On Being an Old Woman in Contemporary Society

By Martha B. Holstein

I am honored to guest edit the Winter 2017-18 Generations, the first issue since 1980 that has been 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-NehisiCoates (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. It is easy to forget that real 
choice—choice that is meaningful to the chooser—is not equally available to all women. An affluent woman can decide to stay home with her children or to work; for her, a choice exists; a poor woman has no choice—she must work whether or not she wants to or has affordable and 
safe care for her children. Political, structural, and cultural analyses can help explain why meaningful choice is often unavailable or limited for so many women, which weakens charges of irresponsibility.
What Comes Next
In the remainder of this introduction, I offer a personal overview of what it is like to be an old woman in contemporary society. The picture is not rosy because its problematic aspects grip my attention. I take to heart the following observation of British feminist scholar Lynne Segal (2013): “It is hard to avoid intellectual pessimism as we see the power and tenacity of the forces producing and sustaining inequality and oppression.” When my peers and I march in demonstrations, call our legislators, and write to editors, we are not being crabby old women; we are speaking out for a more just society. It is more personal and specific than that—the very programs that most of us rely upon for our well-being are at risk.
As long as one woman (or man) has to live in a leaky basement apartment because there is not enough affordable housing, I cannot join advocates of “successful aging” in the chorus of praise for how well we are doing. There is no end to the work that must be done. The women’s marches in 2017 in Washington, D.C., and throughout the United States were remarkably intergenerational and diverse. The women I know and read about care passionately for the world in which we live, although we don’t have perfect agreement about how to fix it.
At resistance and related activities, old women (often with young women) are working to remedy the sources of contemporary inequality, the continued male dominance in politics and in corporate boardrooms, the lack of pay equity, limited access to affordable childcare and other family-friendly policies, all of which disadvantage women across their life course.
As a New York Times editorial (2017) pointed out last fall, women do not run for office because of family obligations and because they “underestimate their abilities and chances for success.” While I do not generally support the “lean-in” approach to empowering women because of its individualism and its relevance primarily for those already near the top, it is a good lesson for women to assume their competence and run for office.
Old Women in Contemporary America
Old women are everywhere and nowhere. My white-brown hair and small stature render me hyper-visible (she’s a little old lady) and then I become either invisible, that is, not deserving of attention, or in need of help, offered in the slow, monosyllabic, deliberate language of Elderspeak. The cashier, barista, or salesperson likely mean to be kind, but their responses to me suggest the negative stereotypes they harbor about people who look like me—old.
Old Women Are Marginalized
An 86-year-old acquaintance of mine, Sophie Brown, asked this question at an informal discussion about old age: “Why do they think I don’t know anything?” My friend Pat, also in her 80s, had her suggestions ignored at a church finance committee meeting—suggestions that when offered 
by a younger man, were received enthusiastically. This type of occurrence affects younger and older women and reflects the combined effects of gender and age. Women still do not have equal status with men in the public realm, and it’s a problem that worsens as we age and lose the stereotypical attractiveness by which women are judged (Hurd Clarke, 2013). The sexism-ageism combination also often leads women to go to great—and sometimes dangerous—lengths to preserve their “not old” status.
Such marginalization experiences occur most often outside the safety zones of family and close friends. The message is clear and powerful—we are not socially valued, except in cer-tain specific situations like the cuddly grandma role, and we are not expected to have anything important to contribute. Each morning when I open my newspaper and scan the news from Washington, D.C., I am presented with a sea of men in suits. People who look like me are rarely at the table while matters affecting our lives are discussed. When other features of our identity—race, class, and disability—are added in, the potential for exclusion expands.
Carol, a 69-year-old resident of an affordable retirement community in the Chicago suburbs, told of wanting to reciprocate a coffee invitation from a woman she met while walking in the affluent neighborhood near her community. Once the woman learned where she lived, she never spoke to Carol again.
Class, an almost untouchable topic in American life, is on display when we are old, exaggerating exclusionary features of being old in a society that wants late life to be full of midlife activities. This view particularly disadvantages low-income women.
Old Women and “Age Denial”
Despite more than thirty years of professional and popular efforts to reverse the decline and loss paradigm of old age, when asked what the word old meant to them, women in groups I have facilitated since 2013 focus on the negatives—not involved in life, physically or mentally incapacitated, not like me. Old continues to be associated with disability. To protect their self-identity, women often separate themselves from those negative descriptions of aging by asserting “I don’t feel old” (subtext—then I must not be old), or “I’m young at heart,” or “I’m 80 years young,” or other assertions that elevate youth as the measure of all that is good and desirable. An 83-year-old friend once insisted, “I’m not old,” when I mentioned that she, another friend, and I (all of us over 70) were old.
Why is Age Denial Problematic?
Age denial doesn’t challenge ageism, but allows us to exempt ourselves, which is an approach to identity management that is easily understandable in a society so averse to being old.
By letting being young and its norms become the default position for all that is good, we fail to honor the possibilities available to us in old age. We ignore what is sad or painful about old age and give too little credit to our capacities for resilience, for coping, for making meaning. Who will defend what we prize if not us? To take a page from the social model of disability—why change ourselves to conform to social values rather than change society so that it sees and values us? If we can’t accept the value of old age, why should we expect anyone else to? 
