The Old Women's Project


by Janice Keaffaber
© 2005 Janice Keaffaber

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I confess. I’ve never been an old woman before. It’s more complicated than I anticipated. This is not like being a college freshman or having a baby, where copious advice is handed down friend-to-friend, woman-to-woman. There are even books for most everything else in life: how to get into the college of your choice, how to get the perfect job, how to find a true love, how to be a good parent of teenagers. There’s lots of peripheral information out there about handling retirement finances, Social Security, Medicare, how to avoid “Senior Scams” — how to do everything but be old.

We don’t talk about the true emotional challenges involved, even with each other. We’re all too busy pretending we don’t notice the indignities that are heaped upon us as old women. Or worse yet, it seems so natural, even to us, that it doesn’t really register that we’ve become Outsiders.

I’ve had my own struggles with being ageist. How many of us haven’t become at least a little impatient when someone cuts in front of you when you’re driving or talks during a movie or holds up the line at the grocery store? All kinds of people do those things. But if it’s an old woman, our irritation immediately grabs onto the fact that she’s old.

We are all ageist. It’s inescapable. Ageism permeates every layer of our culture. After all, entire corporate empires depend on it. Our collective consciousness is fed a steady bias against old women from every direction.

So here I am on this new journey struggling to learn how to be old and to remain myself at the same time. Year after year, I’ve been a woman fairly comfortable in my own skin. Oh, there were of course things I would like to change, but for the most part, I have always felt like an okay person who had a place in the scheme of things. I seemed to take up some sort of space in the world.

Then, about the time I hit 60, I mysteriously contracted a social disease. It happened suddenly. Like spontaneous combustion. I didn’t notice the symptoms myself, but strangers could tell right away.

It started with little things. I walked into a used clothing store in my neighborhood — one of those places that sells hip, funky, old 50s and 60s stuff. Every other customer — all younger, I later realized — were greeted as they entered, engaged in friendly conversation. I alone managed to walk in, browse for several minutes, try on two tye-dyed shirts and a blue denim jacket and then leave the store without anyone acknowledging I was there. It was in such contrast to how other customers were treated, that I wondered if I could have walked out with six sweaters under my arm and they still wouldn’t have noticed me. I was puzzled.

I was waiting at another store’s counter to pay for a new pair of sunglasses. The clerk didn’t see me. She waited on the 40-ish woman ahead of me and then the man behind me. But when she looked at me, her eyes literally glazed over and she went blind. Right there, in the middle of a well-lit, bustling department store. “Excuse me, I was next, “ I said quite clearly. No response. She had suddenly lost her hearing as well. I was now not only invisible but inaudible too. I had seen this happen to children in a line. I had also seen it happen to the homeless. I remember one fellow especially — dirty, unshaven, wearing torn clothes and clutching his money for his fast food order. He politely waited. And waited. The clerk behind the counter didn’t take his order until I quietly insisted that he be waited on. The homeless man was embarrassed by being ignored in favor of the other customers. And now it was happening to me. I was embarrassed too.

A major protest was being planned in San Diego and a national peace and justice group was coming here to give action trainings. As a member of a street theater group that was going to perform at the protest and possibly engage in civil disobedience, I thought the training sounded like fun. A local activist group began to advertise the event, but each time the notice appeared on the Internet, it said the training was for young people. What did that mean exactly? High school? College age? Anyone under 40? All I knew was the notices definitely meant NOT ME. Later I talked to one of the trainers and discovered they had never intended this to be a young-person-only activity. To insert the word young in all the announcements was ageism in action. Unthinking maybe, but ageism nonetheless. I knew whoever wrote up the announcements would never have called it training for white people or rich people. Excluding people of color or poor people would have been unthinkable. But to arbitrarily exclude the old from a general training wasn’t a big deal or even noticed — except by old people who wanted to go. I was disappointed.

Photos from another protest — this time a large protest at the California-Mexico border appeared in a local newspaper. Several old women were front and center in the photos, just as we had been front and center in the action. We simply could not be missed. The photo caption and text exclaimed: Young activists protest at border — It had finally happened. I had become totally invisible. Finally, I was angry.

Most people don’t have an awareness of ageism; they even see it as funny. Just check any greeting card aisle. But it ceases to be humorous when you bear the brunt of the joke.

Here are some ways you can help lift the stigma that stereotypes and isolates old women:

Please, speak up for me. If someone makes an ageist remark, notice it and talk to them about it. It’s not acceptable.

Don’t automatically stick the word “young” in front of everything. If an event is for high-schoolers, college age students or targeted for a specific audience, then say so — and it would be nice to add why.

Think it over before you arbitrarily limit ages for events. I recently received an e-mail inviting me to enter a women’s art exhibit. I had some new work that I thought I would enter — until I read the fine print. It was for women under age 54. I am nine years over an age limit that makes no sense.

Put the word old in your vocabulary. Say it right now. Oh, come on. Just say it. OLD. I know it might initially feel rude, but that’s because it has such a loaded connotation in our culture. A woman came up to me at one of the first Old Women’s Project actions and said, “Oh don’t call yourselves old. That’s not nice!” All of the alternative terms — elderly, older, senior — seem like silly ways to get around saying the real word: old.

I don’t want to be a vessel of wisdom and giver of sage advice. I don’t want to mentor the young. I don’t want to bake cookies or wear purple all the time. And I sure don’t want to be over the hill and out of sight. I just want to continue to be me.

The Old Women's Project
San Diego, California

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