A Personal, Professional, and Political Journey as a Feminist Gerontologist

By Nancy R. Hooyman

As we gerontologists age, we increasingly rec­ognize that aging is personally as well as professionally salient—a realization that was im­possible to grasp fully when we were younger and first entering the field. In a special edition of The Gerontologist, in an article called “Aging: It’s Personal,” Pruchno (2017) noted that personal experiences could help identify gaps in geronto­logical research, theory, and practice. Addition­ally, Holstein (2015) affirms that our personal ex­periences are important sources of knowledge. However, when we are trained to be objective scientists, articulating private experiences can be challenging.
I am honored by Generations Guest Editor Martha Holstein’s invitation to write a personal reflection upon my career path—and to articu­late what motivated me to adopt a feminist per­spective and how it influenced my personal and professional life. However, it is a humbling, chal­lenging task for someone more comfortable with hearing others’ stories than sharing my own. I am more at home engaging in scholarship, ser­vice, and policy advocacy for equity for others than in self-reflection. That this is so daunting is ironic for someone who agrees with Ray’s (1999) assertion that feminist gerontologists must en­gage in self-critique regarding their own at­titudes toward aging, while questioning and resisting the status quo. Given my private nature and reticence, I now take the leap of briefly shar­ing with Generations readers how I came to hold a feminist worldview that has for nearly fifty years undergirded my personal life, along with my research, teaching, and leadership. Never alone in this journey, I have been profoundly in­fluenced by other feminist gerontologists, includ­ing Judith Gonyea, Martha Holstein, Ruth Ray, Margaret Cruikshank, Toni Calasanti, and Car­roll Estes, to name several.
My Pre-Feminist Self
Nothing in my background or early academic training fostered feminist inquiry. I was raised in a conservative family in a conservative state and attended a small conservative college where issues of social and gender justice were invisible. Like many women growing up in the 1950s, this was simply the way life was—and not to be ques­tioned. Experiences in my early twenties in the 1960s began to move me away from being satis­fied with conventional world views.
I lived in Scotland in the mid-1960s, which exposed me to socialism, Marxism, and anti-Vietnam War protests—although no inklings of feminism. When I began graduate school in the late 1960s, the University of Michigan was a cen­­ter of social activism. As a community-orga­nizing student, I immediately became involved in welfare-rights organizing, outraged by eco­nomic and power inequalities faced by low-in­come women, many of whom were women of color. I recognized such inequities faced by other women from more marginalized populations. But because of my own internalized sexism, I did not think about how I was denied opportuni­ties because I was female.
Upon reflection, I am embarrassed to admit that I once wondered why women’s conscious­ness-raising groups were necessary. When in the early 1970s I helped to form such a group on campus, I realized the interconnections between the personal and the political, or the private and public spheres. This awareness intensified in my first academic job when I discovered I was paid less than male counterparts with similar qualifi­cations, and joined a successful class action law­suit challenging gender-based pay inequities.
Where Are Old Women in Feminism?
The second wave of feminism in the 1970s fo­cused largely on issues of reproductive rights, marriage, childcare, and employment facing younger women. Older women with disabilities and their caregivers were virtually invisible to feminists, reflecting the low status of both givers and receivers of long-term care. I had given no thought to the structural gender-based inequi­ties faced by women as they age until 1977, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Confronted by the ageism, sexism, and power dynamics of the healthcare system, I resolved to enter the field of aging with a professional goal that other older women would never be as invis­ible and marginalized by providers, including social workers, as my mother had been until her death in 1978. Providers rarely spoke directly to her, instead objectifying her as they talked only with my father and me.
Flying cross-country with an infant and a 3-year-old to give care, I had no term to name what I was doing as caregiving. I was simply do­­­­­ing what was expected of a “good daughter.” I had neither autonomy nor flexibility in whether or how I provided care. Nor did I question why my husband remained at home while I juggled my job and our young sons. End-of-life resourc­es such as hospice, which might have enhanced both my mother’s and my well-being, did not yet exist in Ohio.
Both gerontologists and feminists neglected aging women during this time period. It is strik­ing that women were only added to the Balti­more Longitudinal Survey in 1978; the first older women’s caucus was held in 1975 at the Annual Meeting of the Gerontological Society of Amer­ica; and the 1980 White House Conference on Aging was the first to sponsor a special commit­tee on women’s concerns.
In 1981, at the formation of the Older Women’s League (OWL) during the mini White House Con­ference on Aging, which was focused on women, I was inspired by the activism of Tish Sommers and Laurie Shields, who recognized the imperative of policy advocacy toward gender justice. And I was moved by the African American women who spoke about their lives at the closing session, chal­lenging Caucasian women, who were in the ma­jority, to include the voices of women of color.
Where Is Feminism in Research on Old Women?
