The Old Women's Project




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Here are just a few comments we have encountered recently. They come more frequently — as does our invisibility — with every year. We chose these as examples of some of the particular forms that ageism takes. The fact that we are political activists makes these examples more telling — in many cases the people who made their ageist comments are progressive people, who would usually show more sensitivity. (click to Why Are Ageist Attitudes Still Acceptable?)

Most of the people who make these comments believe they are being “nice” — just as people believed they were being nice if they told a woman in a college class, “Wow, you think just like a man!” or told a person of color, “You know, you’re a credit to your race.” (click to How to Recognize Any 'Ism' When We See It)

The effect of these comments is not nice. If we haven’t learned how to recognize ageism, they can erode our self-confidence without our quite knowing why — there is just a nameless sense that people perceive us as Other. Even if we are anti-ageist activists, and can name what is happening to us, the effect can be painful. The first examples below are what we call the “medical model” of aging (click to Home Page). They represent what Golda Meir meant when she said, “Age is not a disease!”


Example: You are a political activist in your early 70s, in excellent health, and you run into a young man in his early 30s whom you haven’t seen for awhile. You worked together a few years ago on a social justice issue, and you were on a panel with him where your topic was ageism. He comes up to you, and you have a friendly conversation. He tells you about his current political work and you tell him about yours. As you are saying goodbye, he takes your arm and says, “I’m so glad you’re still up and around!”

He thinks he has said something really nice. But you are left in a kind of shock. You suddenly realize that he sees you in some entirely different way than you supposed. In the foreground for him is what he imagines as your imminent collapse. It’s not that you don’t want to be reminded of your mortality, it’s that you realize that’s the glass through which he saw you during your conversation. And if he sees you that way — this bright, progressive young man who’s heard your rap about ageism — that must be how many other people see you, not for who you are now but for the terrible abyss they see you about to fall into.

Example: You are a feminist activist in your 80s, and you have been asked to give a talk at a large international conference. You are waiting for the plane with other feminists going to the same conference. A woman in her 50s comes up to you. “You’re Mary Jones, aren’t you? I heard you talk in Cleveland ten years ago. You’re still so agile! How’s your health?” Here’s a kind question, friendly question — why do you feel as though someone punched you? You realize that you are seen, not for the work that you have done or the work you are doing now, but for your potential medical condition.


In the Service Model of aging (click to Home Page), old women are seen not, like other people, as individuals first, but in one of two service roles: either as serving others — the all-giving, all-loving Grandmother, who does not think of herself at all, only the good of her grandchildren or future generations or the planet, and who will feed you cookies — or as needing to be served, the endlessly needy little old lady who will drain you dry.

Example: The Old Women’s Project went to a Dyke March, carrying POWER, our large old woman puppet, and wearing our bright t-shirts that read “OLD WOMEN ARE YOUR FUTURE.” It was a large event with very progressive speakers. After the march, while we were standing waiting for the program to begin, three of the organizers passed by and stopped long enough to say, “Let us know if you ladies need anything.” How thoughtful? No. In our shorts and t-shirts at a Dyke March we were still “ladies,” and instead of “Love your puppet!” or “Tell us about your organization,” the young women saw our white hair and mentally clicked to the Service Model.


The Old Women’s Project claims the word “old” because we are tired of people sparing us the embarrassment of acknowledging who we really are. It’s the manager of the grocery store saying, “How are you doing, young lady?” It’s the woman who gives you a vision test and asks, in a pained voice, as if she were asking about STDs, “Would you mind terribly if I asked you your age?” It’s the desk clerk at Motel 6 who says, “I hate to ask, but are you a member of AARP?” These messages, over and over and over, tell you that who you are is awful, an embarrassment to the world and surely one to yourself.

Example: You are in your 70s, and work out at a small YMCA that has a great many old women as members. You sign up for a session with a personal trainer and arrange the meeting on the phone. You mention your age. Next day you are on a cross trainer when she comes up to you. You say something about how she was good to be able to pick you out, since there are so many white-haired women at this Y. She looks at you and at the other old women working out, and says piously, I don’t see any white-haired women here.” There might have been a time when a woman of her education would have looked at a group of disabled people and said, I don’t see any disabled people here,” or a group of Hispanics and said, I don’t see any Hispanics here,” but it wouldn’t happen today. The real message is, I know you people must be embarrassed to be who you are, but I am such a good person that I don’t see your disability, your ethnicity, your age.

