I was fortunate enough to be an active participant in the Women’s Movement of the 60s and 70s. Not only was this pressure group dynamically underway but the mood of this era was vibrant: the back and foreground of exciting change included the Peace Movement, new music, different ways of being, Woodstock, love-ins, gurus, LSD, and pot. All was possible! What an exhilarating and challenging time it was. The stage was set for feminists to create revolutionary change, changes which affected every aspect of a woman’s life in the Western world.
These changes included the pill, divorce and marriage reforms, policies for
single mothers, abortion advocacy, affirmative action, equal rights amendments, feminist spirituality, consciousness-raising groups and Status of Women Departments. Women’s Studies programs were offered at most universities, resulting in new disciplines including feminist art, poetry, and literary criticism. There were feminist historians, sociologists, archaeologists, anthropologists and writers.
And much more. The classics of that era are still relevant today. Books such
as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, The Feminine Mystique by Betty
Friedan, The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French, Simone de Beauvoir, The
Second Sex, MS Magazine launched by Gloria Steinem and others.
Sexist/sexism became a noun, an adjective, and an adverb.
The era of the second wave of feminism has never been as strong since,
although, even in its prime, it was never mainstream. Sexism was a strong force in our culture and society and is still very powerful.
However, over the next several decades, and into the 2000s, feminism’s popularity began to wane and with its marginalization more noticeable, the women’s movement itself became problematic. Some branches of feminism gradually tended toward dogmatism and elitism; instead of uniting women, it began to separate them. Judgments were made on what defined feminism and a good feminist. Women who chose to stay at home and raise children inevitably felt guilty and not measuring up. Similarly, for women who couldn’t muster up the necessary ambition to become professionals, business leaders, and worst of all women who preferred female-dominated vocations, felt uneasy.
Thus, instead of liberating and freeing women, for some it became too
restrictive, limiting choice in a variety of ways, some subtle, some overt.
Feminism was losing its relevance to several generations of women post
80s/90s. Young women who had greatly benefitted from the women’s
movement (without acknowledging it, or worse not even knowing what changes and benefits they were now enjoying) began to resent some of the feminist ‘ideals’ of not wearing makeup or high heels. Sexism in the beauty and fashion industries was seemingly untouched by feminism. The trillion-dollar industry differed only in kind from what we, our mothers, and grandmothers were fed.
“Becoming a ‘woman to the backbone’: lingerie consumption and feminine identity”; this is the gap that Tsaousi intended to fill with her primary research on everyday underwear consumption. which have tended to focus on eroticism and/or special, sexy underwear.
There were many blind spots in the women’s movement, important issues like poverty, racism, sexual harassment, and rape were replaced by, for one
example, an overemphasis on issues of a narrower relevance such as gender studies and eventually transgender studies (media sensationalism turned this serious topic into a freak show) to the overlooked interests of ever-growing vast numbers worldwide of oppressed and struggling women.
Issues became convoluted with many competing ideologies. Principles, compassion, and ideals were collateral damage. However, many individuals (e.g. Naomi Wolf’s, The Beauty Myth, 1990) and sections of the women’s movement remained throughout, confident and kind, always fully supportive of women, holding onto their ideals, generosity and activism, albeit more in the background than the wondrous earlier years and happily many Indigenous women have become more active and persuasive over
time. The core remained relevant, resilient and committed.
Contemporary feminism has responded to some of the dissension within and is now hopefully entering a new period of far-reaching change once more assisted no less by the globally available internet and social media.
Tarana Burke, a social activist, and community organizer began using the
the phrase “Me Too” in 2006, on the Myspace social network as part of a campaign to promote “empowerment through empathy” among women of color who have experienced sexual abuse, particularly within underprivileged communities. Burke, who is creating a documentary titled Me Too, has said she was inspired to use the phrase after being unable to respond to a 13-year-old girl who confided to her that she had been sexually assaulted. Burke said she later wished she had simply told the girl, “Me too”.