During the 1970s and 1980s, research on aging moved from ignoring gender, to controlling for gender, and then to describing gender-based contrasts. However, few efforts were made to understand the structural sources or implica­tions of gender-based variations in economic or health status in old age. Older women’s poverty often was described as being due to individual attributes rather than a result of gender-based differences across the life course in employment history, childcare, and parent care (or a lifetime career of caring for vulnerable others), all of which underlie career interruptions, types of occupations held, earnings, and retirement circumstances.
Even when gerontologists studied older women, they did not always bring a feminist analysis to bear. When I reviewed three new books on old women in The Gerontologist (1999), I asked: Where is feminism in research on older women? These books reflected a gender-neutral or women’s issues approach to research sam­ples, models, and theories derived from men’s experience. From a feminist standpoint, such approaches are inadequate because conceptu­ally, gender is considered an individual rather than structural attribute, and men are viewed as the implicit standard for assessing women’s lives. I argued that it was not enough simply to add women to research studies—an add woman and “stir” mentality—nor was it enough to docu­ment the existence of gender differences without also analyzing their origins, meanings, or social structures that maintain them over time.
Because gender is an organizing princi­ple and institutionalized by processes through which people assume “masculine” and “femi­nine” to be natural, men and women experience aging differently. And because feminism begins from women’s standpoint and views women’s oppression as fundamental to its analysis, wom­en’s experiences of aging can only be understood in light of macro-level social, economic, and po­litical forces rather than as isolated results of in­dividual choices. For example, feminists move beyond documenting women’s lower retirement benefits to ask why they exist and why they are viewed as “natural.” Conventional gerontolo­gy may frame studies of women’s retirement in terms of individual financial responsibility and literacy, while a feminist perspective questions what social and economic structures and poli­cies across the life course make it difficult for women, especially women of color, to accumu­late savings despite decades of employment.
Moreover, the gender identities that emerge in social interactions across the life course—such as caregiving for dependents—serve to privilege men and disadvantage women. Those who are privileged use their greater resources to justify gender-based inequities as “natural” or based on social necessity, such as implicitly assuming that women will be the primary caregivers. Bring­ing a feminist analysis to bear on elder caregiv­ing first required a recognition of its absence in feminism and that causes for this are structural rather than individual.
Feminism and Intersecting Identities
Moreover, feminist theorists not only contend that gender should be a primary consideration in understanding aging, but other intersecting iden­tities should also be incorporated. Early feminist work was critiqued for excluding the experiences of individuals who fell outside of white woman­hood and for failing to acknowledge that being fe­male is experienced differently by individuals in different social classes, of different races, or who identify with non-hetero­sexuality. I, too, initially neglected to analyze the intersectionality among age, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and functional ability in both my research and my career as an academic administrator.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I attempt­ed to implement feminist values that would ben­efit all members of the University of Washington School of Social Work. I took what was perceived by others to be the risk of using the “f” world in my interview for the position of Dean and later sought to use my position to model feminist lead­ership and mentoring in a large hierarchical bu­reaucracy. Our social work school was nationally known for its research on women and mental health, an Anti-sexism Task Force, a graduate-level Specialization on Women, courses on older women, and support groups. But these initiatives were attended primarily by white women, re­flecting our failure to recognize that factors such as race, ethnicity, social class, and sexual orien­tation are at least or more important for some women than their identity as female.
When we collaborated with other marginal­ized populations to address intersecting inequal­ities, we enriched both my feminist analyses and the organizational culture of our school. To some extent, this process paralleled the matur­ing of the women’s movement, which brought a determination to include the often excluded—never-married women, older lesbians, working- class women, older women of color, and older women with disabilities. Similarly, Calasanti (1999) argued that a feminist perspective offers us one of the best frameworks for understanding the diverse experiences of all groups.
Moving Toward a Caring Society
In the 1980s and 1990s, my feminist and geron­tological scholarship addressed two separate but interrelated areas: feminist practice in social work settings, and family caregiving. Only in recent years have these strands become intercon­nected for me as a feminist gerontologist.
Not for Women Only (with Bricker-Jenkins, 1986) pointed out that studying women and using feminist analyses are not the same and that feminist perspectives may begin but do not end with women. Instead, feminist analyses help us to understand women’s and men’s privilege and oppression and the necessity to end patri­archy. Gender relations—socially constructed power relations between women and men that become institutionalized in various social are­nas—are interconnected with other systems of privilege and oppression. Although my work ar­ticulated strategies to implement core feminist principles in practice settings (Bricker-Jenkins, Hooyman, and Gottlieb, 1991), I did not fully ad­dress the in­­­­­terconnections between private and public spheres (e.g., that caring cannot be exam­ined apart from the policies surrounding it) until my research on family caregiving.
