Old Women’s Democracy

An old women’s democracy?1

I am 32 years old and have no children. Most of my women colleagues or friends in Berlin are in the same position. More than once I note in discussions that the mentioning of the association? “old women” creates strong (at best ambivalent) reactions. I suspect the notion ‘old’ in combination with ‘women’ connotes what we don’t want: when our eye-lashes thin, when our skin wrinkles, when our photograph-eyes sag – when we get old as women. Sociologist Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello argues that this ambivalence comes from our images of women that have crossed-over into menopause. Images that condense fears of becoming invisible, unlovable, un-woman-able. Fears that come before gender cross-over linked to age:

“Because they are not seen or not seen in public, they are partly not noticed. For ‘others’, they form a homogeneous and anonymous group. A group that constitutes, from now on, an excellent zone of projection for all fears and aggressions of our society. If despite all that, some women of age succeed to attract attention at times, their behaviour will only confirm general stereotypes associated to them (that they are quarrelsome, masculine, etc.).” 2

For some reason, my fear was a different one. When I was a child, old women were the most powerful beings. Growing up in a village in the middle of Germany, old women were omnipotent, quarrelsome, gymnastic persons. Always treating me kindly, what ever I did. And smelling like cupboards full of mint bonbons. I was born in 1978 and grew up in between two mountain villages, the village of my father and the village of my mother, located in the middle of forests and hills. Refugees lived in the village of my mother, transplanted by German post-war legislators who put women and children from the East in villages left by migrants who went to the big cities, further west.

Among these refugees were seven sisters: Oma Frieda, Minke, Marie, Mila, Trude, Traudel, Elsa and Anna. They were united in quarrelling. There was always a fight between them sending rumours rumbling down my mothers’ main village street. Frieda was my great-grandmother, born in 1912, and she had been a sporting champion when Bohemia was still part of Austria. Anna, her elder sister, had a Czech father and not a German. That’s why her official (German) dad, the father of the six following sisters, treated Anna very strictly. The father also was the owner of several cats whom he treated very carefully. This father did not allow Anna to marry her lover, the son of a big farm-owner, who killed himself after Anna had given birth to his second son. Minke was a child of the German, but her skin was browner than her mothers’. Minke was allowed to bring home her illegitimate twins. To me, Minke always smiled and she was so silent she always said nothing. The third sister, Elsa, was an SS member. As a member of the SS women horse rider corps, Elsa denounced her younger sister Traudel who had a love relationship with her half-Jewish colleague. The relationship was split.
Anna’s death touched me very much. Anna, after the suicide of her lover, and after fleeing to Germany, and, after the adoption of her surviving son, had not founded another family in Western Germany. Though four of her sisters were still alive, she didn’t want them to care for her. Her only child, Franz, had died at the age of 50, and so he wasn’t there either. The cats of the village in which all the sisters lived after the war became Anna’s family. When Anna had reached her nineties she needed care. I loved Anna, particularly because of her hard voice, her resounding shouts to the other sisters, and her un-sweetness. When they told me she was very ill and in a medical center (that was in 2000) I visited her, and I think a few days later she died. The hospital common room and living spaces were full of shouting and crying old people. When I entered Anna’s room, she did not take much notice. She had turned her face against the wall, her body buckled. I talked to her, and she mumbled something back, something like, ‘leave me alone.’ I will never forget Anna, for this and for who she was. I brought stones to her grave that is next to Oma Frieda’s, and Minke’s.

Sometimes I wonder how the lives of the women in my family might have been if they had been settled in a more urban area rather than one of Germany’s most backward mountain regions. I wonder how they might have lived and died if they’d have had a higher education, or if they had made the choice or had the chance to join a union or a progressive women’s group. These intuitive questions concerning urban woman and relationships of solidarity were given empirical traction when I came across the work of French sociologist Anne Labit. Interested in the causes of poverty and ‘precarious’ living conditions of aging women in post-Fordist societies, Labit found that in several Western European countries, groups of women with a feminist and left-associative background founded communes expressly designed for aging women. In these communes, Labit discovered a potentially novel method of radical democracy developed by old women. For example, one group of aging women founded a commune in Paris in which they live together, make all decisions together, and care for each other – mutually supporting each other until death. The commune women replace blood-based family relationships by creating relations of choice inspired by practices of participatory democracy in leftist and feminist organizations.

In the practice of everyday life, relationships in the communes are quite conflictual: “They quarrel all the time, decision-making takes a lot of energy, and it take hours,” Labit writes. “The women groups I studied make decisions by consensus, because they agree voting is not democratic.” The first French commune created by women of age called itself “The Babayagas” and it attracted a large amount of media attention according to Labit: “In France, the idea that old women create a commune shocked politicians and unions.” Negative public attention for the first French commune project “The Babayagas” came with the project’s radical break with welfare conventions and care policies, and the unusual voice of aging women grouping together to create their own self-care project. Labit conveys the implications of this public response:

“The bad thing is that the state sees these attempts of self-governed living as another chance to retreat from welfare. Though what is good is that women feel happier, they enjoy their independence. The Babayagas pay their living in solidarity, and the residence itself is not property but sustained by communal rent. A room in the commune costs one tenth of the cost for a private residence for people of age governed by companies.”

