Age Matters: A JASS Discussion Paper

How can we truly engage all generations in our movements? We all have something valuable to offer, no matter what our age, and yet the ageism that often blocks us has not been explicitly addressed. This paper is intended to provoke a discussion about age discrimination or ageism as a factor in building sustainable feminist movements. As JASS, we want to facilitate a cross-regional virtual dialogue about age relations – within our movements and in our lives as women – to ensure that our movements benefit fully from our multigenerational talents and wisdoms.

To spark the dialogue, I have written about some issues and questions. Please:
• feel free to disagree, explaining why;
• share your thoughts and add other issues, questions or examples;
• tell us about discrimination you have experienced based on your age (stating your age and context so that we can all understand, across different cultures and regions.)

From an amended version of this paper – together with your additions and discussions – JASS will produce a document on ageism that is both conceptual and practical.

Before reading the paper, pause to think, write, and discuss your own attitudes and experiences. For instance:
• What does your current age mean to you (advantages and challenges)?
• What do you experience as the benefits of working with women older than you? And the challenges?
• And with women younger than you: Benefits? Challenges?

Definitions

Ageism means a prejudice against a person or people because of their age – any idea, attitude, action, or mental or institutional structure that subordinates a person or group because of age.

Like other power relations (such as those based on race or ethnicity,) many forms of ageism are particular to women. Sexist ageism is any attitude, action, or structure that discriminates against female human beings because of their age. It includes any assignment of roles based purely on the age of a woman or a female child without regard to her preferences, abilities, and capacities.

Age discrimination varies depending on our cultural and/or spiritual context, socioeconomic class, sexuality, gender identity, ability, body size and shape, national and migratory status, race or ethnicity – and also depending on our age. These factors determine how age is felt, seen, and treated. In each moment of our lives, we all face different forms of ageism because we are women. A female human being’s age classification, unlike most other factors, changes as she progresses through her life cycle.

Seeing Age and Selling “Youth”

Around the world, the treatment of girls and women by age varies enormously. Some societies revere old women; in others, female babies and older women are abandoned or deprived. Globalized, youth-oriented culture is definitely ageist against female children, and against older and old women, but it harms young and adult women as well.

Ideas of age shaped by Western consumer capitalist patriarchy often clash with traditional and/or local views of female humans and age. In many cultures, women's status and power actually increases following menopause. For example, an elderly widow wields significant power in the family in certain Asian cultures. Post-menopausal women in some societies experience greater sexual freedom, the right to participate in ritual and in politics, and a decrease in the housework they are expected to do.

Adult and older activists generally have more power than their younger counterparts in our diverse women’s movements. But the youth-centered perception of older women is generally stereotyped and often negative. Such perceptions are readily apparent in language, media, and humor. Phrases such as “over the hill” and “don't be an old fuddy-duddy” denote old age as a period of incompetence. In jokes – a reflection of real societal attitudes – older women are usually shown as lonely, frustrated, and shriveled up. Even though women live longer than men on average, older men are perceived as being healthier than older women.

Youthfulness is a major incentive to sell products. We are surrounded by media messages about the need – especially for women – to stay young. At some point, hiding old age becomes impossible. Wrinkled skin and sagging bodies mark old age, and many people, young and old, view these signs with repugnance. Gerontologist Robert Butler found that most people, including old people, do not want to be around old people because it reminds them that we are all aging.

A growing group of industries profit from this fear of aging. Anti-aging skincare, a market that grew 63% between 2002 and 2007, is worth $1.6 billion in the U.S. alone. The anti-aging industry includes drugs and pharmaceuticals; vitamins, supplements, and minerals; plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures; diets and exercise machines. Despite its claims, this anti-aging industry is definitely more about financial profiteering than about improving health. Aging “successfully” requires privilege, money, and leisure. Most marginalized women will not look young past a certain age, furthering their oppression. If you are a woman, you are already less valuable in our patriarchal societies. If, on top of being female, you are old, you have a much higher chance of being poor, homeless, and unemployed, not properly cared for, and abused.