This campaign exploded worldwide when high profile men were being accused of sexual harassment. Globally, women responded from all walks of life with their own stories.
Issues and concerns around refugees and immigration, poverty, sexual
harassment, rape, and race relations, to name a few, have been put higher on the genda of activist women of all ages. Phyllis Chesler (author of 18 books) and prominent feminist of the 60s/70s with her book, Women and Madness, has published a critique of today’s feminism in A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Lunatics, Dykes, Prodigies, Warriors, and Wonder Women, (2018). Chesler never disappoints in her intelligent, compassionate and wide-lens view of current political and social disturbances.
‘Women for all women’ is unquestionably necessary today and on the very positive side, it may reach a new more balanced level that not only responds to new choices but encourages many more voices. It has the visionary potential to once again become a creative, inclusive and innovative movement with evolving pertinent issues to new generations of women. In our chaotic world, the need to build solid bridges to a better world is greater than ever.
The purpose of my paper is to apply the above history and analysis of feminism to the positive aging movement. Both communities share similar values, struggles, and populations. My query began with what can these idealistic, radical, innovative movements teach and learn from each other now.
I was an enthusiastic pioneer in the positive aging movement many years ago in the early 80s. I wanted desperately to change the image and conception of aging in our societies and bring ageism to global consciousness. I wanted to combat and change negative outcomes for older adults. I wanted being old to be an important, respected and functional part of our life cycle. I studied as much as I could about how ageism affected every one of us, the internalization of ageism and the myriad disadvantages older people faced. The outdated theories of aging taught in medical schools and gerontology courses reinforced this prejudice. Ageism was and still is a self-fulfilling prophecy. As an active feminist, I recognized the commonality and interrelatedness of sexism and ageism. The history, overlap and double standards were common to both ageism and sexism. This motivated me to combine my studies, profession and activism in both realms. A revolutionary, idealistic change was shouting to be heard. I believe the feminist movement was a critical precursor to the Positive
The aging population was steadily increasing although initially without the mainstream’s influence, authority, and power. Older adults were just beginning to create communities and the positive aging movement was set to take off, providing a vigorous and overwhelming change in perceptions, roles, skills capabilities, emphasizing gifts and talents of older adults, and most important, providing new discussions of meaning and purpose of our older years. See William H. Thomas, M.D., in What are Old People For? (VanderWyk & Burnham, (2004).
Taboo topics were ‘out of the closet’, death and dying and euthanasia were generating dynamic debates. What does life ask of us and what do we, as elders, ask of life. Many of us were feminists and thus were prepped to revolt, resist and reinvent aging.
The social, economic and political powers of the young to middle age was
formidable, and a ground-breaking activist movement was timely, however
difficult. The pioneers of this movement focused on changing, not only ageism but more actively, were determined to create a new vision of aging, defying stereotypes, and instead encouraging and supporting elders who manifested ideals of wisdom, mentoring, creativity, legacies, and importantly included ultimate ideas and discussions of not only death and dying, but mortality, wisdom, meaning and purpose.
Similarly, to the feminist movement, there were no shortage of interested people, many of themselves were older feminists: scholars, carers, historians, theologians, psychologists, philosophers, medical and health researchers. These new revolutionaries became fascinated in the concepts of positive aging, the scope, and the reform. New academic journals on a variety of disciplines with ageing in their titles proliferated.
My personal gerontological library contains over 350 books covering a diverse range of topics on aging, but the vast majority are on positive aging from this innovative and fresh outlook. Some examples from my library, chosen randomly: A Heart of Wisdom, (Berrin, 1997), The Gift of Years (Chittister, 2008), The Black Mirror, (Tallis, 2015), The Five Stages of the Soul, (Moody,1997), The Creative Age, (Cohen, 2000), The Mature Mind, (Cohen, 2005), The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought, (Gillman,1997), From Ageing to Sageing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older, (Zalman Schachter -Shalomi and R. Miller, 1995)
Despite the absolute need to address aging in our societies, for many years,
positive aging remained a marginalized movement. As the demographics of older people grew, positive aging became noticed. Popular self-help and psychology books proliferated, reaching many diverse groups of older adults who were experiencing aging and reaching out for inspiration, help and understanding.
