Women’s Ways of Aging

From Public Books:

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage, it intensifies fears of aging and debility that characterize our culture of fitness and drive our aspirations to bodily invincibility. The stigma of aging affects women differentially. While feminists have touted the achievements of older women and insisted that the later years can be the best, we now find ourselves on the other side of an increasingly solid barrier between a “younger” population and an “elderly,” “older,” or “old” one. Those of us who are age 65 or older are the most vulnerable and at risk, both in need of extra protection and most likely to lose out in the triage battle for hospital beds and ventilators. At the same time, our vulnerability to the virus makes it impossible for many of us in this age cohort to participate in the historic street protests we are condemned to witness from afar.

This is therefore a good moment to assess our experiences of aging, and to face our own attitudes more squarely. Rather than battling an ageist and sexist media by insisting that older women can do and be more than ever before by working and playing harder, might we instead focus on care and interdependence, accepting rather than disavowing bodily, emotional, and social vulnerabilities? Rather than celebrating individual victories against aging and mortality, we might embrace a communal ethos of mutuality to which the old have a great deal to contribute.

In proclaiming older women’s powers, the titles of two recent books give a clear sense of their tone and mission: No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History, by journalist Gail Collins, and In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead, by communications and media scholar Susan J. Douglas. Indignant about the blatant disparagement of older women that characterizes our moment, Collins and Douglas take a celebratory, if not outright triumphalist, tone. Both search for greater social importance and acceptance of older women in earlier historical periods and find examples of their unrelenting energy and productivity today. Both books encourage all women to fight against gendered ageism. They call for forms of cultural recognition that would better represent what their authors see as older women’s mostly positive experiences of aging.

. . . .

In a whirlwind journey through United States history, from the colonial period to today, No Stopping Us Now traces changes in opportunities for and attitudes toward older women. With spirit and energy, Collins leads us through the lives of numerous, mostly well-known older women who wielded considerable influence at different historical moments. Although the book touches upon larger economic arguments about shifting social roles available to mature women—brought about by the need for their products in colonial times, for example, or the opportunities for widows to run their husbands’ farms or businesses—Collins is more interested in how individual women were able to circumvent prejudices and taboos, and thereby thrive in their later years. Collins’s story is one not so much of steady progress as it is of a series of gains and losses, advances and declines—a story that leads to what she sees as today’s open future of increased possibility.

Thanks to Collins, one certainly gets a sense of women’s energy and activity, which is hard to reconcile with popular attitudes of gendered ageism, then and now. She paints vivid portraits, for example, by following the writing, publishing, and public-speaking “adventures” of 19th-century luminaries like Sarah Josepha Hale, who continued writing until she was 89; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who urged middle-class women to start a whole new life in their 50s; Catharine Beecher, who took courses at Cornell in her 70s; and Jane Addams, who advocated a postponement of old age.

Notably, historians studying American women have analyzed the feminist strategies these and lesser-known women used to advance their work: by seemingly conforming to set gender roles, even as they radically subverted them. Collins, meanwhile, is content to tell these stories chronologically, ending with encouraging contemporary examples that range from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Nancy Pelosi to Gloria Steinem and Helen Mirren. She does fold these individual white women into a broad historical sweep that also includes exceptional African American figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances Harper, and 98-year-old National Park Service ranger Betty Reid Soskin. Yet she only mentions—without analyzing in any depth—how gendered prejudices are structurally inflected by racial, economic, and other social inequalities.

Link to the rest at Public Books

2 thoughts on “Women’s Ways of Aging”

  1. I rage against the limitations, especially the one that throws perfectly good older women under the bus, women who finally in their lives may have the time and leisure to do things for themselves (in and around taking care of even more elderly parents, spouses who are falling apart, and recalcitrant children and grandchildren).

    And then I scan the news, noting anything useful (vaccines, voting rights, virus-news), and I get back to work. I’m well into the cohort at 70 – and I have books I’m in the middle of writing, and other work I need to do – and I have possibly a more limited horizon, so I hate wasting that time.

    There may be some small benefits to being locked in quarantine for another year, and if I don’t get the trilogy finished, it will only be my fault, and it is coming very well, thank you. And if I have any extra time, it will be spent marketing the first volume.

    I can’t go out and protest – but that’s no reason to sit around watching the news and twisting a hanky (which I’d have to order from Amazon anyway). I would – if it would help. It won’t. I’m already doing what I can in that department.

    • For the record, A, I’m adamantly opposed to throwing older women under any buses.

      I appreciate and enjoy the company and conversation of women of all ages, but if I were making a list of women aside from immediate family who have had the most substantial impact for the better on my life, the top several places on that list would be older women, including Edna Lascelles, a wonderful little white-haired English lady who was my teacher during First, Second and Third grades in a tiny country school. (I say “little” because I was almost as tall as Mrs. Lascelles was when I was finishing the third grade.)

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