As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage, it intensifies fears of aging and debility that characterize our culture of fitness and drive our aspirations to bodily invincibility. The stigma of aging affects women differentially. While feminists have touted the achievements of older women and insisted that the later years can be the best, we now find ourselves on the other side of an increasingly solid barrier between a “younger” population and an “elderly,” “older,” or “old” one. Those of us who are age 65 or older are the most vulnerable and at risk, both in need of extra protection and most likely to lose out in the triage battle for hospital beds and ventilators. At the same time, our vulnerability to the virus makes it impossible for many of us in this age cohort to participate in the historic street protests we are condemned to witness from afar.
This is therefore a good moment to assess our experiences of aging, and to face our own attitudes more squarely. Rather than battling an ageist and sexist media by insisting that older women can do and be more than ever before by working and playing harder, might we instead focus on care and interdependence, accepting rather than disavowing bodily, emotional, and social vulnerabilities? Rather than celebrating individual victories against aging and mortality, we might embrace a communal ethos of mutuality to which the old have a great deal to contribute.
In proclaiming older women’s powers, the titles of two recent books give a clear sense of their tone and mission: No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History, by journalist Gail Collins, and In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead, by communications and media scholar Susan J. Douglas. Indignant about the blatant disparagement of older women that characterizes our moment, Collins and Douglas take a celebratory, if not outright triumphalist, tone. Both search for greater social importance and acceptance of older women in earlier historical periods and find examples of their unrelenting energy and productivity today. Both books encourage all women to fight against gendered ageism. They call for forms of cultural recognition that would better represent what their authors see as older women’s mostly positive experiences of aging.
But a different—and very welcome—approach is undertaken in historian Susan P. Mattern’s book The Slow Moon Climbs: The Science, History, and Meaning of Menopause. Here, Mattern looks at the unique evolutionary functions, for the human species, of a female population that long outlives its childbearing years.
While Collins and Douglas give us the tools with which we might, in Collins’s terms, “fight back age” or, in Douglas’s, “affirm … that we are still in our prime,” Mattern links our postindustrial moment to foraging, agrarian, and industrial societies that depended quite heavily on the social and economic contributions of a sizable nonreproductive population—whether female, male, or other. While Collins emphasizes the individual accomplishments of older women and Douglas wants to use these to build a transgenerational movement of “lifelong feminism,” Mattern goes further back to reveal myriad contributions that continue to be crucial to interconnected, multigenerational human collectivities. She thus shifts the emphasis of our current preoccupations with the specter of aging.
As we face a virus whose effects are compounded by illness and age, I find it more difficult to follow Collins’s and Douglas’s insistence on older women’s invincibility. By accepting and attempting to elucidate rather than vigorously contesting generational differences, Mattern’s deep evolutionary history opens up a way to think about aging that might be more in line with this moment than Collins’s and Douglas’s admittedly lively and readable celebrations.
In a whirlwind journey through United States history, from the colonial period to today, No Stopping Us Now traces changes in opportunities for and attitudes toward older women. With spirit and energy, Collins leads us through the lives of numerous, mostly well-known older women who wielded considerable influence at different historical moments. Although the book touches upon larger economic arguments about shifting social roles available to mature women—brought about by the need for their products in colonial times, for example, or the opportunities for widows to run their husbands’ farms or businesses—Collins is more interested in how individual women were able to circumvent prejudices and taboos, and thereby thrive in their later years. Collins’s story is one not so much of steady progress as it is of a series of gains and losses, advances and declines—a story that leads to what she sees as today’s open future of increased possibility.
Thanks to Collins, one certainly gets a sense of women’s energy and activity, which is hard to reconcile with popular attitudes of gendered ageism, then and now. She paints vivid portraits, for example, by following the writing, publishing, and public-speaking “adventures” of 19th-century luminaries like Sarah Josepha Hale, who continued writing until she was 89; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who urged middle-class women to start a whole new life in their 50s; Catharine Beecher, who took courses at Cornell in her 70s; and Jane Addams, who advocated a postponement of old age.