Still, there was a wall of establishment, rigid thinking, corporations, clubs and financial interests to overcome, dated perceptions proved initially hard to change. Nevertheless, commercial interests gradually recognized the consumer opportunities of the positive aging discourse and wanted a bigger share. Older people became an upcoming market for medical aids, therapy, anti-depression drugs, medications, nursing homes, discussions of caretaking, elder abuse and traditional wills, retirement and funeral planning. Some of this was essential, helpful and positive, with more of an underlying acceptance of aging itself.
However materialist interests were not going to stop here, they were set to ignite. A familiar story.
The Positive Ageing Movement, replete with far-sighted visions, imaginative roles for elders and ideas yet to play out was far outnumbered by commerce, advertising, and marketing, plus older people having themselves internalized ageist messages from their own youthful years onwards were ripe for exploitation. The fears and distortions around growing older became a great stimulus for consumerism.
The anxieties around aging dominated advertising, marketing and most importantly, the health and beauty industries thrived on uncertainties, angst and apprehensions around what the future might bring. Fears turned to terrors and a new industry became firmly entrenched. The alternative path of aging well, ‘positive ageing’, was marginalized to a select, functioning, liberal and progressive core.
For others, the vast majority, there didn’t seem to be any path to aging well, a less repressive, oppressive path. Was anyone looking? The ageist stereotypes resurfaced with more force, such as retreating from the world, making room for younger people to take over, leaving employment for retirement, which often meant just no longer being productive, demands on grandparenting as surrogate child-carers and isolation. The result was a rise in anxiety, depression and a self-fulfilling emptiness.
Simultaneously, the grandiose promises and images of youthfulness and vitality crept in, and evolved into a fantasy marketplace – cruises, the cosmetic industry, gyms, retirement villages mushroomed overnight. Marathons and cycling events were well populated by “spandexed seniors”.
The number of new “must-haves” and ”must-dos” for older people skyrocketed. Positive Ageing evolved into Successful Ageing – beauty, the body, and pleasure, defying and denying ageing became the trend-setting new goals. For many older adults, the higher meanings and interpretations of positive aging became subsumed into this social and economic rewrite of what it is to be old. The conscious, spiritual content of Positive Ageing remained not only hidden but excluded in Successful Aging.
Aging ‘gracefully’ meant aging without aging. Aging well was about looking younger. The younger you looked, the more anti-aging you were.
Appearing what you were not, old, was successful aging. This trillion-dollar
anti-aging industry was trading on our profound fear of growing old, looking old, dependency, frailty and invisibility. Cosmetics and plastic surgery, Botox, exercise, supplements, the promises industry was thriving on our horror of ageing, denial was the only path offered. And denial became the accepted way to age by. Look young, act young, be young was the classic motto of successful ageing. This was not positive aging, on the contrary, nonetheless, it was awakened by the positive aging movement. Of course, very few of us could ever measure up to the images on our billboard and television screens, magazines, of waving elders from the top of Mt Everest, and YouTube, or live the baby boomer myth of unlimited disposal income; and no matter how much time and money we spent on the quest, we were just getting older, feeling and looking older and more and more disappointed.
Older adults are tiring of the false, dishonest and deceptive promises of
‘successful aging,’ recognizing the exhaustion and futility of the quest and instead of turning to higher values. The values and inspiration of soulful, mindful, aging is the relevant path to existential satisfaction and serenity. This is the time for positive, meaningful, aging to appeal to a greater audience: in essence, conscious aging.
he Positive Ageing Movement began with an uphill battle to overcome the overwhelming societal view of aging, to counter the prevailing views of industry, and similar to the feminist movement, a large part of the ideas and ideals of positive aging were misrepresented and exploited.