Example: On a recent visit to a friend in a nursing facility, you hear a nurse exclaiming to a 98-year-old woman, “Oh, you aren’t old!"


Younger people frequently react with amazement that an old woman is actually a woman just like anybody else. What a younger woman might say or do without comment becomes “Oh, you’re so cool!” or, even worse, “Oh, you’re so cute!” “Cute,” by the way, said of an old woman, does not mean “hot.” It means that she has said or done something that would not be at all remarkable coming from a normal person, but does not fit the speaker’s stereotypes about old women.


We will save our favorite response for last. So stay tuned.

People understand even less about ageism than they do about racism, sexism, ableism, for example. (click to Why Are Ageist Attitudes Still Acceptable?) Most ageist comments that are made to our faces arrive dressed up as compliments. This doesn’t make the attitudes reflected in their remarks any less hurtful, and the Old Women’s Project believes it’s costly for ourselves and for other old women if we just let ageist remarks pass because the speaker didn’t know how offensive he or she is being. It’s important for us to begin to show the patronizing, the insulting assumptions behind the compliments just as decades of education have taught us about certain “compliments” around sex, race, disability. We’re all still learning, but that’s no excuse. Old women don’t even have the decades of political education to draw on that would let us quietly remind people that a remark is offensive — because the person probably hasn’t a clue that age has anything in common with the other isms (click to How to Recognize Any 'Ism' When We See It) We can’t educate them from scratch on the spot. But it’s unhealthy for us and for other old women just to let ageism slide by. What to do?

When someone presents us with an ageist comment, we are sometimes just thrown by it. It helps to have a few resources at the ready. These suggestions are just a beginning. If anyone has ideas for other responses to ageist comments, send them to us at If they sound useful, we’ll add them to this web site.

1. The most subtle response, which at least doesn’t let the remark go by, is to respond to their “kindness” in kind. Take the Medical Model examples. You could respond, cordially, “I’m so glad you’re still up and around, too!” At the Dyke March, you could say, “And let us know if you need anything too!” If someone calls you “cool”: “Well, you know, you’re cool too.” Responses like these at least lift the comment out of the age box it came in.

2. Compliments about how young you look or act or your youthful spirit can always be countered by a cheerful: “Well, actually, I’m proud of my age,” or “I feel as though I earned my wrinkles.” (Or — even more educational — “You know, I’m old and I like being old,” which will surely lead to: “Oh, don’t call yourself old! You don’t seem old at all,” which can lead to: “You know, as long as we all think it’s embarrassing to be called old, it’s going to be embarrassing to be old.”) A number of old women have picked up Gloria Steinem’s response, “This is what 60/70/90 looks like.”

3. Ageist comments are often not only inappropriate but actually bizarre (see “I’m so glad you’re still up and around!”), and the older we become, the more bizarre. We may be offended, hurt, but often our first reaction is one of just incredulity. We are tongue-tied, and want to say, “Huh?”

One of the most effective responses — and one that younger friends who are disabled, women of color and lesbian have enthusiastically decided to steal from us — is useful in almost all cases. It is above all handy when someone says something that takes your breath away by its inappropriateness. You can look back at them, preferably with no trace of hostility or sarcasm, and ask with genuine puzzlement, “What do you mean?”

The beauty of this response to an ageist remark is that the burden is no longer on you to explain why what they said is offensive. It does not make you “feisty” or “crotchety” or “cranky.” It places the burden squarely on them to look at what they just said and figure out why they said it. It can make them squirm at what they just said the way you are squirming at what they just said. And it’s more educational than any mini-lecture on ageism you might deliver.

He: “I’m so glad you’re still up and around!”

She: “What do you mean?” (with genuine puzzlement)

What is he going to reply? Fortunately, that’s not your problem, but he probably won’t say it to any little old ladies ever again.

The Old Women's Project
San Diego, California

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