Notably, historians studying American women have analyzed the feminist strategies these and lesser-known women used to advance their work: by seemingly conforming to set gender roles, even as they radically subverted them. Collins, meanwhile, is content to tell these stories chronologically, ending with encouraging contemporary examples that range from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Nancy Pelosi to Gloria Steinem and Helen Mirren. She does fold these individual white women into a broad historical sweep that also includes exceptional African American figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances Harper, and 98-year-old National Park Service ranger Betty Reid Soskin. Yet she only mentions—without analyzing in any depth—how gendered prejudices are structurally inflected by racial, economic, and other social inequalities.
Collins, a New York Times columnist, writes for her usual audience—educated, middle-class, presumably white women who want to hear that we have “come a long way.” In chapters devoted to our contemporary moment, such as the last chapter, “Onward and Upward,” she assumes that her readers use Botox to enhance their appearance, refuse to be called “Grandma,” work into their 70s because they are having “way too much fun,” and enjoy their retirement communities.
Like Collins, Douglas also uses the first-person plural in her title: In Our Prime. More specifically, her “we” addresses second-wave feminists of her generation who “once changed the world,” and whom she urges to “do it again.”
The book is a call to engage in a new “lifespan feminism,” which would bridge generational divides and build intergenerational alliances around shared agendas. Relying on an array of second-wave-feminist analytic tools that reveal blatant and hidden sexist prejudices, Douglas models a form of feminist resistance that can shift value structures. She confronts the “anti-aging industrial complex”: toxic advertising campaigns for products that sell “aspirational aging” and continual self-improvement, and in the process promote self-hatred and shame about getting older.
A significant part of the book is dedicated to smart discussions of popular films, television series, and media personalities that contest these representations by launching “visibility revolts.” Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Judi Dench, Betty White, Oprah, Roseanne, and others not only expose but also ridicule biases against older women. Here, the legacy of ’70s feminism—with its fearless, irreverent, and unruly power to reveal noxious stereotypes and to “talk back” to the patriarchy—comes to “matter” in new ways. Activist Maggie Kuhn of the Gray Panthers is one of the great characters in this book, a model of powerful advocacy and leadership who managed to create a media space in which the voices of older women could be heard and offensive stereotypes removed.
In a welcome chapter, Douglas confronts the “market fundamentalism” and economic “war on older women” that is dismantling economic safety nets like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, on which they disproportionately rely. In Our Prime concludes with a series of practical “to do” items for the lifespan feminism she promotes: “Embrace our coming of age,” “talk back to gendered ageism” and to the media, “get active, get political, donate,” and more.
But as smart, pragmatic, and upbeat as Douglas’s writing is, and as much as it values intergenerational feminist activism, it also suffers from the unfortunate limitations of the second-wave feminism whose positive energies it nostalgically channels. This book would be greatly enriched if it considered, in greater depth and with more nuance, the plight of poor women, of women of color, of women grappling with sickness or disability, or of trans women. Perhaps it is this moment of rampant illness and death, combined with mutual aid and activist energy, that makes me yearn for a structural analysis that goes beyond an emphasis on the “happy” or “gutsy” realities of aging.
Mattern’s deep evolutionary history opens up a way to think about aging that might be more in line with this moment than Collins’s and Douglas’s admittedly lively and readable celebrations.
The Slow Moon Climbs eschews celebration for a deep evolutionary account that suggests some different ways to think about aging. Mattern’s meticulously researched and lucidly presented evolutionary history is animated by a simple question: “When did menopause become a medical condition with symptoms and a name?”
Menopause, Mattern argues, is a modern invention—something that she calls a “cultural” and not, crucially, a medical “syndrome.” Moreover, menopause as a cultural invention is indigenous to the West; even here there are few references to it before the 18th century. Later, however, with the development of endocrinology in the early 20th century, menopause came to be viewed as a hormonal deficiency. Consequently, it was pathologized, giving rise to new symptoms—like hot flashes, depression, and sexual dysfunction—as well as new products and treatments—like estrogen-replacement therapy—designed to ameliorate them.