Ageism on the Agenda

If most women do not want to be around old women, how can we talk about ageism in all its many forms? How do we build movements and processes that value girls and women of different ages?

One step is to understand ourselves as perpetual migrants from one age group to the next. Those of us who are now old were once young; none of us is exempt from aging. Unless we die at an early age, we will all experience ageism against older women, just as we probably all held those prejudices when we were younger, even if we were not conscious of them.

Then, we need to ensure that our movements are multigenerational. This is not simply about women of various ages being in the same movement. Partly, it is about building respectful relationships of trust, and of learning, and teaching based on a long-haul approach to movement building. But, as with other power relations, it is also about raising our awareness of age power relations.

Typical and mistaken responses:
Older and old feminists tell young women to stop complaining and fit in, or to start their own women’s NGOs, and stop seeking validation from older feminists. Most young women are looking for solidarity, not validation. What young women need is to see that older activists maintain their political commitments in both word and deed. (Because of the NGOization of the feminist movement, it is also true that some young women view their involvement in feminism as just another paying job.)
Both old and young activists think that young activists have nothing to learn from older or old activists because the world has changed so much. Patriarchal structures have been around for thousand of years. Misogynist attitudes and ideas have not gone away; they have just become more subtle or changed their forms. Rather than make the same mistakes, young women should build on what older feminists have already done. This requires that all feminists know and honor the history of our movements.
Older and old feminists demand adherence to the politics and vision of their generation as the basis for any working relationship. Alternatively, younger feminists discard the politics and visions of older generations simply because they are not “cool” or “new” or postmodern enough. These attitudes block our personal and political development because they do not allow us to “see” what women outside of our own age group “see.”

Multigenerational Movement-Building

Because age is such an important factor in how we experience sexism, we cannot afford to have feminist or women’s movements that do not address age relations or, worse still, that reproduce ageism. No generation should be left out of our movement – we need to pay attention to how we exclude girls, and young, middle-aged, and old women. We all bear the responsibility for this, but so far it has been mostly young women who have launched intergenerational discussions, for various reasons:

• Many young feminists of this millennium began their activism in “youth movements,” so they tend to be aware of the impact of age discrimination on their lives. For older and old feminists, neither ageism nor age relations were much discussed within or outside of feminism.
• Young feminists and young movement builders have been targeted by international agencies and religious or development organizations keen to create and promote young leaders – sometimes because of a real concern that young women were not being heard; other times, distorting the understanding of gender power relations by focusing solely on age as a factor of discrimination.
• In the past few years, there has been a rush to create funds, programs, projects, and contests only for young women, and to publish manuals and books on young women’s rights. This valuable work is the result of young women’s activism, but risks encouraging the belief that ageism only affects young feminists.
• Older and old feminists have not been passionate promoters of intergenerational dialogues, in part because older feminists do not want to deal with the fact that they are old, and also because ageism has been reduced to only one of its forms: discrimination against young people.

The Challenge for JASS

What can we say about a movement that cares so little about women who gave so much? How can we have sustainable movements if everyone knows that at a certain age you are no longer welcome?

As a 61-year-old, Latin-American whitish woman, I am worried that our movements neglect older feminists, address ageism only when it is directed towards young women, and talk about the need for multigenerational movements only from the perspective of young women. For example, at the last AWID conference, I heard young and older speakers refer to older and old women as “not young,” showing that feminists seldom question the stigma attached to old age.

The stereotype of older women as inactive, unhealthy, asexual, and ineffective can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And yet, gerontological studies have found that women's self-image shows greater improvement with age than men’s does. Post-menopausal women become more assertive, less fearful, and less dependent. Our feminist movements seem unaware of these findings.

The challenge we face in this JASS initiative is to deconstruct our ageism and to develop an understanding of age relations similar to our understanding of gender and other relations. I hope we can do this with love and trust in our hearts, understanding that patriarchal structures prevent us from valuing each other as sisters.

May 2009