariam and Martha and Arsinoe’.

Mary Magdalene was actually titled ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ by Hippolytus, bishop of Rome c. 170-235, according to Thimmes.

Even within the Biblical canon, female disciples feature widely, as in this account in James of Christ’s wide-roaming ministry:

‘And the twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.’

In my last post I argued that history, the long tradition, across a whole gamut of cultures, of female high priesthood, was too pervasive to be ignored. The female presence in the non-canonical scriptures – texts sidelined by a largely patriarchal Church – often is.

But if Christianity is trying to repress us even in present times, in other religions today we women won’t so easily be kept down. In the Americas, the religious tradition of Santeria (a derogatory term suggesting ‘deviancy’ from Roman Catholicism), originated in the Caribbean, and recognises priests and priestesses equally. Some of its rituals revolve around three thrones that represent respectively the seats of the religion’s kings, warrior gods and (my italics) queens.

On 4 March 2007, a humble 21-year-old village girl was ordained as the only, not to mention youngest, female High Priestess of Hindu Dharma, the traditional belief system on the island of Bali. This, because despite a previous total lack of interest in things spiritual she suddenly began to have out-of-body and near-death experiences, claimed to have received divine instruction, and was able to speak the mantras in Sanskrit and other ancient languages, perform the sacred hand movements known as mudras and to undertake other sophisticated religious rites – almost overnight.

In the neo-pagan religion of Wicca, there’s a long legacy of female oracles, enchantresses and prophets, led by a high priestess. Some Wiccan high priestesses initiate secondary high priestesses for regional covens; the iconography occasionally illustrates them with symbols or artefacts specifically representing, separately, male and female energy. However, in a move towards democracy, many covens today reject the concept of one high priestess in favour of seeing each woman member as the priestess of her own religious development.

A 2010 online piece reported that in Pune, India, more than 20 women from all Hindu castes were currently enrolled in a one-year priesthood course, most of them ‘housewives’, aged 40-65.(Needless to say, many Indian men have strongly resisted this move.) (

Perhaps most surprising and heartening of all given the extremist/conservative religious stereotypes of Islam currently prevailing in much western culture, in Los Angeles M. Hasna Maznavi, a Muslim woman, recently started the first all-female mosque as part of a

‘modest, multi-faith center, where Muslim women and women of other faiths joined together for a Jumu’ah, a congregational prayer Muslims hold every Friday, and a Khutbah, a public sermon….

‘And unlike most U.S. mosques that have a male imam, or leader, a woman led the traditional prayer and gave the sermon.’ (

How shaming if Christianity were to lag behind all these other religious strands.

Online and off, claims are multiplying that the 21st century should and/or will be the Female Century: see for instance UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet’s address in 2011 at the Lincoln Center, New York (, and men too: Tom Brokaw in Lean In in 2013 (

As far as female religious leaders go, it would be good to agree with them that a new feminine era is, or should be, almost here. I can’t do better than quote Priestesses, Power, and Politics again:

‘All over the world women are mounting powerful challenges to masculine domination of religious institutions. Catholic and Hindu and Buddhist women are campaigning for full female ordination in their traditions. Muslim feminists are asserting their right to interpret the Quran and hadiths. The daughters of Sarah are demanding to be counted as Jews (literally) in the minyan and rabbinate, and for women’s right to lead services at the Western Wall of the ancient temple of Jerusalem….

‘The burgeoning pagan and feminist spirituality movements are laying new foundations of Goddess veneration and female spiritual leadership. American Indian women are reclaiming the right to sit at the powwow drum, and sistahs of the African diaspora have retaken the conga and djembe for their own. Lucumi priestesses are reinvigorating female power in the orisa traditions of west Africa, and breaking down gender barriers to initiation as prestigious diviners….’ (

Wouldn’t it be great – not to mention interesting – if the time for female leadership, religious and otherwise, really was almost here?

Why women can be priests – and bishops (according to Paula Coston)

Snake priestess, priestess of fertility with dominion over nature, in Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Greece; from Knossos, New Palace Period (1600 BC)

Snake priestess, priestess of fertility with dominion over nature, in Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Greece; from Knossos, New Palace Period (1600 BC)

There are absolutely no unreconstructed patriarchists reading this blog (at least, I hope not). So the arguments for women bishops and priests (I’m talking especially, but not exclusively, in Christian practice) are obvious to all of you, yes? Still, I’m going to spell out some of them, just in case.

