Dani Garavelli: Women of a certain rage find their political voice

GLAMOROUS grannies are all over television, but those who work in charity shops and organise food banks see their efforts ignored, writes Dani Garavelli

A demonstrator with Waspi, or Women Against State Pension Inequality, outside the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Alamy
A demonstrator with Waspi, or Women Against State Pension Inequality, outside the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Alamy

Last week, I was asked to take part in an International Women’s Day debate on sexism in the media. So I prepared some material on the preponderance of middle-aged male executives, and how it impacts on the portrayal of celebrities and politicians, and, sure enough, most of the questions were about newspapers’ fixation with high heels and leather trousers, and what we can do about all-male panels.

But towards the end, one audience member said she was fed up with the way older women were increasingly being presented as selfish or a burden when most of them are active and making a valuable contribution.

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I thought about this on the drive home. It is true older people of both genders – and particularly baby boomers – have been made into scapegoats for all that ails young people: the stagnant economy, the lack of jobs and the inability to get a foot on the housing ladder. If pensioners are not being castigated for living it large on free bus passes and winter fuel allowances, they are putting unsustainable demands on the NHS and social care. Them and their confounded longevity.

Though in film and on television we see glamorous grannies a go-go – Mary Berry, Judi Dench, Joan Bakewell, Meryl Streep – ordinary older women, who work in charity shops, organise food banks or look after their grandchildren so that their daughters are able to go to work, are invisible, their efforts unacknowledged.

I was still thinking about all this when I saw footage of the Women Against State Pension Inequality (Waspi)’s Budget-day demonstration outside the House of Commons on the 10 o’clock news.

It was an impressive sight. There must have been 7,000 women there, many of them over 60, all wearing their suffragette style sashes and making such a racket they could be heard in the chamber. It was like Made In Dagenham Part 2: the Golden Years.

The news of the hike in National Insurance for the self-employed meant the protest didn’t get much dedicated coverage, but the women had positioned themselves carefully so when the BBC did its interviews, their ‘No Letter, No Notice, No Pension’ banners were in view. High points included Martin Lewis, of MoneySavingExpert.com, who has backed the campaign, turning up and applauding, and Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, pledging the union’s full backing.

The campaign has come a long way since it was founded by five ordinary women in 2015. By exposing the problems caused by changes to the female retirement age (and the failure to properly communicate them) it has given the lie to the idea that older women are high on the hog at the expense of the younger generation, and demonstrated that political activism doesn’t have to stop as you near retirement.

The Waspi campaign seeks redress for losses sustained by women born in the 1950s caused by two pieces of legislation. The first was the Tories’ 1995 Pensions Act which said the women’s state pension age would rise from 60 to 65 between 2010 and 2020 to bring it in line with men’s on gender equality grounds.

In 2011, however, the coalition government decided the age should rise to 66 by the end of the decade (with men’s pension age increasing from 65 to 66 between 2018 and 2020). Waspi does not oppose the equalisation of the pensions but says the government did not write to any of the millions of women affected by the 1995 Act individually for 14 years, and that the 2011 Act was brought in at short notice, giving them too little time to make alternative arrangements.

According to Lewis, more than a million women born between 6 April 1950 and 5 April 1953 were told at age 58 or 59 that their pension age was rising from 60, in some cases to 63. More than half a million women born 6 April 1953 to 5 April 1955 were told between the ages of 57 and nearly 59 that their state pension age would be rising to between 63 and 66.

The worst affected were the 300,000 women born between 6 December 1953 and 5 October 1954 who faced a maximum extra 18-month rise in their state pension age. “We know they were first written to about the changes between the ages of 57 years 5 months and 58 years 1 month, giving them just 22 to 30 months to rearrange their lives,” Lewis wrote.

Many of these women had carefully budgeted for a retirement age of 60; some lost tends of thousands of pounds. Those who have no partner – and who are not well enough to keep working – face hardship and even destitution.

Since it was set up in 2015, the campaign has grown rapidly, spawning 145 groups across the country. It has raised petitions, secured debates, seen the setting up of a Waspi all-party parliamentary group and won support from Labour and SNP MPs.

Unfortunately, it has not made much headway in affecting change, with pensions minister Richard Harrington saying no further taxpayer money can committed to tackling the problem ; some say this is because the group is asking too much – to be repaid in full the pensions they would have received if the age increases had not taken place – at an estimated cost of up to £100bn.

Waspi’s position caused an acrimonious split with some of the founder members who would settle for the idea of a reduced early state pension. This would provide those who cannot keep working with an immediate income and be actuarily neutral.

Still, the campaign has done a great job of raising the profile of a grave injustice. Though eventual equality is an admirable goal, women who paid their National Insurance contributions for more than 40 years on the understanding they would draw a pension at 60 are justified in feeling aggrieved, especially as the government blithely insists working longer will be good for their physical and mental health.

The campaign has raised the profile of older women too. Despite the hurdles they have encountered, the women seem determined to keep on fighting. Like the “Berwickshire Granarchists” I saw on the Edinburgh Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration, the images of the Waspi protesters, refusing to capitulate, send out a valuable message: that it is possible to age not only disgracefully, but militantly too.