Ageism is a Feminist Issue

As I was listening to the CBS Evening News the other night, an article stuck in my mind.  With Baby Boomers approaching retirement age, the article addressed the different health and lifestyle issues that older people deal with, as well as the fact that the supply of adequate medical care is far below its increasing demand.  At no other point in recorded history has our population carried such a great percentage of older adults, and for the first time in history, the number of adults over the age of 65 will outnumber the number of children under the age of 5.  A hundred years ago, people could only expect to live to the age of 47; today, life expectancy has risen to an all-time high of 78 years.

The article left me thinking, not just about the institutionalized ageism in our youth-obsessed culture today, but also about the feminist neglect of older women; as a trend, women’s rights has always been more focused on advancing younger women of the future than it has on preserving aging women of the past.  This concerns me, because women statistically live longer than men, creating a gender imbalance, so as our older population ages, it will increasingly become more female-dominant.  In Care2, Cynthia Samuels commented that we seem to be in a “feminist generational divide.”  Not only do I agree with her, I actually predict the divide becoming greater, and younger feminists find themselves unable and unwilling to relate to older women’s identities that pre-date the 1960s.

There are several reasons behind feminism’s ageist slant.  One stems back to the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, which was dominated by younger women.  Right there, feminism was portrayed as a young woman’s expression, and the movement rode with that, creating a sisterhood that completely left out mothers and grandmothers.  I wonder if part of this is because these older women who were not included from the very beginning represented lifestyle choices that feminist theory still seems quite ambivalent on, such as marriage, family planning, and navigating as a woman in a patriarchal system.  These women represented lifestyles that weren’t clean cut to the early women’s lib movement, and instead of embracing the complexities and contradictions of female empowerment in a Mad Men world, feminism really more or less discarded these older women, abandoning them and sentencing them to patriarchal norms.

Another reason for the youth emphasis has to do with feminism’s devotion to reproductive health and a woman’s right to choose.  This brought more attention to young women, because older women have a timestamp; once they hit menopause, it’s assumed that reproduction is no longer a concern for them.  If anything, post-menopausal women, particularly those who started having children before the 1960s, are really an exciting terrain for feminists studies and studying the value that mothering had on female identity once these women realized that their conditioned purpose in life, breeding and raising children, had reached an end.

The third I think stems from feminism’s goal of female independence over interdependence.  This is much easily accomplished in youth, but as we age, we increasingly need to depend on others for basic services and care.  It’s really no different than the level of dependency babies have on adults, yet babies are justified because they have not yet grown up.  They also represent the beginning of life, not the ending of it.  Older people, on the other hand, are ridden with more negative connotations, perhaps because they already have grown up, and their dependency, though just as justified, still signals some type of regression in growth to younger people.  Many young people have been conditioned to look at others through a discriminate lens that compares the other to the self, and through that, projects whatever insecurities the younger self is feeling onto how s/he perceives the other.  I catch myself doing it sometimes when I talk to my Grandma, who was a college-educated housewife, or my future mother-in-law, who is in her 70s, and I have to realize that they were taught a very different version of female identity than I was.  Perception is another way of acting out privilege.

Then there’s the unmentioned fourth reason, which I think underlies the previous two—as a whole, young people are afraid of getting old.  Ageing implies an impeding death, and culturally, it’s very hard for a young person to contemplate what it means for life to end.  Older people, through their experiences, gradually come to terms with this reality, and they come to represent its immediacy to younger people.  Not only are we in an “Age of Entitlement,” as Ted Koppel says, where young people like to surround themselves with ideas that lie in their comfort zone, but we also live in an era of immediacy, where we want results faster than we can process them, so ageing becomes a result rather than a process, and in fighting it, culture brings it closer and closer to youth, never once addressing the fact that humans age from the moment they are born.  Instead of allowing ourselves to age gracefully, many Americans fight it with either cosmetic surgery, anti-aging creams and hair dyes.

In this light, ageism is many times treated as subordinate to feminism, but the two issues really go hand in hand with each other, because they both tackle the fact many identities are socially and culturally constructed through images of the body.  In feminism, those images are projected on the female body, while in ageism, those images are projected onto the ageing body.  In Gender, Social Inequalities and Aging, Toni M. Calasanti and Kathleen F. Slevin write:

“Age relations are unlike race/ethnicity, gender, and class in critical ways.  Age is fluid and thus the same individual can be advantaged or disadvantaged by age over the course of the life-span.  Certainly, other social locations can be malleable, too.  That said, such changes are, in fact, relatively uncommon.  By contrast, we all must age or die.  Where individuals stand in relation to old age, then, must change, whereas other social locations may never change.  Everyone must get old (or die) and when this (becoming old) occurs varies by the intersection of other power relations.”