For starters, there have been women priests since earliest times. Statues of Greek priestesses have survived from the fourth century or earlier. From the Archaic to the Hellenistic Periods, if she was of good birth and had financial resources a woman could be a priestess. The priestess of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis and of Athena Polias at Athens (the latter a lifetime, inherited role for a married woman) were so respected that important events were dated according to their names.

Fascinating if useless fact: Greek priestesses held special temple keys, bent twice, at right-angles. They also prayed, poured libations, and took part in animal sacrifices and religious processions. Some wore white, some purple. They enjoyed economic advantages, legal benefits, social prestige, front row seats at competitions, and on occasion freedom from taxation, the right to own property, and special access to the Delphic Oracle. Unlike most women, they were accorded public burial. (Fascinating, saddening and highly relevant fact: Although in the early Christian Church – according to many, though not all – there were women elders/presbyters, deacons, deaconnesses and prophetesses, it was the coming of Christianity, from the Synod of Laodikeia in the mid-fourth century, that gradually eroded the status of women.)(See the summary of Joan Breton Connelly’s book Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, at The concept of priestess blurred into that of goddess, and vice-versa, the illustration to this post being one such case.

Study ancient Egypt, and many high-class women of the Old Kingdom were priestesses of Hathor. At the enactment of the so-called Mysteries, women played the goddesses Nephthys and Isis. In the 6th century BC, Queen Ahmose Nerfertari became the Second God’s Servant of Amun, a title she later swapped for ‘Wife’ or ‘Adoratrice’ of the God. In the 23rd Dynasty, the Chantresses at Karnak were equal in power to the High Priest. Between 779 and 749 BC Shepenwepet I, a celibate God’s Wife, lived in Thebes and devoted herself completely to the Karnak temples and cults, receiving all the estates and property due to a High Priest – a kind of female Pope. If you were the God’s Wife of Amun, you held exalted office, especially during later Pharonic periods (

Then there’s ancient Rome. In accounts of Roman women’s religious status, chroniclers differ, in a covert tug of war between two feminist/egalitarian stances. So one side,, complains that

‘The Romans had an official state cult of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, of domesticity and continuity of family and state. The head… was the pontifex maximus. Under him there was a college of pontiffs. There is no feminine form of the word pontifex. Women were excluded from the highest office in Roman religion.’

But the Wikipedia entry (yes, I’m that superficial) celebrates that

‘Women priests played a prominent and crucial role in the official religion of Rome…. The six women of the college of Vestals were Rome’s only “full-time professional clergy”. [They] possessed unique religious distinction, public status and privileges, [and it was also] possible for them to amass “considerable wealth”.’

Elisabeth M. Tetlow at concedes that some Roman cults admitted only women (there was even a cult of Virile Fortune, reserved for prostitutes); but, she declares, ‘Even [these] were frequently used by the male authorities to reinforce the subordinate role of women.’

When we know that Christian hierarchies and power bases have come down to us through an ancient Roman filter, the limitations on womanly roles within the modern-day Church, especially as leaders, begin to make illuminating sense.

Yet women leaders from history have often been spiritual leaders, too: prophets and priestesses. Veleda, head of the Bructerii tribe in the lower Rhine valley, who led a rebellion against the Roman Empire, was a seer. In England, Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) of the Celtic Iceni people, not only led them in valiant, ferocious battle but performed divination ceremonies prior to fighting, appealing to the goddess Andraste for good fortune. The seventh-century Dahia al-Kahina, known as ‘the priestess’, was the woman who roused Tunisia against the Arab conquest of North Africa. (From Priestesses, Power and Politics at

As the centuries roll on, across the globe high-status female spiritual figures continually feature. How about Joan of Arc, who led the liberation of France (1430)? The ‘old’ women (according to Spanish colonisers) who were discovered by the explorers conducting most religious ceremonies in the Philippines (16th century)? The wu or female shamans whose thousands of shrines were destroyed by a mandarin (in China, during the Han dynasty)? The Beguines, the Free Spirit heretics, the Spanish ‘blessed’ and ‘illuminated’ women? The Indian temple dancers, whose children were named and inherited matrilineally to manifest the high esteem in which they were held? The youthful Toypurina, a visionary who inspired her Indian people to overturn the mission system in southern California (1780s)? The Chumash, who built shrines and conducted rituals in preparation for the Santa Barbara rebellion (1824)?