The first wave of caregiving research in the 1980s and 1990s documented family caregiving as a women’s issue, but not necessarily a femi­nist one. Early research, including mine on ob­jective and subjective burden (with Montgomery and Gonyea, 1985), tended to view caregiving stress as a largely private responsibility, with an em­­pha­­sis on incremental practice interventions that promote personal adjustment (e.g., educa­tion, support groups, and counseling) rather than macro-level change. This individualistic ap­proach overlooked how existing structural ar­rangements within the home (e.g., family care) and work (e.g., women’s employment in predom­inantly low-status, low-income jobs) underlie women’s lower so­­­cioeconomic status across the life course and their greater incidence of poverty, chronic health conditions, and likelihood of liv­ing alone in old age (Hooyman et al., 2002).
As noted in my work on younger women, a feminist perspective involves social critique and social change (Hooyman and Gonyea, 1999). Ac­cordingly, I began advocating for feminist poli­cies in the workplace (paid family leave) and public arenas (public long-term-care insurance) to ensure fundamental structural change in so­cial institutions and attitudes (Hooyman, 1992; Hooyman and Gonyea, 1995). Caregiving not only is a central feminist issue, but also a life- course issue reflecting cumulative disadvantage (Ferraro, Shippee, and Schafer, 2009; Poo, 2015).
Calasanti (2010) posits that to theorize gen­der gives us a framework to understand not only why gender differences occur, but also why and how they matter. Similarly, a feminist analysis of care moves beyond documenting women’s pre­dominance as caregivers, and a focus on indivi­dual burden and supports, to address structural gender-based inequities based on employment and income factors underlying the greater bur­dens women face across the life course and into old age.
Gender matters in healthcare and in long-term care because of the gendered nature of the life course and the resultant inequities ex­perienced by women as givers and recipients of care. Extending this analysis beyond the private sphere of family care, I later argued that the in­terconnections between underpaid care by di­rect care workers and unpaid care by families, and between low status caregivers and care re­cipients, must be made visible to ensure gen­­der justice across the life course, especially for women of color and immigrant women (Hooy­man, 2013, 2017; Hooyman et al., 2002).
My Vision for the Future
A feminist lens broadens the questions I ask about caregiving. Now, I am not focusing only on family care, but also on the central role of women as underpaid direct care workers in car­ing for old women. My more recent work is based on the premise that long-term care is a central feminist issue across populations and across the life course. But most models of long-term care do not start with gender justice. Currently, I aim to integrate my personal and administrative expe­riences, along with my scholarship on feminist practice and on caregiving, into a broader nar­rative toward a society in which caring relation­ships and interdependence—not independence and individualism—are truly valued by society as a whole.
Seeking to change underlying Western val­ues of familism, privatization, and an ideology of community care, how do we create a caring society—one where those who care for depen­dent and vulnerable individuals will be cared for by the entire society? Accordingly, my work on direct care workers addresses the intersection­ality of gender with race, sexual orientation, im­migrant status, social class, and disability. This intersectionality determines who cares for and receives care and the subsequent place in the so­cial order, as well as the disparities faced by care recipients who are primarily old women (Cala­santi, 2010; Hooyman, 2014–15; Hooyman, 2017).
I have been influenced by Calasanti (2009), who theorizes that being old confers a loss of power, which is exacerbated by illness, disability, race, and gender. Those who care—whether un­paid or underpaid caregivers—for the old, sick, and disabled (e.g., the powerless), may them­selves experience loss of power, status, and re­spect, resulting in financial and subsequent health disparities across the life course and into old age. The ways in which these intersections shape women’s aging and physical well-being as caregivers and care recipients are embedded in our society’s undervaluing of care work.
Now I am of the age my mother was when she died. Although in good health and employed, with adequate economic resources, I am living the experience of older women’s invisibility—similar to what my mother experienced. But fifty years after I first called myself a feminist and began to incorporate a feminist worldview in my personal and professional life, I now have the op­portunity to learn from a younger generation of feminists associated with the National Domes­tic Workers Alliance, Jobs for Justice, and Caring Across Generations.
Acting upon their recognition that care work underlies all other work in our society, they are giving voice to low-income women of color and immigrants, who have been marginalized and made invisible (Avila, 2017; Gupta, 2017; Poo, 2015). They put into action the principle that collective action and responsibility are funda­mental to feminism. Forming creative cross-cut­ting alliances and advocating for fundamental change, they offer hope for the future, despite the current political climate. Implementing fem­inist values and an in­­­ter­­sectional approach in all of their interactions, they eloquently articulate that as long as caregiving is viewed as a private duty rather than a “public value,” the economic disadvantage of women who do this work will continue. Their research, policy advocacy, and social interactions build on making visible the story that addressing inequities within long-term services and supports is central to improv­ing women’s well-being across the life course and into old age.
Contrary to individualistic “lean-in” femi­nism, their voices are central to feminist ger­ontology and, most importantly, to a feminist future of a caring society, which addresses the intersectionality of gender with race, immigrant status, class, and disability.
Nancy R. Hooyman, M.S.W., Ph.D., holds the Hooyman Professor in Gerontology and is director of the Doctoral Program in Social Welfare and dean emeritus at the University of Washington School 
of Social Work in Seattle. She can be contacted at hooy@uw.edu.
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