This week on Refinery29, we’re filling your screens and consciousness with inspiring women over 50. Why? Because living in a culture obsessed with youth is exhausting for everyone. Ageing is a privilege, not something to dread. Welcome to Life Begins At...
"An activist is about being an impatient person, with a lot of patience," Annie Lennox tells me over the phone. She sounds pleased at the end of the sentence, letting out a two syllable laugh – "ah ha" – because it’s such a good sentence. Of course it is, it’s Annie Lennox, widely regarded as one of the best songwriters of all time, winner of six Brit awards for Best Female Artist, four Grammys and an Oscar for Best Song.
Though our conversation is primarily about Annie’s NGO, The Circle, which champions women’s rights, at several points I’m reminded of the story of how Eurythmics made the '80s anthem "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" because it says much about her activist spirit. As told to The Guardian by Annie and Dave (the other half of Eurythmics), the pair were broke, their band The Tourists had just broken up, and they (Annie and Dave) had also just broken up as a couple. According to Dave, Annie was "totally depressed… curled up on the floor in the foetal position" at the moment he was playing about with the riffs and beats that would become the iconic intro to the song. On hearing the music, Annie "suddenly went: 'What the hell is that?' and leapt up", joined him on another synthesiser and "did this startling rant" which became the lyrics: "Sweet dreams are made of this/ Who am I to disagree? / I travel the world and the seven seas / Everybody’s looking for something." From lying on the floor, depressed, in the foetal position, Annie leapt up and turned her despair into a piece of music that 35 years on, people just can’t stop relating to.
"When I can channel my distress into action, I feel better, I feel so inspired", she tells me in relation to her humanitarian work, which is vast, earning her the Woman of Peace Award at the 2009 Nobel Peace Laureates summit and an OBE in 2011, a year after she became a goodwill ambassador for UNAIDS. Annie cites a 2003 trip to South Africa – where she spent time with Nelson Mandela, performed in the launch concert for his HIV/AIDS foundation and visited families and orphanages devastated by AIDS – as the point of no return. That was the moment she leapt up. "It was a life changing experience," she writes on The Circle’s website. "My encounters woke me up to a multitude of stark realities regarding the contrasting way of life between Western nations and the so called developing world." The stark contrast between life for women in these countries and life in the privileged West still plagues her – "every day," she says. "I do become despairing from time to time because I think, 'This is too big, there’s nothing I can do'. But there is something I can do. And I’m doing it. I’m dedicating my time, my passion and my platform to whatever I can do to make a contribution to the global women’s movement. That’s what I can do as an individual."
In her mid 50s, when she could have easily sat back and enjoyed her life of outstanding achievements, Annie launched The Circle with a small group of like-minded women. "It was a cry in the dark", she tells me. When you look at the stats, listed on their website, the darkness is consuming: "603 million women are living in countries where domestic violence is not considered a crime", "28 million girls in African countries will never step inside a classroom", "39,000 girls become child brides every day", "800 women a day die due to pregnancy or childbirth related complications, of these 99% live in developing countries." Yet Annie’s energy and hope remains steadfast: "There are mountains up there that need to be climbed, and when you get to the top of one mountain, you face another," she says. "But we can do it. It’s doable."
The Circle works with grassroots organisations around the world on many issues, including lawyers tackling gender violence in Kenya, helping women gain independence through starting small businesses in Malawi, supporting the UN’s 'Every Woman Every Child' campaign, which tackles maternal health rights in countries like Tanzania, and working with Oxfam in rural communities in India to challenge the social acceptance of sexual and domestic violence against women. Raising awareness is the first step, says Annie, referencing The Circle’s #OneReasonWhyImAGlobalFeminist campaign, where people post photos of themselves holding a stat about global women's issues.