Priestesses, Power, and Politics reports erosion, though: a ‘male takeover of women’s rites and mysteries’ up to the present day that slanted religious practice and hierarchies as far afield as Australia, Melanesia, the Amazon basin, Tierra del Fuego, Kenya, Sierra Leone and more, beside the Mediterranean basin, tarring female religious figures as barbaric and inferior. (Much of women’s spiritual leadership ‘burrowed underground’ into white, not just black, witchcraft and folk religion, and religions – labelled by many as ‘cults’ – that often engage in drumming, spiritual dancing and various forms of communion with nature.)

Yet today, the high priestess remains a figure of power (political, religious, societal, artistic) as well as more unconscious potency. In cultures throughout the world she casts a metaphorical spell, not just in the Way Back When but in the Here, Right Now. The ‘Upright High Priestess’ in the Tarot cards, still widely used,

‘is also known as Persepheno, Isis, the Corn Maiden and Artemis. She sits at the gate before the great Mystery, as indicated by the Tree of Life in the background…. [She] represents wisdom, serenity, knowledge and understanding…. For a male especially, the … card indicates that he must learn of his “anima” or female side, or he will fail to grow.’ (

Tellingly, the card was originally named La Papessa, ‘The Popess’. And in Protestant European countries after the religious Reformation, it bore depictions of ‘Pope Joan’ of legend (Joan was supposedly elected to the papacy in male disguise, being uncovered as a man only when she gave birth).

OK, OK, I hear you cry: we get it. So there’s a history of religious women as priest-leaders and leader-priests, a stubborn thread of spiritual anima, as opposed to animus, from time immemorial, that refuses to be broken.

But what other arguments could I possibly turn out? Well, dear readers, in my next post I’ll bring more arguments on.

Some men gender-swap by female masking. Women don’t seem to feel the same urge in reverse. Interesting…

Masking as female and male at an ondel-ondel performance, Jakarta.

Masking as female and male at an ondel-ondel performance, Jakarta.

There’s a subculture of men who mask themselves, envelop themselves, in latex from top to toe, wigs and all, as women. Many know them as ‘living dolls’; much of their networking is online (for some of their networks, see Last year the UK’s station Channel 4 put out a TV programme about them (, and there’s been further coverage at and The aim for most of these men is not to feel beautiful in a new skin (after all, some go for a hag-like look, or, if not that, definitely don’t attempt some beautiful ideal). More, they seem to be intent on occupying another, opposite, persona: female therefore opposite, but frequently very different in character as well.

‘Persona’, along with the words ‘person’ and ‘personality’, actually comes from the Latin word for mask. We all adopt a variety of personae for different people and situations, of course. At its simplest and most superficial, a persona is an attempt to make a good impression in social situations; at its more complex and far-reaching, it can be ‘mistaken, even by ourselves, for our true nature’ (

‘Masks are an impeccable metaphor for the personae that encircle our souls.’ So declares a blog piece on female masked performances, ‘The Masks of the Goddess’, at by Lauren Raine. Our chosen personae, this ignorant non-student of Carl Jung gathers, according to Jung mimic, echo, a set of eternal archetypes: common character types that have imbued our cultural and spiritual evolution since we emerged from the primordial slime.

Psychologist Stephen Larsen tells us:

‘The primary function of the mask is to unite the indwelling wearer (and the observer) with a mythic being, or as Jung would say, “an archetypal power”.’

If you’re the academic type, there’s a fascinating study of the mask as archetype in classical Greek drama, Italy’s traditional Commedia dell’Arte and Japan’s oldstyle Noh theatre – among other things ( Other cultures show similar archetypal mask usage, e.g. the ondel-ondel performance pictured above.

Sod all this theory and trying to sound intellectual. Have you ever worn a mask? Think back. The experience is unforgettable: you feel safe, invincible, invisible, even; and – maybe most strikingly – able, if you want to, to interact with the world and with people in a way uncharacteristic of your ‘typical’ self.

Yet male and female masks, whether representing archetypes or otherwise, contrast drastically, give clearly distinct gender messages. However ‘archetypal’ and generic they may seem, we instantly recognise a visual sexual difference. (Maybe we even seek it out?)

Could we ever mistake this mask for female?

Could we ever mistake this mask for female?

... or this mask for male?

… or this mask for male?

And yet, a blog that studies and advises on beauty and the face makes some interesting claims:

‘The “Mask” by all accounts is a distinctively female configuration [my italics]. The male face seems to be a particular variation of this female “Mask”….

The “complete” male variation from the “Mask” would be a combination of:

1]. The specific age variation with regard to the Mask.

2]. The typical male variation from the (female) Mask.

and 3]. The particular ethnic variation from the archetypal Mask….

