Book Review - Hags


Why do women in their late forties and beyond draw such vitriol? Victoria Smith, who writes on women’s issues, parenting and mental health, addresses this question in her timely book Hags. The Observer has suggested it’s “a future classic, up there with Joan Smith’s Misogynies and Susan Faludi’s Backlash.” 

I recently interviewed Smith about Hags. Considering its fiery subject and title, I was surprised to discover she’s self-effacing and softly spoken. However, talking about her work, I quickly realised she defends her beliefs with a steely resolve.

Increasingly, middle-aged women have found themselves talked and written about as morally inferior beings who are to be ignored, pitied or abused. Smith asks why older women are treated with such disdain and why many feminist gains - such as the Abortion Act and women-only spaces - are currently facing a backlash.

Smith takes a different theme for each chapter – care work, beauty, violence, political organization, sex – and explores it in relation to middle-aged women’s beliefs, bodies, histories and choices. She traces attitudes through history, and explores specific reasons for today’s misogyny.

Smith has a PhD in German literature, and a particular interest in Romanticism and dark fairy tales. In Hags she describes how older women are represented in fairy tales - the good mother often dies young, while the older step-mother is cruel and a shrew - and how this negative stereotyping endures. “Whatever we call our witches,” Smith suggests, “as long as we are stuck in the same fairy tale, progressing towards the Snow White to Evil Queen epiphany, women will remain alienated not just from one another but our own reflections.”

Men and women age differently, she observes. “Older women are not actually invisible; we are ignored.”  Smith references the film Fatal Attraction and how Glenn Close’s character, Alex, is portrayed as a “psychobitch”. She notes that we are supposed to find her character “obscene” but  recognises that the older she gets the more “Alex’s grievances suddenly seem entirely reasonable.”  She celebrates Alex’s immortal line: “I’m not going to be ignored” suggesting it conveys “that feeling of having been fucked then ghosted by life itself.” Smith recognises that once women lose the 3 Fs: “femininity, fertility and f**kability” they are side-lined: “We are uncanny, causing discomfort by failing to conform to the standards others have set by us. We are also, most inconveniently, the future of each and every woman on the planet.”

Smith writes a regular newsletter, The OK Karen, which looks at midlife women’s experiences of feminism. According to, a “Karen” is a name used to describe “an obnoxious, angry, entitled, and often racist middle-aged white woman who uses her privilege to get her way of police other people’s behaviour.”  Smith counters this and points out: “the moment our complaints are heard…we are caught in a double bind…If you can hear a woman at all she must be privileged... this instantly invalidates her right to complain.”

Mumsnet has also been vilified, according to Smith, after becoming a space for women to meet and share feminist views. Online mothering forums emerged in the early noughties and were originally considered harmless, spouting benign fare. “Mumsnet was altered from the inside” Smith claims, “disrupting ideas of both what a modern-day parenting forum should be and what mothers actually are.” More recently it has become associated with “political radicalism, aggression and charges of transphobia.” As Smith observes, it’s a site “in which middle-aged women dominate.” She believes  the reason Mumsnet receives such pejorative comments is because people believe that “women’s speech is evil and can’t be trusted; that female knowledge is simultaneously worthless and dangerous; that gatherings without men are gatherings in which the Devil - in the form of female organisation and political thought - corrupts.”

A key theme in Smith’s book is “the way in which women are encouraged to create themselves in opposition to the older women we will eventually become, and the ways in which this hurts us personally and politically…” One of her conclusions is that we need to connect our younger selves with our older in order to be wiser and stronger. She advocates recognising the love and support that can exist between women, regardless of age. Smith also explores feminist history and politics and interrogates the disconnect between past and present feminist movements. Today’s feminist generation should celebrate and build on past achievements, she believes.  

 Hopefully Hags will make women of all ages think about how they can bond, rather than undermine each other. We are stronger together, than we are divided.

Originally published by Camden New Journal