The Old Women's Project


WHY ARE AGEIST ATTITUDES STILL ACCEPTABLE? Back to Home Page

The Old Women’s Project works to eradicate attitudes towards old women that are patronizing, trivializing, contemptuous.

Why are these attitudes so prevalent, so unexamined in society? Why do we find them even — let’s admit it — among otherwise progressive people?

It’s true that corporations promote a consumer youth culture, that the “health” and beauty industries feed — and feed on — women’s anxiety that men may discard us when we no longer look young. But there’s something else.

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement gave us the tools to address not only racism but also the demeaning attitudes and structures of sexism, ableism, homophobia. We have barely begun the work of eliminating any of these from society, but we can at least recognize the most blatant evidences of them. And yet: when we come up against degrading attitudes towards old women, we don’t even know them when we see them. (click to Real-Life Examples of Ageist Comments)

Ageism is a women’s issue (click to Why Is Ageism an Old Women’s Issue?) and so it was ignored by earlier movements for social justice, movements historically shaped by men’s concerns. After all, those progressive movements never took on rape or childcare or domestic violence or pay inequity for women.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, a powerful movement of women made women’s issues visible. But the activists were mainly very young women, and they barely knew that old women existed. It did not enter their heads to include old women in their demands or in their challenges to traditional attitudes.

What was the result?

Attitudes towards old women have been frozen in time. The assumptions, stereotypes about us are almost exactly the same as attitudes were towards younger women in the 1950s. It’s revealing to read the two paragraphs that follow and see that we can substitute the phrase “old women” for “younger women in the 50s” and the word “are” for “were:”

Younger (white, of course) women in the ‘50s were treated with false respect and exaggerated solicitousness. They were called “ladies.” Men offered them a seat on the bus, opened car doors whether they appeared to need it or not. At the same time, they were invisible at any gatherings of importance, and nobody remarked on their absence. Their opinions were not valued. They were always defined first by their roles in family — John’s daughter, Jim’s wife, Henry and Alice’s mother. (click to Why Is Ageism an Old Women’s Issue? and read DO OLD WOMEN, LIKE OLD MEN, EXIST OUTSIDE OF FAMILY ROLES?) They were seen as endearingly childlike, and therefore good with children. They were naturally dependent and submissive. They were not too sharp, a little ditzy, certainly less rational — and sometimes that was seen as “cute” and lovable. They were unreliable. They were more emotional, more excitable in minor crises. They were innocent about the world. They were not really sexual. Of course, when convenient, they were idealized as naturally loving and giving and self-sacrificing.

These attitudes were reflected in how younger women were treated. Their opinions were ignored or patronized. Certain token women were complimented for being different from other women — “You think just like a man!” said with wonder, was high praise (see also: “You aren’t at all like my grandmother!” “I’d never guess you were 70!” “Oh, you’re not old — you’re still young at heart!”) Others were patronized: “Oh, don’t bother your pretty head.” (see also: “Watch your step, young lady!”) They were bad sports if they didn’t laugh at jokes that degraded them (example: “If rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it”). Strict segregation by gender was seen as entirely natural.

Ageism — these same attitudes and behaviors towards old women — is still see as perfectly natural.

One striking difference: Although at any age women’s bodies are never OK the way they are — wrong color, wrong weight, breasts too small this year, too large next year — old women are assaulted on a many-times-a-day basis with the message that our physical beings are truly repulsive, the very definition of who no woman would ever want to be.

WHY DON’T MORE OF US RESIST THE INSULTS, THE INVISIBILITY?

In the 1950s, most women of all ages internalized these attitudes about ourselves, assumed they were “natural,” just as many people assumed that attitudes and behaviors towards people of color or lesbians and gays were just “natural.”

Old women today have not always been old, and we have internalized many of the stereotypes about ourselves. When we were young, we were often contemptuous and patronizing of old women, if we thought of them at all, and we saw segregation from them as entirely natural. It’s a remarkable transition to find ourselves, as we grow old, not only confronting the ageism of others but becoming the person we ourselves used to hold in contempt.

That transition may be so painful that we may deal with it by holding onto our earlier attitudes towards old women, even as we exempt ourselves and our friends as special, different, smarter, still “young in spirit.” This is a dangerous temptation for us as we grow old. Other people will collaborate: “Oh, I can’t believe you’re 63/80/95!” “When I’m with you, I never think of age!” “You’re not at all like my grandmother!” “You are just so cool!” These “compliments”, which separate us from other old women, are actually ways for the speaker to deal with his or her intense discomfort about our age and their feeling that we must need this kind of reassurance. It’s considered almost impolite if an old woman tells you her age, not to immediately say, “Oh, I’d never guess you were 63/80/95!”

So we’d better not take ageist compliments too personally — and instead know they are ways people deal, at best with their ignorance about who old women are, at worst with their embarrassment about who we really are.

If we truly know our own value, we won’t allow other old women to be denigrated by those comparisons.

The Old Women's Project
San Diego, California

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