The essential Phi Mask (i.e. the geometric ideal “beautiful” image of humanness) is actually that of a woman. The male image is a variation on that mathematical female image.

Developmentally all human faces begin as essentially feminine – even if genetically male. Through multiple exposures to testosterone the genetic male face gradually transforms into the male configuration. But again, male faces essentially start out physically as female.’ (

Back to female masking. As far as I can establish, women don’t do male masking. Is the above one reason for that difference? Are living doll men instinctively trying to reclaim something of the feminine look they subconsciously sense they had in some hidden ideal past? Yet according to Lauren Raine in her writings on goddess masks, arts, spirituality and healing in the arts and myth: ‘Women and [my italics] men exploring mythology may choose to work with an archetype.’

So how come women so rarely, if ever, choose to wear male masks? More to the point, why? After all, Raine reports that both have in common that, in performance situations, they ‘work with an archetype… sometimes to call back something they feel has been lost’.

Maybe it’s what they feel that they’ve lost that distinguishes the sexes. For men, maybe it’s a closeness to the feminine. The earliest initiators of the living doll movement tell of finding inspiration from the ’70s and ’80s TV series Mission Impossible, in which several of the female actors masked and unmasked themselves with a magical sweep of one arm over their heads.

Dana Lesley (Anne Warren) disguises herself as Mioshi Kellem (Lisa Lu) to re-enact the latter's murder in 'Mission Impossible': 'Butterfly'. To achieve this visual trickery, they cut between the two actresses at the moments of masking/unmasking.

Dana Lesley (Anne Warren) disguises herself as Mioshi Kellem (Lisa Lu) to re-enact the latter’s murder in ‘Mission Impossible’: ‘Butterfly’. To achieve this visual trickery, they cut between the two actresses at the moments of masking/unmasking.

Something of this is about a seemingly miraculous transformation – could it be, almost healing? The Channel 4 film shows the masked men staring at their female selves in mirrors, revolving and mesmerised, almost in awe. Even though many men who dress as living dolls keep that part of their lives secret, some have a background of loneliness, and/or of difficulty in getting or keeping girlfriends. During the Channel 4 programme on living dolls, one interviewee, Robert, enthuses of her female alter ego, ‘She’s amazing. And she’s all mine!’ So maybe this is partly about the possession of a relationship that’s not possible otherwise; or maybe it’s an extreme step out of a lonely, shy self into another self entirely (what could be more extreme than adopting the other gender?).

For women, according to Raine, at least in the context of more staged ‘performance’, it’s very different. In donning a mask to play a part, women are still finding themselves ‘drawn to [that] figure because it affords them an opportunity to explore something they believe they do not know’. But in our case, the female case, it seems more a matter of exploring female archetypes where we sense a missing connection. Raine cites examples: ‘Turquoise’, who discovered a ‘joyful opportunity to reconnect with the “instinctual woman”‘ by dancing the part of Artemis; and another, who in enacting the myth of Inanna’s descent to meet her dark twin Ereshkigal, found she could explore the ‘underground’ of her own psyche.

The moral of this piece may sound as if it should be that men really are from Mars and women from Venus. But you know they say that we’re entering the millennium of the Goddess, an era where the female’s in the ascendant? I can’t help wondering if this brief gendered squint at masking only reveals that (sorry, men!) women really are ‘further along’, just a smidgeon more evolved. (Alternatively – sorry, sisters! – are living doll men more evolved in their willingness to transition from their gender to the other?)

Women leaders: PC puzzles, if women lead ‘from behind’, how can we be seen?

Fated to be overshadowed?

Fated to be overshadowed?,

According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Neptune raped Caenis, the daughter of Elatus and Hippea. She was so traumatised that she asked to be changed into a man so that she could never be raped again. Contrite, Neptune granted her wish: she became Caeneus.

You could almost take this as an allegory for one of the problems of attaining ‘true’ female ‘leadership’. A slew of media articles, some by women in the public eye, portray us as emulating men to be successful at work, and urge us not to: read IMF chief Christine Lagarde’s interview for the BBC (; UK Home Secretary Theresa May’s speech at the launch of a new female mentoring scheme (; Rachel Bowden’s ‘Do women need to act like men to be successful managers?’ (; Maria Shriver’s NBC interview with Barbara Annis, a gender intelligence expert and the Chair Emeritus of the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard Kennedy School, ‘You Do You: Why Women in Leadership Should Just Be Themselves’ (

According to Bowden, a study of leadership and management in the UK’s National Health Service found that ‘women in senior positions tend to behave as they think men behave…. The findings also apply to labs and research departments.’ Yet according to Annis, ‘successful female leadership is about women who have broken the glass ceiling by being themselves, rather than those who have made strides by adopting male behaviors.’