In age relations, as in many oppressive paradigms, the relationship between self and identity as a consequence of the relationship between discourse and power.  By discourse, I mean debate, one that not only opposes one side against the other, but does so in a way that, depending on a person’s position, there will be a hierarchy where one side is valued as more constructive than the other.  In this case, young is more constructive than old, because, to go further, youthful women are seen as sexier than aging women.  Feminism cannot deny ageism as a central issue, because on the whole, society is kinder on older men than it is on older women.  Sex sells, and while it’s entirely possible to be the sexy older man, such as George Clooney, Richard Gere or Harrison Ford, the same is not true for women.  In a traditional relationship, the man is older than the woman, so older single men have their pick of the crop, from women their age all the way down to however legally young they want to go.  George Clooney himself has shown societal acceptance of the lifelong bachelor.  In men’s case, fertility lasts until death, and when you look at previous life expectancies, that used to be the case for women as well.  Now, we typically have half of our lives ahead of us by the time our fertility expires.  There has always been a link between attractiveness and reproduction; many men have reported being the most attracted to women when they are in heat.  I’m still trying to understand why, even today, sexuality is portrayed as more male than female.  One woman I know who is in her fifties and recovering from “cancer in the down theres,” recently had to have an operation where half of her clitoris is now covered.  Because she’s post-menopausal, the doctors didn’t stop to think how crushing it has been for her to accommodate her sexual arousal to half a clit.  “I may not be having kids anymore,” she told me, “But that doesn’t mean I don’t like orgasms.”  So what happens to sexiness once all the eggs are gone?  I’ve never heard people use the term “lifelong bachelorette,” but rather label older single women as “spinsters,” “old maids”, or, if they take up romances with younger men, “cougars.”  ABC’s Cougar Town features a 46-year old Courtney Cox as an older woman in a dating world of younger men, hence the title.  Already, 46 is old.  The Madonna-whore complex still exists in some male populations, where parenthood is thought to kill a woman’s sexuality, but not a mans.  Even today, cultural treatment of female identity is still attached with male identity, and it becomes more magnified as women age and become mothers, and then “less sexy” to the mainstream male.  Patriarchy is a main culprit in ageism, where male power is exerted on and through dominant images of the ageing body.  When I look at younger and middle-aged women’s efforts to maintain youthful appearances, I can’t help but wonder if it’s all a glossy treatment that’s so focused on postponing the external process of ageing, it feeds into the denial that no cream in the world can keep your eggs in you past a certain age.

In this context, there needs to be a more in-depth inquiry and critique of what it means to look “old,” one where appearance, aesthetics and beauty are treated as social and cultural constructs of acceptance rather than vain pursuits for attention.

There is a memorable quote towards the end of The Princess Bride where Prince Humperdink challenges Westley, proclaiming, “To the death.”  Westley retorts, “To the pain,” and then proceeds to outline his methodical mutilation that will not kill the Prince, but leave him physically incomplete and miserable.  While I do not project misery for feminism, I do see its lack of addressing ageist issues as its own form of “To the pain,” because it marginalizes populations of women who are not perhaps at the core of feminist debate, but they are nonetheless women, and in being so, they help hold up our entire foundation of feminist inquiry and addressed issues.  Without the active focus on ageist issues, feminism will continue as a youth-dominant issue, which I think will not only breed intellectual immaturity and lack of experiential action, but I think it will also fail to bring awareness to the progression of feminism’s effects on women, because female identity is a historical and lifelong process.  If we want to continue investing in future women, we need to start with those who begin dwindling in the past if we do not share their stories now. In these generational divides, it doesn’t matter if previous generations weren’t as liberated as we think the ones today are. What matters is the validity of the female experience.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted July 27, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    While the focus of Feminism might be on younger women, most of the power lies in the hands of older women. I agree that it is important to not neglect the perspectives and points of view of those older than us, but I would also note that I think in exchange for that we ought to be given seats at the table.

    You are correct in pointing out we want to have our cake and to eat it too. We want to be youthful, but we don’t want to be disenfranchised to any extent. We want our exteriors to appear young, but we also wish to retain the experience and wisdom of age. I’m not sure where to assign blame to any of this, and perhaps pointing a finger isn’t all that helpful.

    We as a culture, to say nothing of we as Feminists are going to have to redefine the whole idea of aging, and with it reverse the stigma. Ageism is a Feminist issue, as you rightly note, but we must establish some semblance of equality before we can confront huge issues like body image, self-esteem, and the like.

    • Posted July 27, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Yes, we do need to establish equality, but that goes hand-in-hand with confronting “huge issues like body image, self-esteem, and the like.” Those huge issues are translators; they represent the internal processing of whatever ideas of equality and inequality are circling around women and men, especially with regards to mainstream media. To prioritize these issues as second underneath establishing equality in many ways overlooks the means to the result.

      And I agree, at the point, I don’t know helpful pointing the finger would be too.

  2. Posted July 27, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Interesting…as a young feminist, I often feel unwelcome in feminist communities because I don’t have the long track record of an older feminist.

    I wonder if this is yet another way that patriarchy gets us coming and going. Young women are flighty, old women are bitter. Young women are shallow, old women are ugly. And none of us said feminism is free of the influences of wider society.

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