And like some of the original leaders of the feminist movement, advocates in positive aging have increased and grown stronger with their voices intact.
Positive aging is a so much more appropriate and significant path, suggesting profound questions, wisdom, and self-reflection – an examined life. Positive aging continues to spread its message online, in books and articles, films and YouTube, to all who are listening and yearning. This is crucial for healthy and nourishing aging, serenity and acceptance. And although conscious aging is much more marginal to the overriding successful aging model, people do passionately want to age with intention, awareness, and as independently as possible living sacred values. More and more older adults are adopting this journey resolutely and tenaciously, committing to manifesting the qualities and values of a righteous passage.
I will continue to be both an active seeker and strive for the guidance of positive aging elders to help me journey through my older years.
Nonetheless, similarly again to the feminist revolution, the positive aging revolution has its own blind spot, a dark side. It is not a comfortable conversation, however, it is a conversation that positive aging must embrace.
The darker side of growing old needs recognition, understanding and compassion. The widening gap between the fit and the frail, the accomplished and the limited, the healthy and the sick, the mentally active and the depressed, demented, is creating a crisis in the lives of many and their families.
Where is the attention given to the despairing, the suffering, the desolate, grave, and lonely older adults, both men, and women? With old age, fear and hopelessness about the future often comes to most of us, the quintessential, existential angst flourishing deep within our psyches.
There is more attention granted to social issues; elder abuse, housing, financial and poverty of aging, (extrinsic disadvantage) although not nearly enough; but to the anguish and misery of a large portion of the aging population, the positive aging movement has seemingly opted out. As in the women’s movement, ‘the personal is the political’, the subjective must be the objective of public awareness and policy. We must open our hearts and listen compassionately to the sadness, loneliness, and pain that often is the
accompaniment of aging.
Recognizing our future as not only close to death and loss, but also as filled with sorrow and grief can be an intrinsic function of Positive Ageing fulfilling all needs, not only the comfortable, affirmative and optimistic aspects. For many, our own bodies are the site of humiliation, not only pain and restraints but the increasingly shrinking, shriveling, bent and broken body, reflecting back to us and the world; questioning our very integrity of self.
Age categories have real consequences, and bodies—old bodies—matter. They have a material reality along with their social interpretation (Laz 2003). Old people are not, in fact, just like middle-aged persons but only older. They are different. As is the case with other forms of oppression, we must acknowledge and accept these differences, and even see them as valid. Accordingly, we must distinguish between age resistance and age denial (Twigg 2004, 63); and to do so, we must theorize the age relations that underlie the devaluation of old age.
There are many stories untold, needing to be heard. One such story, lovingly
told by a daughter, Suzanne Matson, about her mother’s decline in an article published in the New York Times titled: The Caretaker of the Chin Hairs, (NY Times 12/4/2018) demonstrates open-heartedness and a keen presence. “She said her greatest fear was being “one of the little old bearded ladies in the nursing home.” Of course, this was a proxy for other fears: being helpless, at the mercy of others’ compassion and care; the body’s incessant and inevitable failure; and death itself. I swore to be the caretaker of the chin hairs”.
On the subject of increasing suicides amongst older Australian men, William Stubbs, the Co-founder and Director of Spur, a social impact strategist, wrote an article for the blog Greymatters, entitled, “Older Aussie men are taking their own lives – so what can we do about it?” (11/12/2018)
Stubbs describes his project OLDMATE,” where we are encouraging 100,000
Australians to take the pledge to spend one hour a month with an elderly person, becoming their ‘young mate’.” The lack of connection is considered an important factor to poor mental health and a future of depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Helping older adults to feel they matter is one significant key.
Older adults often live large distances from their family, children, and friends. In today’s world, changing locations is very common. There is a neologism for elders on their own – “Elder Orphans”. This refers to those without a safety net of adult children or a spouse, to provide practical, physical and emotional support over time. (See Elder Orphan Facebook group, a supportive blog.)