My own working life has been something of an object lesson in what women – at least this one woman – might mean by ‘leadership’ anyway. I started out from University with some compulsion to ‘climb the ladder’ in book publishing, and did that, racking up in turn roles as an editorial assistant, an editor, an editorial manager and then an editorial director. It was only after some 14 years that I realised that in part, I was trying to shadow my father’s stellar career as a ‘captain of industry’ – and that once at ‘the top’, I didn’t really enjoy it. I reviewed my skills set, and the aspects of work that I most thrived on. I discovered that they were rooted in coaching others and bringing on a team; I changed direction, re-training ‘from the bottom’ as a learning support assistant then a teacher in primary classrooms. Once more, though, partly through ambition, partly through luck and opportunity, I ‘rose’ to become an educational consultant and researcher and writer in the field. Yet eventually, with the benefit of this further experience, I suppose, I realised that I’d most like to ‘work backstage’, helping others through administrative work. And this time, now, I do feel satisfied and genuinely fulfilled. I believe that I help others, being given ample opportunity to contribute ideas and to build something at work as part of a team, while undertaking fulfilling spare-time activities such as mentoring: I have no desire to re-climb the greasy pole; and yet, according to the male success model, what I do, I hope in my terms successfully, is nothing like ‘leadership’.

This is where it gets complicated. According to Jean Lau Chin, Bernice Lott, Joy Rice and Janis Sanchez-Hucles (eds.), Women and Leadership: Transforming Visions and Diverse Voice (2007), many studies have actually shown little or no gender difference in the leadership roles and styles of managers, supervisors, officers, department heads and coaches. And yet most workplaces are hierarchical in structure, a structure which is generally acknowledged to be masculine and patriarchal – with many women confessing that they feel uncomfortable being identified as a ‘leader’ at the head of such a vertical structure. Thus Amanda Sinclair reports in her paper Not just ‘adding women in’: Women re-making leadership, 2013:

‘Highly visible and effective women in public life have been designated as something other than leader, such as “community activist” or “pioneer”…. Many women are sceptical about the term leadership – they don’t want to be labelled a leader because of what it connotes: the out-front loner, or the tough, stoic hero.’ (

Another problem lies in that, within our male, hierarchical workplace structures, there are pervasive misperceptions and stereotypes about how men and women operate. See for instance articles such as 4 Skills that Give Women a Sustainable Advantage Over Men by Glenn Llopis in Forbes. Women’s e-news reports hard scientific evidence that contradicts these generalisations: ‘Men are not inherently less empathetic than women, nor are women more people-oriented, democratic, caring managers.’ (

Yet workplace assumptions about male-female characteristics, strengths and weaknesses are deep-rooted, and again, are found irrefutably in studies. Thus males and females are perceived and treated differently:

‘When male leaders act forcefully, they are applauded, not critiqued for any lack of niceness and friendliness…. But forceful female leaders may be met with hostile reactions for failing to be more feminine…. When a woman and a man work together in a team, credit for the team’s success is far more often given to the male team member. A woman’s performance must be at the top 20th percentile, and in many cases in the top 10th percentile, to be viewed on par with the average man’s performance.’

Jean Lau Chin et al confirm:

‘Women in Western culture (particularly those who are White and middle class)… are expected to manifest certain qualities in their thinking and action. These are communal qualities…, and include friendliness, kindness, and unselfishness. These are distinguished from the … qualities assigned to “masculinity” and men, such as assertiveness and instrumental competence…. When working as leaders or managers, women (and men) are expected to behave… on the basis of their gender alone. Thus it is anticipated that a woman leader will be more “relationship centred, nurturing, and sensitive” than a man…. These beliefs, however, do not match the actual behavior of women and men….’

These beliefs may not be founded in reality, but what is certain is that there are some aspects of much female culture that contradict, and conflict with, the hierarchical structure of most organisations. As Pluribus ( puts it:

‘Men live in hierarchical structures…. Women prefer flatter structures which promote better communication, understanding and friendship…. A very important rule in the female culture is that the power in interpersonal relationships is shared and always kept “dead-even”…. The girls who tried to be the boss of other girls as children quickly learned that this behaviour damaged friendships. Consequently, when adult women enter a hierarchical arena they usually attempt to share power equally or to flatten the hierarchy. As a result, women often negotiate differences, seeking “win-win” solutions, focusing on what is fair for all instead of winning.’