In view of the deep history Mattern traces, menopause—and indeed all bodily changes associated with female aging—could have been regarded “as the cessation of a system programmed to shut down long before the rest of the body for some sort of adaptive reason.” Instead, she argues, “menopause came to be seen as a deficiency of the chemical estrogen, which in turn came to be seen as the essence of femininity.” And she deems it “very likely” that current constructions of menopause and female aging are “part of an age-specific backlash against the challenge women pose to men as sex roles become less differentiated. … On the other hand, ideas of menopause and midlife problems may also reflect the vulnerability and confusion of women in modernizing societies who, without farms or children at home, find few roles prescribed for them.”
The Slow Moon Climbs traces precisely the adaptive reasons for menopause, and thus the social and economic functions of older women through human history. A great deal is explained by the “grandmother hypothesis,” an evolutionary theory that constitutes a credible alternative to male-centered “man the hunter” or “patriarch” hypotheses. In foraging and agrarian societies, grandmothers provide childcare and food to allow reproductive women to nurse, to take care of their children, and to continue reproducing. Grandmothers in rural communities, even today, aid in the survival of their children and grandchildren. By not competing reproductively with their daughters and by sharing the work of care, they practice and transmit cooperative strategies for survival and longevity.
Do We Need Wonder Woman?
Mattern adapts the grandmother hypothesis to more recent histories, showing how sizable nonreproductive populations with greater skills and expertise advance the productivity and longevity our societies thrive on. In fact, she argues that “our capacity for non-reproduction is essential to our survival.”
“The contributions of non-reproductive women,” Mattern writes, “have brought us this far and will lead us into whatever future we have.” Might that recognition allay some of the aforementioned “confusion” and shift cultural attitudes about aging? Menopause occurs in midlife, as Mattern points out, leaving women a number of years to enjoy the higher productivity she finds in an older workforce.
But what of old women, and old men, who are no longer productive in a market sense? Importantly, Mattern’s evolutionary argument also allows us to glimpse a different economy and a different form of productivity. Both within the family and beyond it, she suggests, grandmothers, and also grandfathers, practice an economy of sharing, cooperation, and care. This is an “ancient and unusual ability” that, in Mattern’s reading, needs to be “harnessed” and perpetuated.
Such a communal way of thinking and an emphasis on care might offer space for feelings of vulnerability and debility, for sympathy with the body’s needs and the mind’s occasional failures. The slowness, dailiness, continuity, and mutuality of the work of care might allow us to embrace the temporality of age, its expansion and simultaneous contraction. It might, moreover, enable us to highlight forms of solidarity, interconnection, and interdependence—rather than individual achievement and individual anxiety—in later years.
What lessons about aging can we learn and transmit if we speak and listen across generations? In her short text “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age,” the writer and lifelong activist Grace Paley does just that: “My father,” she writes, “had decided to teach me how to grow old. I said O.K. My children didn’t think it was such a great idea. If I knew how, they thought, I might do so too easily. No, no, I said, it’s for later, years from now. And besides, if I get it right it might be helpful to you kids in time to come.”1
She patiently listens to her father’s words and honors his desire to pass some wisdom on to her, as he tells her stories about the family’s past in Russia, about her mother, who died of cancer, about politics, the stock market, love, and even sex. Although he shares his own feelings of loneliness and his regrets, his advice is practical. He was a doctor. As you get older, “the body is your enemy,” he insists. Greens are overrated, but do eat bananas for the potassium, and go to the doctor on time. And, most urgently, he coaches her on how to take care of her heart and its multiple functions:
“The main thing is this—when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.”
“That’s a metaphor, right?”
“Metaphor? No, no, you can do this. In the morning, do a few little exercises for the joints, not too much. Then put your hands like a cup over and under the heart. … Under your ribs, push a little. … I mean pat, stroke a little, don’t be ashamed. Very likely no one will be watching. Then you must talk to your heart.”
“Say anything, but be respectful. Say—maybe say, Heart, little heart, beat softly but never forget your job, the blood. You can whisper also, Remember, remember.”2
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.