Annie feels strongly that women and men who identify as feminists in 2018 should be identifying as global feminists, "because the gaps are massive. Girls and women living in the developing world are faced with lives that we cannot, as Western women, even begin to imagine. Young children – younger than 12, younger than 8, younger than 6 – are exposed to rape," she tells me. "This is not mythology, this is happening right now, every single day and this is the darkest of the dark side of abuse by men against children. It’s so dark that I’m afraid even mentioning it. But the world needs to talk about this, the world needs to know about this. It’s not only happening in Hollywood with the top executives, it’s not only happening in industry in corporate offices, it’s happening everywhere in every corner of the world and to young girls and boys."
In her early life, Annie didn’t think she qualified for feminism. At 17, when she left home and moved to London with her flute ready for music college, Annie thought feminists were "hardcore strident women who revoked the use of makeup and feminine clothing. I wanted to wear makeup and high heels so I thought that meant I couldn’t be a feminist! The feminist movement was extremely angry, and rightfully so, but it was a bit scary. I think a lot of women felt the way I did, which was that I wanted to be a feminist, but I didn’t think I would fit in, I didn’t think I was good enough." In the '90s, Annie met Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues: "Eve was talking in fierce terms about the violence against girls and women. But even then, when we met, I didn’t fully understand what this violence was because I personally hadn’t been abused in that way. It really wasn’t until I went to countries where rape is endemic… where rape is viewed as an entitlement, not a violation, that I began to understand."
Motherhood was another huge turning point for Annie’s feminism. "It made me understand the commonality of motherhood," she says. "All women that are mothers want the same thing. I want to see the reduction of maternal mortality. Millions of women die unnecessarily because they don’t get appropriate maternal healthcare." Annie has spoken publicly about losing her first child, Daniel, who was stillborn. She told Kirsty Young in her Desert Island Discs interview: "It made me realise that the human condition is immensely fragile, and strong at the same time. At the same time I lost my son, hundreds of thousands of people died in a village in a remote part of Turkey after an earthquake. Curiously enough, I identified with those people because I saw that loss was all around me…" Annie’s daughter, Lola, was born a few years later, when Annie was 36. "At that time, I seemed like an older mother," she tells me. "My second daughter Tali was born when I was 38. I was busy, I was raising children, I was multitasking, I was doing what working women do. Then I became a single mother because I got divorced. People think, 'Oh well, you had plenty of help' but it wasn’t like that, I was an extremely hands-on mother. I was a single parent, and I was an only child myself, so my kids didn’t have aunties and uncles and cousins, it wasn’t like that."
Another issue Annie spoke publicly about, at a time when few people would go there, is mental health. "Times have changed so much," she says. "I experienced depression – and I had no idea what it was. There wasn’t a word for it. Well, there was, but it didn’t mean anything to anybody. As for therapy, talking, counselling, antidepressants, these things weren’t accessible, there was nowhere to go, people were suffering in silence. But now people are talking, the terminology is coming out, and people are using it."
Now 63, a lifelong activist and the head of a women’s rights NGO, challenging Western feminism to be truly inclusive of all women, Annie can count herself among the hardcore feminists. I ask, as a Nobel Woman of Peace, and a person who has experienced the darkness of depression, whether she's found peace of mind. "Hmm," she answers after a pause. "Well, I didn’t get the Woman of Peace award because I was so peaceful myself! A peaceful existence is something we need to cultivate in ourselves and in how we deal with each other. Are we kind with ourselves? Are we kind with each other? How do we deal with anger? How do we deal with losing it? How do we say sorry? How do we forget? These are human occurrences that go on every day. I get angry and upset if people are rude or thoughtless. But I have to take a breath, count to 10 and just understand that that person is in that space."
"It’s not just by you doing your job as an editor in women’s media," Annie says warmly but with intent at the end of the conversation. "It’s by you becoming a global feminist yourself and understanding what that means, looking for every opportunity and using every possibility you have to spread the word. Change is happening within you right now, as an individual." One final call to action, and then our time is up.