The Old Women's Project


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The Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s was a movement of activism. But it also gave us an important theoretical base, a vocabulary for thinking about issues of social justice — about the ways in which groups of people can be marginalized, and a way of recognizing that process so that we can interrupt it.

When the dominant members of society can maintain certain attitudes and practices that demean and isolate other groups, they are no longer under the same pressure to meet the needs of those groups that are marginalized. They can retain their dominance.

These demeaning attitudes serve as effective political shortcuts: “We really don’t need to take these people seriously in our society because — well, you know.” They are especially effective when they spread to other marginalized groups, so there can be no joint resistance, and above all when the members of a group begin to believe the stereotypes about themselves.

We need to name the “isms,” not for some political exercise, but so we can identify the process that allows a society to maintain unfair structures.

While The Old Women’s Project focuses on the many issues that affect old women, we need to keep in mind that the strategies that suppress old women are exactly the same strategies that are used to suppress other non-dominant groups.

Some principal “isms”:

Racism (including anti-Arabism and anti-Semitism)


Below are listed some of the typical strategies that permit a dominant group to marginalize others. We’ve briefly noted how old women — not most old men (click to Why Ageism is an Old Women’s Issue?)— are affected by these attitudes and practices. If you belong to one or more of the other groups, you’ll want to note which of these stigmas your groups share. Most of us who are women, or non-white, or from non-Caucasian ethnicities, or from poverty or working class, or disabled, or lesbian or gay have experienced most of these forms of suppression directed towards us or our group.


Old women are rarely present in social or political groups that include younger people, and our absence is not noted OR we are present but ignored.

Example: In a recent women’s magazine, the cover story “Great at Any Age” turns out to be a celebration of women by decades — ending with a woman in her 50s.


We are seen not as individuals but as types — often as grannies, whether we have grandchildren or not; or, like many other marginalized people, as childlike, more emotional, more excitable in minor crises, submissive, dependent, unreliable.

Example: In a letter to the New York Times Book Review, the writer describes Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas as having “welcomed me; both of them were like jolly, hospitable grandmothers.” (click to Why Is Ageism an Old Women’s Issue? and read DO OLD WOMEN, LIKE OLD MEN, EXIST OUTSIDE OF FAMILY ROLES?)


The stigma of mental inferiority becomes justification for economic exploitation. Just as people of color are assumed to be somehow not as intelligent as Caucasians, and working class people must not have the same mental capacities as the upper middleclass, old women are seen as not “with it,” not as smart or interesting as younger people or old men. (click to Why Is Ageism an Old Women’s Issue?)

Example: On a tape of Enron traders joking about “stealing from those poor grandmothers of California”: “Yeah, Grandma Millie, man. But she’s the one who couldn’t figure out how to fucking vote on the butterfly ballot.”


Like the young women who used to be told, “Don’t bother your pretty little head,” or Asian Americans who are praised for being the “model minority,” old women regularly get comments that demean us. If we are kind or even pleasant, we are “sweet little old ladies.” If we have energy we are “feisty.” Strangers call us “dear.” If we say or do something that doesn’t fit their stereotype — say, come out of the closet in our 70s — we are “cute.”


Tokenism — allowing certain members of a marginalized group to have access to the privileges of the dominant group — has two faces. A Colin Powell, a Christopher Reeves, an Ellen de Generes, or the smattering of women in Congress signal progress for groups once completely excluded. So also a Sandra Day O’Connor or Ruth Bader Ginsburg represents progress for old women. At the same time, their visibility serves to maintain the status quo by reassuring the society that ageism — like racism, ableism, homophobia, sexism — is not really a problem in our society, so no structures need to be changed.


Whether “The place was full of fags” or “there was nobody there but a bunch of old ladies,” the message is disdain for the group.


Old women — like people of color, gays and lesbians, Arabs, Jews, poverty or working class people, disabled people — are often held at a distance because our physical presence is found distasteful. Birthday cards glory in promoting profound disgust at our bodies. This is a particularly successful strategy for isolating members of a group. People don’t have to consciously process thoughts about our inferiority — their behavior has been modified, and they withdraw instinctively.


Of course it is natural that a younger person would be bored talking to an old woman — just as it is natural that men would want their own private clubs, that nobody would be sexually attracted to someone in a wheelchair, that heterosexuals in the army would recoil from serving with gays, that white people wanted their own water fountains.


Just as it’s often assumed that people of color would prefer to be white, or lesbians and gays would prefer to be heterosexual, it is usually assumed that old women would prefer to be young. So we constantly hear, “How are you today, young lady?” The more we can free ourselves from the assumptions and practices of ageism, the more we can embrace our own reality. (click to The Secret Lives of Old Women)


Those of us who belong to a group that is marginalized learn ways of responding. Some ways are more to be encouraged than others, but all need to be understood as a response to painful pressures. Whenever we can afford to abandon a practice that holds our group back, or adopt one that challenges our marginalization, we will of course feel stronger and freer.


Coloring white hair, Botox, facial surgery to disguise age are becoming the norm, just as hair straightening, skin lightening or “nose jobs” have sometimes been for African Americans or Jews. FDR never allowed photographers to show his wheelchair. Like the lesbian who feels she must talk about her “roommate,” old women often feel that to reveal our real age will profoundly change people’s attitudes towards us. Eileen Barrett, 68, an insurance consultant in New York, explained the reason for her recent cosmetic facial surgery to the L.A. Times: “After awhile, it’s just a feeling you get. You notice a change in the way people treat you.”


Everybody wants to think they aren’t a (whatever)ist, so they will be delighted to find an occasional person of a marginalized group that they can praise. If you’re told, “Gee, you don’t seem like an Indian from the reservation!” “I’d never have guessed you were gay!” or “I can’t believe you’re 80, I can’t talk to my grandmother and her friends like this!”, you may be that person. Sometimes being the “wonderful exception” can seem like a relief after being ignored or discounted. Since we are in fact wonderful, we can accept the compliments about how wonderful we are, as long as we use them to raise up our sisters whom we’re being compared to. “I’m glad you think I’m special, but you know old women generally are given a bad rap.”


This is an ongoing challenge for poor and working class people, people of color, disabled people, lesbians and gays. It offers special challenges for old women. Since there exists so little critical analysis of ageism — even otherwise progressive people often treat ageist attitudes as just natural — we come into age unprepared. (click to Why Are Ageist Attitudes Still Acceptable?)


Of course people who share a culture or certain experiences or challenges will value time together. This is not the same as segregation — the separation of a marginalized group from the dominant society and then often from other marginalized groups — or the self-segregation that occurs when we find it just becomes too wearing to have to deal with invisibility or indignities.


To join in stigmatizing other groups is to identify with the dominant group, and that can feel reassuring. To join in stigmatizing our own group can even bring special rewards, as it has for a Laura Schlessinger or Clarence Thomas. An old woman who says, “You know, I really enjoy being around younger people. I hate to say it, but old women are always complaining” can, by exceptionalizing herself, negotiate her right to be treated with respect.


The lesbian who comes out wherever she can. The African American who could pass but doesn’t. The Chicana who talks about her family in Mexico. The Harvard graduate student who talks about her mother’s work as a janitor. The Muslim woman who wears a hijab to a feminist event. The old woman who keeps her hair white and talks confidently about her age.


Working actively to change the world for old women, and forming alliances with other marginalized groups so that we recognize how many interests we in fact share, creates a solidarity and a hope for a future of respect for all people.

The Old Women's Project
San Diego, California

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