Women, Feminism, and Aging

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WOMEN, FEMINISM, AND AGING Colette V. Browne, DrPH New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1998, 323, $49.95 (hardcover).

Women, Feminism, and Aging is an excellent comprehensive volume that adds considerably to the understanding of feminist theories and their application to the lives of aging women. The basic themes, as well as the faults, of the many contemporary feminist philosophies in our society are clearly detailed and the wealth of references from major feminist writers is impressive. Dr. Browne also attempts to present a life-span perspective on aging women that she believes accounts for poverty and devaluation in their later years. Finally, she offers thoughts on empowerment and new visions for older women in the 21st century.

FEMINIST THEORIES

Many women, as well as men, think of feminist theory as a single entity embodied in the radical version that so flamboyantly emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. In actuality, feminists have followed many divergent philosophical paths and their presentation in this volume emphasizes the vast scope of the feminist movement.

Radical feminist theorists believe that womens' oppression came from patriarchy, or a system of male domination that is supported by law, social policies, culture, and societal norms. Further, they demand control over their own bodies and freedom from childbearing and childrearing responsibilities. Radical theory states that feminism is the real basis for changes that will bring relief from male supremacy and the end of subjugation of women. Contemporary radical strategies emphasize an end to pornography, assault, rape, family violence, forced heterosexuality and homophobia. The roots of the theory were in the experiences and perspectives of White, middle-class, college-educated women of the 60s and 70s and did not address needs of the working class or women of color. Currently, ethnic and cultural views are being incorporated into the radical perspective.

Liberal feminist theory is the belief that it is a denial of equality to women that interferes with their ability to participate fully in the economic and social order. Liberal feminists are more reformist than revolutionary and advocate for laws that prohibit discrimination against women in wages, hiring, promotions, and call for full access to social welfare programs. Many women see liberal feminist beliefs as problematic, since they rely on the state to ensure rights while assuming the state is not biased. This movement has also been accused of racism by continuing to ignore the needs of marginalized women.

Cultural feminism advocates separatism of women, placing them in a cultural group apart from men, with distinct values and practices. One of the major contributions of cultural feminists, according to the author, is to celebrate rather than negate gender differences. Cultural feminists are also known as essentialists and difference feminists who search for universal truths among women that are different rather than inferior to those of men. A major criticism of the essentialists is that they reinforce the traditional gender-role stereotypes. However, the theory's strength is in its study of women apart from men, which is an invaluable tool when both sexes reach later years with different psychological and social histories.

Multicultural or diversity feminists speak for women of color. Dr. Browne tells us that it has been described as a theory that makes race and ethnic difference among women the central feature in womens' oppression. Racism in feminism was first addressed in the 70s and it has been highlighted by feminist diversity writers as a barrier to solidarity among women. The author points out the rich compilation of literature emerging from multicultural feminists who speak in many languages and perspectives. Their purpose is to try to correct the suppression of voices and experiences of women and has led to the use of art, stories, poems and narratives to articulate and validate all womens' lives. …