The perils of overlooking women of a certain age
Around this time last year, a British woman named Nicky Clark was getting ready to do something that middle-aged women did in droves during the pandemic: quit.
Clark had just spent three years working on Acting Your Age, a campaign for more roles for older women that she launched, having failed to restart her own acting career after turning 50.
But after struggling to raise media interest, she was ready to give up. Friends urged her to keep going, which was just as well. Last month, her campaign suddenly took off — on television, radio and in newspapers.
“We’ve had more media coverage in the past 10 days than the last four years,” she told me last week, in-between interviews.
Why now? An open letter of support signed by David Tennant, Liam Neeson and more than 100 other actors and public figures doubtless helped.
So too the news that not enough had changed since Clark first calculated that the average age of nominees for Bafta’s leading television actress award, had plunged from 52 to 32 years between 2000 and 2021. (For men the average only dipped from 48 to 45 years.)
Yet Clark’s experience was a reminder of another unexpected breakthrough for middle-aged women in a different part of the world. The success of the so-called Teal independents in last month’s Australian election was predicted by almost no one.
These candidates, mostly professional women in their forties and fifties, ousted a string of conservative MPs after campaigning for more action on climate change and female equality. One defeated Josh Frydenberg, the treasurer who had been tipped to replace prime minister Scott Morrison.
Not that long ago, these were the kind of women who were dismissed in Morrison’s Liberal party as “doctors’ wives”: middle-class urbanites who would normally vote Liberal but were turned off by the party’s policies on refugees or the environment.
Frydenberg was beaten by an actual doctor, a neurologist. Another Teal was a GP. Others included a foreign correspondent, lawyer and business executives.
The same sorts of women signed up as Teal volunteers, according to a friend of mine who worked on a successful Teal campaign in Sydney and was struck by the gleeful defiance of her candidate’s supporters.
One day, she reported, she delivered a poster to a house where a woman marched out and put it straight on her front gate, saying, “I don’t care what he says”, then marched back inside. On polling day, as she handed out how-to-vote cards, women strode up and declared, “I’m voting for her!” before she had time to tell them they should.
There are many reasons why women — and men — voted as they did but Scott Morrison was undoubtedly a powerful, if unwitting, Teal tool.
Tens of thousands of Australians marched in the streets last year after his government was jolted by allegations of sexual assault in Parliament House that Morrison struggled to address sensitively. Having said he understood one woman’s assault claims after speaking to his wife, he declared the marchers were lucky because in some countries they would have been “met by bullets”.
In a pandemic that forced thousands of women out of paid jobs and into unpaid caring work, Morrison’s government also axed Covid wage subsidies for childcare workers as it offered help to a construction sector dominated by men. On the campaign trail, Morrison repeatedly appeared in hi-vis trade worker vests.
“They were trying a Red Wall strategy in Australia,” says Elizabeth Ames, a former Australian diplomat at Atalanta, a London communications agency that works on female political campaigns. She thinks Boris Johnson’s UK government risks the same fate as Morrison if it ranks blue-collar men above professional women.
Trying to draw political parallels between different countries is always fraught, even in nations as close as Australia and the UK. But the Teals clearly met pent-up demand. They showed what can happen when people are given a chance to back someone who prioritises the concerns of women who have been overlooked or ignored.
Perhaps we should not be surprised when campaigns to stamp out gender inequality, on the stage or at the ballot box, succeed in ways that shock campaigners as much as anyone else.