The Feminist Dilemma-What to Do When Sexism Meets Ageism

Article excerpt

In the wake of the struggle for women's equality in the 1960s and '70s, then the unfolding of new feminine roles in the '80s, I've wondered for some time how the women involved in this fight might become true elders, as well as what role they could embrace in their later years. Many possibilities come to mind-but I had no idea of the learning experience I was about to have when I last went to one of the residential facilities I routinely visit in my capacity as a geriatric clinical psychologist.

One does not ordinarily think of assisted living facilities as either the cradle of feminism or a shining example of the women's liberation movement. Typically, these facilities are sprinkled with elders in various stages of decline, a few still feisty and engaged, with most being somewhere in between. Many of these places try to portray themselves as a home away from home; meanwhile, the staff is on overload, operating at a hectic pace.


On that particular day, amid a swirl of activity, I met Josephine, age 72, who had been living at the care facility for two years. Diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, Josephine was at high risk for falls and incontinence.

When I arrived, Josephine, in a firm voice and with a distinctive Southern accent, was ordering an employee to look for her lost cat. I approached Josephine, introduced myself and offered to help with her cat search. When we found the cat, Josephine's mood immediately lightened, and I invited her for tea.

"You're a high-spirited lady, aren't you," I said. "Still feisty after all these years."

"Once a fighter, always a fighter," she answered. I asked, "What battles have you fought?"

As I soon learned, Josephine had participated in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat. Eight years later, after many more civil rights battles, she was in Washington, D.C., to hear Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. In the late 1960s she was still at it, fighting for various women's rights, such as equal employment and no-fault divorce.

When I asked her about her current life, she smiled and said that the highlight of her week was talking with the young interns and volunteers who came to the facility to teach classes and spend time with residents. Josephine appreciated the way the young people listened to her stories. "They really seem to want to know, to learn from my past and my experiences," she said. "I tell them about my struggles and conquests."

Although Josephine did not fit the image I had of an aging feminist, her stories about frondine battles in the movements for civil rights and women's equality resonated with me. Josephine and other women like her have made me reflect on what challenges will come next for aging women in a society mat remains plagued with ageism and sexism. Josephine reflects a shift of the feminist paradigm from liberation to mentoring, a shift that ideally brings more meaningful opportunities for aging women.

We seldom question how me women's movement has affected older women, especially former activists. Elderly women today face personal challenges that trigger some profound questions - among mem, What is their role as they age? Reproduction is no longer a goal, nor is raising children. If they had a career, it is in the past, or nearly so. Traditional roles fer midlife or older women - such as caring for grandchildren or caregiving for a husband or other fantily member are still common for women, but these limited identities may be difficult to bear for those who spent a lifetime trying to make a difference.


The older woman, with her dry skin and wrinkled body, is no longer regarded as pretty, sexy, vital or accomplished; she is considered to be in what I call her dimmed time. Jungian psychotherapist and author Jean Shinoda Bolen has said, "In a youth-oriented patriarchy, especially, to become an older woman is to become invisible: a nonentity. …