Labit’s research team studies two old women communists in France and Germany who call themselves the “Babayagas” and the “Olgas.” The Paris commune of the Babayagas was founded by Therèse Clerc, a writer and feminist activist. In 1999, Clerc called for the foundation of a commune for elderly women and was joined by 14 other founders in the following years. Thérèse Clerc described the meaning of the commune’s name in an interview by a local TV station, sitting in the office from which Babayagas coordinates their community actions. “The myth of the Babayagas comes from Russian folk tales. The Babayaga is an old, Russian, witch who lives in a candy house at the end of a village. Children tell each other stories about the candy house and of course they come to eat a bit of its walls and roof. Eventually Babayaga discovers the house is about to fall from all this nibbling. But Babayagas are also guides, smugglers who help a woman to find her way. A lot of women come to us here in Montreuil, but we tell them we can’t help them unless they want to help themselves. Knowing how difficult it is for a woman before she starts to free herself, how long this takes, we also act as old witches, as initiators, to help women who help themselves to fulfil themselves.” 3 

Behind Thérèse Clerc’s tale is a political statement. In her research, Labit has shown that what motivated French activists and unionists like Thérèse Clerc to found the Babayagas was the wish of independence both from the state and their families: “In France, old people find themselves in an extremely medicalized system. Women fear entering institutions that make them dependent on the will of medical doctors, who treat them as irrational, old, unwise women dependent on their families’ to make the best decisions for them. They also fear to be a burden to their families like their parents were for them.”

The other self-organized commune for women of age that Labit and her team studies calls itself the “Olgas.” The dozen women who call themselves “Olgas” live in a quiet forest area next of a Southern German town close to Nuremberg. “Olgas” is an acronym for “Oldies Leben Gemeinsam Aktiv.”  The Olgas’ commune project has existed since 2003 and received a little public support from the German state family minister though no support from the regional Bavarian government. The “Olgas” made a tree ode by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet their group motto: “We want to be as singular and free as a tree in a forest of brother trees.”  Olga’s homepage presents group members in a landscape of leaves forming the virtual forest of their home. Women residents show themselves individually, one a cello player, another outdoor on a snowy day, a third indoor with a fine pearl necklace. Zora, the group’s dog, is also part of the group tree. The rules the Olgas have given themselves for daily life sound practical, simple, and oriented towards engagement with a broader public: “We have jointly participated in a course to learn to become care-takers.” “We do our gardening on our own and participate in activities in the neighbourhood.” “We decide who is allowed to enter the group.”

Olgas’ sincerity in dealing with death on their homepage struck me. “In memory” titles the page with the picture of a founder that passed away. Women communists as the Olgas or the Babayagas are no nuns, but no man is allowed as permanent resident in the two communes. Labit has asked the founders why this is so: “In fact, some of the women residents do have lovers. But they say they don’t want to cook for them. As soon as a man would be part of the commune they argue, they would have to cook for him and wash him.”

The state caretaking system, and increasingly private caretaking institutions have come to replace traditional family relationships. The Babayagas and the Olgas propose a model different from what they perceive to be the patriarchal caretaking model of the state and the family. These groups foster the bond of solidarity and care among old women at a time when Labit has shown that over 90 percent of the elderly poor in western European countries such as France are women. Old women communists as the Babayagas are very disciplined and have made their own charter that has to be accepted by each new adherent. Its main principles are self-government, solidarity, and citizenship. In their own words: “We govern our housing on our own, we don’t accept external help … We organize our revenues collectively. We help each other to age together in a good way and to approach death in serenity. We express our openness towards the city and reciprocal exchange in political, social and cultural life in the perspective of participatory democracy.” Their comment about democracy is particularly interesting.

Curious about the people behind self-organized residential democracies founded by women of age, ‘Olgas’ and ‘Babayagas’ share an experience in associations, unions, and feminist groups. ‘Babayagas’ and ‘Olgas’ have diverse social and religious backgrounds and include members ranging in age from 60 to 90. I am surprised that neither the ‘Olgas’ nor the ‘Babayagas’ come from central eastern Europe like Anna and her six sisters. It seems that women use group names with an Eastern European connotation to imagine alternative models of womanhood at age. “It was a dream to create the Babayagas” founder Clerc says on Youtube. “And a fight of ten years until they allowed us to have our own house.”
 
When women give themselves new names as a group like the Babayagas and the Olgas did, they also invent novel relationships in democracy, and, maybe that’s why they are so contested. Olgas received no support from the Bavarian conservative regional government, and Babayagas shocked the media with their radicalism. But their example demonstrates forms of solidarity, independence, and social participation that are neither ancestral nor based on a national welfare system or traditional family support system.  

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1 www.youtube.com/watch?v=UE7ZwBpoASw, accessed at 12.2.2010.
2  German for “Oldies live together actively.“
3  www.wohnprojekt-olga.de/ Accessed at 12.2.2010

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