(Text based on the work of Dr Pat Heim, especially such videos and publications as The Invisible Rules: Men, Women and Teams: see

Others agree, in fact seeing hierarchical structures as most effective only in emergency situations (C.D.R. Norton, Gender and Communication – Finding Common Ground in The Leadership News, Spring 1998: Sadly, most workplaces aren’t flexible enough to change between flatter and more hierarchical structures when needed. And with only one-eighth of women on top company boards in the UK, and women earning 55% less than their male counterparts, and gaining one-fifth of the bonuses, in the field of finance alone, as recently as 2012 (, there’s no chance that any such structural innovations will come soon. Yet even in hierarchical companies, research shows that if there are three or more women in ‘top’ jobs, they achieve a better bottom line Womens e-news).

So what can we under-recognised, even disenfranchised, working women do to improve things for ourselves in the workplace, to make ourselves more visible, maybe even regarded as leaders in new terms? Jean Lau Chin et al hint at some suggestions:

– ‘When a feminist manager contributes to the growth of group members, fosters their interactions and connections, this must not be done invisibly, as is expected to be the feminine way, but clearly and openly [my italics] (Actually, Chin et al are quoting Joyce K. Fletcher and Katrin Käufer, Shared Leadership: Paradox and Possibility in C.L.Pearce and J. A. Conger, Shared Leadership: Reframing the Hows and Whys of Leadership (2003)).

– ‘Empowerment’ is also seen as a key attribute of women as leaders if they are, in their leadership terms, to become visible and recognised. Chin et al explain what ’empowerment’ means: ‘[This] style… encourages competition not between individuals but between work units [my italics], promotes open discussion and democratic participation, shares resources, and helps subordinates grow and do their best by empowering, not exploiting, them.’

– Chin et al are looking particularly at feminist leadership, so they also urge: ‘Feminist leaders [must] also “make waves”…. A feminist leader must advocate for policies that support child care and family obligations, adequate access to health care, pensions, and other employee-friendly benefits.’ also suggest that women as leaders should help with:

– Mitigation of group think and excessive risk taking.

– Creating gender balanced teams.

Finally, a lot of writing and research suggests that there are two main leadership styles – transactional and transformational -, the latter being regarded as more conducive to female success. (Chin et al describe it as ‘motivating others to perform beyond their expectations by setting a personal example of high standards, providing support, and encouraging creativity’ – although Fletcher and Käufer caution that this style has still ‘been developed primarily by non-feminist men, still present the leader in “heroic” terms, and are focused on individuals rather than groups’.) I’d suggest that leadership styles need to be viewed as far more diverse and fluid than this – otherwise we risk once more stereotyping our colleagues, potentially, and most dangerously perhaps, by gendering their approaches. suggests that there are at least four leadership modes, and that even then, we women (as well as men) may travel between them. They are described as ‘relational leadership’, which takes a stance of intuition; ‘performance leadership’, which takes a stance of truth; ‘strategic leadership’, which takes a stance of perspective; and ‘visionary leadership’, which assumes a stance of vision and purpose. Perhaps it would help us if we focused more on our leadership styles, recognising them in ourselves, discussing them openly in the workplace, and adapting them as we need them, than in perceiving our performance as primarily ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ in style.

Maybe all those hierarchical structures (apart from in all-women workplaces, of course) still need changing; but perhaps the ideas above can be a start.

Views of singles, not least by singles: PC says, we’ve a heap of work to do on attitudes

Not so puzzling, divergent perceptions of single men and women, are they? Image by njaj/Courtesy of

Divergent perceptions of single men and women: not that puzzling, but a shame, none the less. Image by njaj/Courtesy of

About 29% of UK households are occupied today by one person. It was a mere ten years ago that the words ‘spinster’ and ‘bachelor’, with their outdated negative, stereotyping undertones, were cut from marriage certificates. A study at the time however warned that there seemed to be a persistent ‘ideology of marriage and family that is widely embraced and infrequently questioned’ (B.M. DePaulo and W.L. Morris, ‘Singles in society and in science, in Psychological Inquiry, 16, 2005, quoted in J. Hertel, A. Schűtz, B.M. DePaulo, W.L. Morris and T.S. Stucke, ‘She’s single, so what? How are singles perceived compared with people who are married?’, in Zeitschrift fűr Familienforschung, 19, 2007)( J. Hertel et al agreed in 2007 that

‘Singleness is often regarded as a transitional state between romantic relationships. It is seen as a period of living and not as a form of living.’ (B. Kupper, Are singles different from others? A comparison between singles and couples, 2002.)

