Academic journal article Generations

On Being an Old Woman in Contemporary Society

Academic journal article Generations

On Being an Old Woman in Contemporary Society

Article excerpt

I am honored to guest edit the Winter 2017-18 Generations, the first issue since 1980 that has teen devoted to women and aging. I am also a proud old woman, who treasures the past and the life still to be lived. I don't want to reinvent myself, but I do want to keep growing, learning, and loving the family and friends that make my life so rich. I am not who I was, but "some principle of being abides" (Kunitz, 1978, 2002) that reminds me of the deep continuities that change does not erase. I want to know women of all ages, especially when we come together to engage in actions that will make life better: we share many agendas that get too little attention today.

The Gender Factor

Gender is a significant factor in how our lives go, from youth to old age. Despite all the changes that have occurred since 1973 when I became involved in gerontology, women's lives are still framed by gender. While none of us has only gendered interests, gender is always an element in our interactions with others and the opportunities that are or are not available to us. Consider all the reports about discrimination against and harassment of women in multiple settings. And when we are old, ageism becomes one more element in how we experience and engage with the world. An ultrasound technician would not have addressed a tall, white-haired man in a bespoke suit by the name sweetheart, as she did to me, also carefully dressed, but a woman, old and small in stature.

It is thus shortsighted to profess gender, age, or race blindness because such claims will miss the specific harms resulting from essential and often interacting parts of our identity. While "gender justice can only be achieved through addressing racism, economic injustice, xenophobia, and homophobia" (Henry, 2014), the words of Nigerian novelist and essayist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014) complete the thought: "Of course I am a human being, but there are particular things that happen to me in the world because I am a woman."

Feminists need to keep their eyes on women, as feminist philosopher Rosemarie Tong writes: "It is not time to be replaced by humanism-far from it" (2007). In a recent article, Ta-Nehisi Coates (2017) makes a similar and critical point about racial blindness. To assume we live in a post-racial society is to miss the harms directly linked to race.

Organizing Perspectives

Political feminism that engages in analysis and organizing for change is the feminism that motivates me because it will organize to make life more hospitable and secure for old women, by repairing the world so that we may all live better in it, with "more respect, more freedom and less discrimination" (Cobble, Gordon, and Henry, 2014). This issue's focus on women and aging grows out of this consciousness. Tong (2007) notes, "Third-wave feminists have more work to do than their second-wave feminist mothers did. There is a world of women out there eager for some help in their struggle for equality and freedom." Despite women's complex identities, by working together across our differences we can identify areas where collective action can remediate or eliminate harms. Individual empowerment without social structural critique will not address the systemic power imbalances and inequalities that affect women's lives.

To engage in such critique means adopting a life-course perspective. We cannot understand the situation of old women today without understanding factors such as the gendered and racialized workplace, the organization of the family structure, societal norms, the effects of racism, sexism, and ableism, along with class, to name a few. By understanding these factors, we develop insights about what must be done to create a more just society that matters to us when we are ages 30 and 50, but also at 70 and 90.

As the years pass, advantages and disadvantages accumulate (Dannefer, 2003). Most factors leading to these advantages and disadvantages that influenced our past and shape our present did not happen by chance, nor by choice, so they are reparable. …

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