Sexism, Ageism and Retired Women
By Karen and Erica
Does the invisibility that engulfs professional women who retire in their sixties arise in part because they are seen as "old"? If so, concepts of aging are badly out of date. Time to modernize them.
Women in their sixties used to be old--really old--when, as in 1900, female life expectancy was forty-eight. But by the middle of the last century, female life expectancy had increased to seventy plus. Now it is closer to ninety. Unless we are going to call people "old" for half of their adult lives, then women should not be seen as "old" much before their eighties.
But of course for women it is not a matter of age alone. Women have long been seen to have a sell-by date--the date after which they are no longer fertile. Whatever their actual child bearing plans, their value has long been linked to their ability, or lack of ability, to procreate. Age plays a role when they are young, and are urged to have children by constant reference to their biological clock, and when they are old, and shown as either pillowy, kindly grandmothers, who mostly bake pies for small children, or bony, wicked witches, who mostly bake small children into pies.
There is no middle ground. One seldom sees women of our age portrayed as elegant, sexy and wise--though we applaud Wonder Woman for picturing older Amazons as exactly that, and powerful and agile too. Of course the Amazons live in a world without men, but Mme. Macron among others has shown us that is not a precondition for women having power and beauty and age.
Men, for equally archaic reasons, are allowed to age without becoming "old" at all. They are seen as eternal procreators, though their role in this regard may be untethered from daily familial obligations. Consequently, age is less important at either end of their lives--they can compete in the business world without worrying about the biological clock, and they can season without the penalty of becoming "old."
None of this makes very much sense in the twenty-first century, when gender and gender roles are bending, when fertility and gender and age are becoming delinked, and when women can be vital and purposeful for many decades after their sixties. Indeed, there is one scientific strand of thought to the effect that women (and also killer whales) are biologically constructed to go through menopause precisely so that their fertility will end long before they get old. Freed from the quotidian demands of young offspring, they can become leaders. We have seen little writing on this topic but naturally we find it interesting, and more rational than evaluating women solely based on fertility.
Just like retirement itself, concepts of aging for women must be brought up to date. We are indeed designed to lead, and that is just what we will do, to make sure perceptions and prejudices change so that we may live the next few decades dynamically, unburdened by the negative images of old.