And yet, and yet. Women who have never been married tend to enjoy better health than other women; ‘younger and middle-aged single women tend to have high general ability scores, are highly educated, and have high-status occupations… In general, never married people report satisfaction in terms of friendships, general health, standard of living, and finances….The majority of never married individuals are socially active, with friends, neighbors, and relatives, as well as dating partners.’ (OK, so there’s a biggish proviso here – apart from the fact that these findings are marriage-based, as so often: single men have a harder time: in health, socially and romantically; and the never married, especially women, tend to experience more problems later in life, especially when their caregiving needs grow.) (”&gt).

And yet, and yet, too, society is undergoing a momentous shift in the variety, the status and the degrees of permanence/commitment of different kinds of relationship and family/community networks, accelerating us far beyond the aptness of such attitudes. ‘Singlehood’ takes very many, variegated forms: it’s now a constricting term. While national and international statistics collection often still uses the antiquated definition of singles as ‘the unmarried’, in reality ‘singledom’ now encompasses too those in a couple who live regularly apart; the separated; widows and widowers; single parents (lone mothers, one could argue, having become ‘the weakest link in the embattled welfare state’ (; ‘uncoupled’ people who are creating ‘families’, or other living arrangements, together; people living solo who treat their pets almost as ‘partners’; even – in some circumstances – gays living in a stable union but unable to attain full ‘married’ status; and more.

In her Atlantic article All the Single Ladies (2011)(, Kate Bolick recognises the importance of the work of the social historian Stephanie Coontz and her landmark 1990s book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. There, Coontz demonstrates that throughout history, our views of the legal contract of marriage between a man and a woman have always been in flux. Janelle Nanos’s ‘”Spinster” and the Stigma of Being Single’ in Boston Magazine, January 2012 ( points out that one important factor in our prejudice towards marriage and against singledom from the late nineteenth century, given the large-scale loss of male lives in the North American Civil War and in the two World Wars, has been a recurring pattern of societal concern about having ‘too many women’ for the state to support without, as it were, ‘male breadwinners’ help’. In some cohorts, in some countries, this remains a thematic refrain (‘Across the country [the UK in June 2014], … when it comes to those aged 35-64, [there are] more single women – 271,000 – than men who are unattached’: ‘Unattached’: now there’s an unpleasant term.

Another influence against singledom was the thinking of the Freudian era, which ‘stigmatized singles and deemed them abnormal (marriage [was] elevated and the only “normal” path to intimacy)’. It could be argued that in the 70s and 80s there was a more positive image of singles as young and attractive, loving to have fun; but since then, we seem to have regressed into more traditional values (S. Hradil, ‘From admiration to pity: Changes in how singles are perceived and the re-emergence of traditional values’, in Zeitschrift fűr Familienforschung, 16, 2003).

All this, and yet, when interviewed by Bolick in 2011, Stephanie Coontz had to admit that things have irreversibly moved on:

‘We are … in the midst of an extraordinary sea change…. When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organize their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down.’

For a start, Bolick points out, we keep putting marriage off: the average marriage age is rising (at least, in the US and the UK). We’re also marrying less in the first place. Furthermore, women (and men) no longer have to marry to procreate; and parenthood is no longer seen as ‘compulsory’, either.

Yet society, modern culture, still obsesses on marriage, or certainly coupledom, as the Golden Ideal. Even Kate Bolick slips into writing of her ‘chances’ of finding a mate and having children. Not just statistics collection, but qualitative research, historical and sociological, is biased: revolving around marriage/coupledom or its lack but also being gender-unbalanced. For instance, studies of widows increased in volume from the 1970s to now, while studies of widowers are much more sparse, and have tended to consider them in the context of their re-marriage: a reflection, experts argue, of our patriarchal values (Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, reviewed in Reviews in History, 2015:

Our linguistic usage is sexist, as well as biased around singledom, and that doesn’t help. From being a term of respect for women who chose a trade in spinning wool over marriage, ‘spinster’ has become deeply pejorative, on a par with the phrase ‘old maid’, i.e. someone to be pitied for being unmarried/uncoupled. It’s a word now thankfully little used; though it’s been proudly reclaimed for the blog The Modern Spinster with its really contemporary, illuminating posts ( Telling, isn’t it, that the equivalent male word ‘bachelor’ was at first glamourised in the early twentieth century (‘bachelor pad’, ‘gay bachelor’) then more or less abandoned – sooner than ‘spinster’? There’s a (less noticed) gender inequality between ‘widow’ and ‘widower’, ‘widow’ being more negative in associations than the male equivalent, and also more often tagged to the dead man’s name (‘Bill Smith’s widow’). Of course, there are historical reasons for all this: men were the primary breadwinners in earlier centuries, so their loss – according to societal economic values – was in the past noted more keenly.