Another important voice is Chris Gilleard, his article, Suffering; The Darker
Side of Ageing (Journal of Ageing Studies, 44, 2018) says: “Moments of joy seem more elusive, more fragile; the wish that they may last forever co-exists with a knowledge that they can only fade. In contrast, suffering is felt as unending. It is less the intensity of the moment that marks suffering out so much as its capacity to imprison the person; to foreshadow an endless, intractable condition stretching over a person’s existence. Rather than being defined by its limits, it is its seeming endlessness that makes suffering so difficult to bear.”
We all matter. All ages have value and deserve to be treated with compassion, respect, dignity, and honor. Despite the dark side, The Positive Ageing Movement emphasizes these values absolutely, (perhaps more in theory at times than in practice).
So, what is the paradox of change? Everything changes and nothing changes. All is different and all is the same. We are merely human, thus imperfect, not robots, not yet, and we are wholly imperfectly perfect.
Paradoxes are inconsistency, absurdity, irony, contradiction, enigma, puzzle.
And add the word ‘change’, alteration, modification, variation, transformation, revolution, difference. How can we use this analogy and what can we learn from the strengths and limitations of both extraordinary social movements?
There have been radical changes in our lifetime for both women and elders, a paradigm shift in perceptions and experience. Think back to the 50s, old men without status, old women, the butt of many jokes. Young women in the 50s, then and now, altogether a different environment. We have opportunities unimaginable for our parents and grandparents.
We can look back with gratification, and satisfaction of our work, and we can look forward to invigorating still much-needed transformation. The revolution is never over. Feminism needs positive aging and positive aging needs feminism.
Some activists couldn’t see their own errors for being caught up in their dogmas and agenda. The divisive aspects of elitism, monocultures, exclusivity, self- importance, and ideologies disrupt values and hide faults and oversights.
We all go through life-changing, living paradoxically, throughout our lifespan, generation after generation. Stages of development, exploration, and rapid growth, reconciliation, compromise and understanding, and appeasement.
Organizations and socio-political movements, similarly, have a comparable history of developmental stages. If we understand and accept these changes, we will gain more awareness and discernment when challenges inevitably arise. When confrontations, disputes, or oppositions occur, even questions of philosophy and methodology, these may be viewed as openings for dialogue and development. Skills of storytelling and deep listening with people of varied cultural, racial and educational backgrounds bring opportunities to increase and broaden the scope of possibilities and keeps us all balanced and open.
Value the power of community where everyone has a role, value the
perspectives of intergenerational experience, value democracy and equality with less hierarchical structures, value authenticity, and value the multiplicity of difference to move towards a coherent and purposeful culture.
Furthermore, never lose sight of our ultimate ideals: the mindset and objectives of our aspirations, and hopes for universal, benevolent humanity.
Those with the best intentions can become side-tracked and lose focus, become entrenched in ideology and their own agenda. Secondly, the vital importance of communication skills cannot be overemphasized, often deepened through mindfulness practices. Include skills of encompassing leadership, incorporating the ability to validate, respect and consider different viewpoints, kind-heartedness and thoughtfulness, to think ‘outside’ the box, to be in another’s shoes. Be able to identify common, shared goals and desired outcomes in diverse societies. Communicating effectively has the capacity to overcome dissension and to bring us all together. Initiate ways to invite and involve new voices, through sharing creativity; song and dance are ways of knowing; common goals begin with a conversation.
Prepare to be brave, to be a mentor, to ‘walk the talk’, to love the struggles along with the rewards. Prepare for paradox. The values of the Positive Ageing and the Feminist Movements celebrate life, all of life, and include inclusivity, equality, diversity, creativity, and compassion. Participation in both has helped me form self-confidence, a positive self-image, values, and trust. I am ever so grateful.
And yet even with the celebrations, let us never forget, in front, behind and
within our consciousness, always lurks the darkness.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
Let’s together open the cracks and let in the light.