There are few Australian stalwarts of the women’s movement as beloved and lauded as Ita Buttrose.
Having just celebrated her 81st birthday in January, the ex-Australian Women’s Weekly editor and now chair of the ABC is urging women, especially as they get older, to tackle the way society wants to treat them.
Her comments come as Priceline Pharmacy (for which she is an ambassador) launch their ‘I’m Me’ campaign, along with research that found 44 per cent of Australian women over the age of 40 feel invisible.
“No one pays attention to them. They feel invisible in a pub, or club or restaurant, again, nobody notices them,” Ita said, sitting down with marie claire. “There’s an invisible barrier that stops people from noticing this older woman.”
Interestingly, the research found that women reach their most confident right at the moment they also feel most invisible to others. So why is it that society is taking middle-aged and older women down a peg right as they come to love themselves?
Even Buttrose admits it’s a cruel juxtaposition. “There’s mixed messages going on here. On the one hand they’re feeling more comfortable, or confident, and then they go to shop, and they can’t get the attention of that person,” she says.
For anyone who grew up idolising Buttrose, you’ll likely remember that she’s not one to back down from a meaningful fight. It’s her perspective that if society isn’t going to change its ageist approach, it is an opportunity for the more experienced generations to step up and fix it.
“I think because it’s not in the nature of women to push themselves forward and say ‘Excuse me, I’m here’…it’s a question of making themselves noticed,” she says.
“There’s a dawning on me, maybe because I came through the women’s liberation period, when I realised that it’s ok to be ambitious. Maybe it is driven by that. Maybe the lessons I learned during liberation have stayed with me.”
When asked what those lessons were, she answered with a question. “Why do you think your voice shouldn’t be heard? It’s as simple as that.”
“I don’t feel [invisible]. I mean, if I felt like that it’s so long ago, I can’t remember,” she explains. “There comes a point as the years go by where you realise, ‘Oh, I am very confident and I do have an opinion and I want to tell it; I want to share it. I’m not going to be muzzled and I’m not going to not use my voice’.”
What Buttrose has to say is reminiscent of female visionaries gone before her. No one can forget First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Ita is direct when she says, “If you allow yourself to be treated like a door mat, you’ll be treated like a door mat. We’re not door mats.
“We’re participants in life, we hold down good jobs, we raise families, we budget the household, you know, we’re very talented in all the things that we can do. You can’t let yourself down. Just because it’s inherent in us not to push ourselves forward, we have to overcome that.”
While Buttrose might not feel invisible now, that’s not to say she hasn’t endured treatment that aimed to erase her power.
She tells marie claire that she often has women coming up to her and explaining that they’re being ignored or pushed out by colleagues in the workplace.
“I don’t want to man bash – but they say, ‘men dominate the conversation, they don’t let me in, they pinch my ideas’,” she says. “You think, goodness me, it’s still happening. I mean, I’ve been through all that and it’s still happening.”
Feeling invisible doesn’t just happen in the workplace, or the bar queue, it’s also something that is seen in dating and relationships as we age.
During a panel discussion at the launch of the I’m Me campaign, for which Buttrose has been appointed a new role as Positive Ageing Chief, she tells a tongue-in-cheek story about a trip to Italy when her aunt pointed out that some men were checking her out.
While Ita originally laughed it off, she realised that they were indeed interested, and that women any at any age can still own their desirability. She tells marie claire, “So true! My aunt was quite right [about the men] and I hadn’t noticed. They love us.”
Although, Buttrose bristles when we ask her about monikers used for older women on the dating scene.
“Well ‘cougar’, though I don’t quite like the connotations of that. I don’t want to be a silver fox [either]. None of my friends have grey hair. We have no intention of turning grey,” she laughs.
While Buttrose’s approach of steely grit in the face of discrimination is inspiring, she does encourage people who are not part of the ageing community to heed the results of the survey.
Her final piece of advice is to remind young people to walk a day in another’s shoes.
It’s her view that this approach is the key to making sure less women feel invisible, allowing them to completely enjoy the boost of confidence and sense-of-self they are rewarded with, with each passing birthday.
“You have to put yourselves in the shoes of others and say, ‘if that was me, how would I wish to be treated’,” she counsels.
“Once you answer that with respect, then it changes your whole attitude.”