The marriage/parenthood ideal naturally permeates the media, too. News outlets commonly report ‘Widow robbed’ or ‘Mother of two killed in car crash’, labelling women in a facile way that they’d never do with men. ( Then of course, everywhere we read ‘light, fun’ journalistic pieces that perpetuate societal notions of the single as merely undergoing a period devoid of the ideal state of existence, coupledom. See for instance ’10 Types of 30-Year-Old Single Guys’ (, and ‘The 10 Types of Single Women Over the Age of 30’ (a nasty piece, not only singlist but misogynistic, with a further distasteful edge of ageism, at Disturbingly, it’s written by a man who’s self-professedly the ‘finest dating and romance coach on the West Coast’ who ‘has been helping single women past their “best served by” date [OMG! My exclamation] to find love since 2003′).

Hertel et al‘s study ‘She’s single, so what?’ of 2007, interviewing 267 Germans, single and coupled, male and female, and of many ages up to 50, thus showed – unsurprisingly – that

‘married people are generally still seen more positively than singles. Singles were seen as more lonely, less warm and caring than married people….It is the men who are more negative in their views of targets who are single. Men think that single people are less sophisticated and sociable than married people…. Perhaps the perception of singles as less [warm and caring]/nurturant corresponds to the actual likelihood of having children, [as] married people are more likely to have children than single people are. Yet, that difference is narrowing….’

Anyhoo, we probably all know that society at large is prejudiced against singles. Although – of course! – a shedload of ‘singles’ (however defined) have high self-esteem and positive attitudes to their own singlehood, what interests me, what saddens me more, is some of their attitudes to ‘other’ singles: to singles in certain groups, or singles in general. There’s an insightful Hons thesis by Kimberly McErlean (2012), ‘Examining Conceptions of Singlehood among Older Ever-Singles’ (i.e. what she calls ‘the voluntary and involuntary stable categories of singlehood’)( Single women felt that their singledom was perceived more negatively than men’s, divorcees sensing themselves to be slightly higher in the singledom pecking order ‘because someone had found them attractive once’; while single males found themselves regarded as an oddity or a rarity, rather than being so defined by their status in relation to marriage or non-marriage. Singles can thus be reluctant to identify themselves in pieces on singlehood in the media: see Janelle Nanos’s piece, cited above, for instance.

According to Hertel at al, it wasn’t just older couples who judged singles ‘especially more harshly than they judged marrieds’: it was also YOUNGER SINGLES. What a shame.

This is a hard one to tease out, because the same study (remember, undertaken with singles and couples, of a range of ages) explains that

‘Women – especially younger women – think single people are more sophisticated and sociable than married people. Younger men disagree…. Men … are more negative in their views of targets who are single. Men think that single people are less sophisticated and sociable than married people…. Coupled perceivers sometimes rate singles as more sophisticated and sociable than marrieds, but only if they are young or the targets they are rating are young.’

So, perhaps the researchers’ most important observation is that

‘There is a positive trend in the way singles are perceived, but only with respect to young singles…. Apparently, being young, flexible, and independent is regarded as positive, being old and still without a partner as negative.’

Even singles who regard themselves as in the ‘dating pool’ reflect these prejudices. Dating research from a large online agency, OKCupid, is full of sobering stuff about the age distortion in the self-perceptions of men, in particular, looking for love: compared with women seeking male partners, they’re heavily biased against women older than them

Singlism – including self-singlism – is gender-biased and ageist, too, it turns out.

Looks like there’s one heck of a lot of work on attitudes to do. We could start by forming some kind of gender-blind, age-blind Singles Organisation to promote our cause and advertise all the new forms of ‘singlehood’. (I personally can’t find one.) Alternatively, we could all support and follow the work of experts in the field such as Dr Bella DePaulo ( (It was she who coined the term ‘singlism’ – used here – for all forms of prejudice against singledom; I admire her work tremendously).

I dedicate this post to her.