We bow to ageism when we don’t insist on an alternative language to describe what we are most proud of, or what we enjoy the most now that we are old, or what the years lived have meant to us. We may be kinder, less critical of ourselves and others, content with one activity a day rather than five or six, but in our round-the-clock, sped-up culture, what value is there in an afternoon spent with a cup of coffee with friends or a book? We may know more, understand more deeply, and come to know ourselves more fully. When someone calls me “young lady,” I often insist 
that I am an old lady, a label they aren’t willing to grant me for fear of offending.
We will all ultimately become one of “them”—people who can no longer consider themselves “young at heart.” And despite efforts to ward off age-related decrements, we will slow down, lose friends and family to illness and death, and often experience loneliness. It is easy to forget how the cultural elevation of independence may reinforce that loneliness. Dominant values in our society, including in community-based care, are not only associated with youth but also are androcentric, often neglecting the relational values so central to women’s lives. And if we want to work, we will have a tough 
time finding anyone who wants us, even if we have the physical and mental capacity to do the jobs available.
I mention all this not because I am a curmudgeon, but because I think it is realistic. Aging without showing signs of age may be a goal of “successful aging,” which upholds maximum physiological functioning as an end in itself, or “productive aging,” which elevates work and volunteerism 
as the singular goals for late life. Not surprisingly, these norms can result in self-blame and blame from others if we “fail” to measure up, while blinding us to the special qualities and opportunities of late life as we try to find our way.
Cultural historian Tom Cole (1992) noted that social conditions, cultural beliefs, and values shape how we understand our lives. Today, the central message is that one way of life is desired—to be “not old” and to be productively engaged—and it is up to us to live in that way.
Where then is the richness of possibility, the coping with ambiguity, the suffering and the joy, the acceptance of human differences and the recognition that we will one day die? As Cole argues, “We are all vulnerable to chronic disease and death,” and this vulnerability, “once accepted, can become the existential ground for compassion, solidarity and spiritual growth.”
Political Consequences of Age Denial
Perhaps as importantly, if we focus primarily on how young we are or how well we are doing, we abet the agenda of opinion leaders in Congress or think tanks or PACs that use it to advance their goals of undermining support for public programs—an agenda that began to take shape in 
the late 1970s and continues forcefully today. This political agenda redefines old people as undeserving recipients of public benefits that ought to be directed to the young. We now regularly hear that this or that program is taking food out of the mouths of our children and grandchildren, 
a problem that can only be cured by reducing benefits for the old and drastically cutting taxes and regulations.
Already, increasing responsibility is being transferred to individuals and families, creating what Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker called the “the great risk shift” (2008), a burden that often falls heaviest on women because we live longer, have higher rates of chronic illness, have more caregiving responsibilities, and have lower incomes. By offering portraits of independent and busy “young” old people, the media and even advocacy groups like AARP desensitize Americans to the plight of those who are in need (Jacoby, 2012).
As this issue of Generations will show, many of us are doing better than prior generations in terms of health and income, but that is only a half-truth. On average, the data might look good, but averages hide a great deal of suffering. For there are many, most often women and people of color, who are not doing well, and have not much hope of doing better as inequality deepens, the retreat from government accelerates, and racism continues to threaten well-being.
As collective action is denigrated and individual responsibility elevated, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of social support, equitable tax policies, the day-to-day effects of economic inequality and the absence of real and meaningful choices for far too many people. 
People of privilege may have many choices; many people have almost no meaningful choices but they, too, are expected to meet the norms now expected of us in old age. A case in point: I have the choice of many beautiful market-rate retirement communities, but none are truly available 
to me because I can’t afford their high entry fees and monthly assessments.
The neoliberal agenda includes not only entitlement reform (that is, benefit cuts), but also the privatization of Social Security and the transformation of Medicare into a voucher program that will have vastly different effects depending on who one is. There are far more women living close to the edge of poverty than there are men in the top 1 percent. Not all baby boomers (who were widely predicted to change perceptions around aging) have it made; many are living in unsuitable apartments, taking only half their prescribed medications to save money, and going without dental care or hearing aids because Medicare does not cover either of those essentials.
In Conclusion
What you have just read reflects my understanding of the situation of old women in this country today. By offering this far from rosy picture, I am moving in an opposite direction from many commonly held ideas in gerontology, in politics, and in the popular media that emphasize the positive 
features of late life. My intent is to go behind those bright images, to see the women in sweats having dinner at a local diner or the women who walk away from the pharmacy counter because they can’t afford their prescriptions. I focus on the down side because popular ideas about old 
age seem uncomfortable with the possibility that we don’t have total control over how we live in old age, that our race, class, sex, and disabilities all influence the choices that we do or do not have. We are not all able to remake ourselves, or view our lives as a project, or as a performance that we direct and control.
I offer my personal reflections with the hope that when you see someone who looks like me, you will assume not incompetence but complexity; that you will pay attention to her and be curious about what her life is like. That you will be interested in her assessment of her life and how she is treated.
Martha B. Holstein, Ph.D., is retired, but speaks, writes, and facilitates women’s groups while researching and writing a narrative about the part of her family killed in the Holocaust.
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