Ageism and sexism


If we are lucky, we will all get there, to an age that is high if we live a long life. But even before we are old, many bumps in to trouble when for example looking for a new job, or just feel the pressure to look younger than they really are. Then there are except for ageism, also sexism. Those matters are something that this week's woman has been engaged a lot in. Read her wise thoughts and perhaps you will have some new reflections.

Name: Pat Taub

Age: 75

Occupation: Writer, blogger, and teacher

Family: Divorced, two adult sons, two grandchildren

Lives in: Portland, Maine, USA

You are engaged in many issues but ageism and sexism is something you are passionate about. Also the rights for lesbian women are something you find important. What drives you so strong?

I believe that ageism and sexism are the two issues that most limit the older woman's capacity to enjoy and own her later years. This is especially true in the States, which may be the most youth-obsessed country on the planet. American women are conditioned to believe that once they hit 50 their physical/sexual currency diminishes substantially. Consequently there's a trend in the States for women to beat back the clock with plastic surgery, facial fillers, dieting and rigorous exercise.

Popular culture in the States heralds the older woman who doesn't look her age - women like Jane Fonda who has had extensive plastic surgery. If a woman has extraordinary intelligence like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (member of the Supreme Court), her aged appearance is not as central. But the average older woman is not an intellectual star like Ginsburg, which means she is judged more often than not on what she looks like.

Older women are frequently discriminated against at work, sometimes passed over for a promotion in favor of younger, more attractive women or their thinking is discounted simply because we don't value the older woman.

Through my blog for older women (Women's Older Wisdom, and through my class on women and aging, I strive to empower older women to challenge ageism and sexism when confronted by it. I want all older women to value themselves and not see their advanced years as a negative but as a positive where they can draw on their life experiences to contribute to family and society.

I want aging to be a big positive for all women. There is a growing movement in the States and in other countries where woman are fighting back against ageism and sexism. I think we owe it to the younger generation of women to blaze a path where the older woman is seen in a positive light.

Lesbians have similar struggles with ageism and sexism and, in some ways, find it easier to age. My lesbian friends tell me that being part of a women's community allows them to find ready support, which is not always as available for the straight woman. Women thrive in community and benefit from the community of other older women. Community is key to empowering the older woman.

Would you say that at least more of today's women are self confident and do claim their rights in spite of their age, both as individuals and in their sexuality? Also, have you seen any difference between women in different countries?

Just as there is a wide range among women of all ages, there is a wide spectrum among older women where some speak positively of aging with confidence. Other women find this passage difficult. The more we bring into the open ageism and sexism as it impacts the older woman, the greater the odds are that she will be able to overcome it. Older women have a great resource in the growing literature of books addressing ageism and sexism. One book I recommend is Lynn Segal's book, "Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Aging".

I'm reminded of the consciousness-raising groups that took place during the second wave of feminism where women met in small groups to deconstruct all the ways they were programmed to feel like second-class citizens. I dream of older women finding their tribe where they can pick apart all the ways the culture has limited them to reject this conditioning in favor of being powerful crones.

As I mentioned earlier I think female aging is more difficult in the US because of our obsession with being young. On travels to Western Europe I've noticed how older women often own their ages, where they dress appropriately and exude self-confidence. Asian women frequently come from cultures, like Japan, where old age is honored and not seen as a negative. Native Americans have a tradition of honoring the matriarch and revering her wisdom.

Sexuality among older women can range from women who continue to enjoy sex through their '70's, '80's and beyond while other women say that sex is no longer important to them. Among this group one frequently finds single women who feel sexually undesirable due to the culture's rejection of the older woman. I think their dismissal of sex may be a defensive posture to feeling cast aside by the culture.

Although things have changed to the better, one can still hear about employees in the health care who are prejudiced or none understanding towards people. What is your theory about that?

In the States one reads frequently about older women (and men) who are not taken seriously by the health profession where their symptoms are dumped in the category of "old age". I'm not sure that this response is any different for lesbians than for straight women although I don't have any research to support this conclusion. It's simply based on my observations.

When older patients are readily dismissed it reflects the culture's rampant ageism and sexism. Medical schools in the States typically have a difficult time filling slots for geriatric medicine. More and more older patients are learning to be their own advocates to fight back when they are dismissed while other patients are too intimidated by doctors to challenge them. We have work to do to overcome the medical profession's ageist and sexist responses towards the older female patient.

So, to conclude, we have come a bit on the way, but there is still much to do. Is it not up to us women to take the last step which is needed? As long as we do not stand up for ourselves, who will?

I'm in full agreement that women have to take the lead in dismantling ageism and sexism. We're seeing the beginnings of a movement that needs all the momentum it can gather. Let's try and enlist feminist men and young people of both genders. The aging population is growing worldwide which can be used as a pitch to engage young people who will be old themselves someday.

I recently saw a clip of a program in the UK where photos of dynamic elderly people were used in an elementary school classroom as a prop to educate the young students about ageism and to discuss the contributions of the elderly. The results were very successful with the kids demonstrating a new awareness of what it means to be old. Creative programs like this can make a difference.